There is no quick, easy way back for the Canucks. A Stanley Cup finalist just two years ago with a 3-2 series lead over the Bruins and 60 minutes from the franchise’s first championship, they were the first to exit this year’s playoffs, punched out in four straight by the forever-short-of-something San Jose Sharks.
Less than 48 hours after elimination, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, a former Bruins forward, declared in his end-of-season news conference on Thursday that a new day is coming for the franchise.
“We need to get different,’’ he said, “and we are going to do that.’’
Ah, but how? And how quickly?
Transition is a tricky game, and the Canucks, skill long their strong suit with the slick, proficient Daniel and Henrik Sedin the franchise faces, need to retool. Retooling is vastly different than augmenting.
The NHL has changed in the seven years that Alain Vigneault has been Vancouver’s coach, not to mention the five that Gillis has been its hockey ops el jefe. While the game is faster than it ever was, brawn has become an increasingly important factor, too. So, while the skill of the Sedins is admirable, it may be, somewhat like Phil Kessel in Toronto, more a luxury than a necessity. Skill without sufficient size, strength, toughness, and the ability to grind opponents into grist will not get the job done, and from here it looks as if Gillis will need a lot more than one offseason or a roster nip and tuck to make his club thicker, stronger, fiercer, more durable.
Upon arriving in the Hub from Ottawa, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli inherited less of a roster to work with than Gillis has now. But he had the advantage of being able to spend liberally in the summer of 2006 on the likes of a No. 1 defenseman, Zdeno Chara, and a No. 1 center, Marc Savard. Unbeknownst to Chiarelli, he also had a two-time Vezina winner-to-be on his roster in Tim Thomas, and an emerging, understated superstar in Patrice Bergeron.
In the Official Guide & Handbook of how to rebuild a franchise, Chapter 1 focuses on acquiring a star defenseman, pivot, and goalie. Chapter 2 dwells on flooding the rink, chilling the building, and firing up the popcorn maker.
Gillis looks to have the No. 1 goalie in Cory Schneider, and the GM noted Thursday that Roberto Luongo is “unlikely’’ to return next season. Failing to deal Luongo last offseason was clearly a strategical blunder on Gillis’s part. He then could have dished him to Toronto at this season’s trade deadline, but couldn’t stomach the idea of essentially eating some of the salary left on Luongo’s contract (nine more years at a cap hit of just over $5 million).
Now Gillis likely will have to settle for a similar swap, maybe with the Maple Leafs as trade partner, or consider flipping Schneider and keeping Luongo. That may sound counterintuitive to a retooling approach, but maybe not, provided Schneider could yield the big No. 1 blue liner or centerman the Canucks so desperately need. For all the craziness he went through this year, Luongo, 34, turned in pretty decent numbers (9-6-3, 2.56 goals-against average). Again, doubtful that Gillis keeps him, but Luongo is still a good goalie and his ship could float a little higher, too, if Gillis can raise the rest of the roster’s tide.
Unlike Chiarelli and the Bruins in the summer of ’06, Gillis can’t just hire/build a new foundation in the free agent market. First off, such high-caliber players won’t be available as UFAs, in part because the cap era has convinced most teams to tie up their talented younger players on long-term deals. Also, the cap is coming down by some $8 million next season, to $64.3 million, which could force Gillis to buy out the likes of David Booth and Keith Ballard. Unless he gets extremely creative, or convinces the Sedins it’s best for all sides to move in a different direction, Gillis’s options appear to be few.
The greatest fear here for Gillis, and Canucks fans, is that the franchise slips into protracted irrelevance, similar to what has happened just east in Alberta, where both Edmonton and Calgary have failed miserably in the years since their most recent appearances in the Cup Final.
The Flames fell to Tampa Bay in the championship round in 2004 and then were eliminated in the first round each of the next four seasons (post 2004-05 lockout). Worse, they failed to make the Round of 16 each of the last four seasons. Since losing to the Bolts in Game 7 in 2004, the Flames are 10-16 in postseason play.
The Oilers lost in Game 7 to the Hurricanes in the 2006 Cup Final and now have gone seven seasons without qualifying for the playoffs. All that ineptitude has brought them three No. 1 overall draft picks (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov), but otherwise a whole lot of nothing. Out of answers, they recently hired Craig MacTavish as general manager, leaving yet another ex-Bruin forward to rearrange the pieces, chart a new course.
Much like the Canucks, the Oilers need to get bigger, thicker, tougher. But at least they’ve got a large dollop of that in Hall, which could encourage MacTavish now to give up Nugent-Hopkins, or more likely Yakupov, if there is someone out there willing to deal him some proven moxie in return.
Meanwhile, Gillis on Thursday remained vague about how he proceeds in the immediate future. He lauded Vigneault, who has delivered a franchise-record 313 wins and a half-dozen Northwest Division titles, but he remained noncommittal about bringing him back next year. Other than making Luongo’s departure sound like a fait accompli, he wasn’t specific about his blueprint or vision. It could be that it’s too soon to know. Or it could be that he knows, but also understands all too well, with Edmonton and Calgary the proof, that there is no easy way back.
The Canucks, ever since that third win against the Bruins in the 2011 Cup Final, have gone 1-10 in postseason games. The model is broken. The Sedins, ready to share 66 candles on their birthday cakes Sept. 26, are getting old. It’s enough to turn even the Green Men a lighter shade of pale. Now it’s up to Gillis to figure out, treat it all with a new coat of paint, or tear it down and start anew?
Therrien, Yeo could be gone
The Canadiens and Wild were eliminated Thursday night, a shock, as always, to the rabid fan base in Montreal, but none whatsoever in St. Paul. Both squads showed marked improvement, the Habs with new coach Michel Therrien and the Wild with second-year boss Mike Yeo.
But don’t be surprised if one, if not both, gets the gate, despite making it to the playoffs.
Therrien, a curious rehire last June, could be spared simply because his roster was so depleted by injury by the end of the Ottawa series. Captain Brian Gionta exited with a torn biceps tendon (surgery on Friday) and No. 1 goalie Carey Price suffered a core injury (believed to be groin) in Game 4, leaving the last start to Peter Budaj. The Habs also lost forward Lars Eller in the early going when he was chopped down with that hit to the head that led to Eric Gryba’s two-game suspension.
Injuries aside, Therrien came across as an unappealing, old-world, whining thug in the series, especially in the infamous Game 3 dustup (nine game misconducts, 236 PIMs) that had him complaining that Ottawa coach Paul MacLean took a timeout with 17 seconds left and the Senators holding an insurmountable 6-1 lead. Not a good look for the CH brand, a franchise that prides itself on such things as class, dignity, respect for the game.
Meanwhile, the astute Yeo, in only his second year as a head coach, finally nosed the Wild into the postseason after four straight DNQs.
Under normal circumstances, that alone would guarantee his return. Not to mention that Yeo lost his No. 1 goalie, Niklas Backstrom, for the series when the veteran stopper was felled by a shot during the Game 1 warm-up.
However, the Wild were back to being their old wonk selves in the playoffs. They just couldn’t generate offense, outscored by the Blackhawks, 17-7, over five games. After scoring three times in Game 3 to cut Chicago’s lead in the series to 2-1, the Wild scored but once (Torrey Mitchell) over the final two games.
Insurance policy pays
Originally a Montreal draft pick (No. 226/1994), goalie Tomas Vokoun went into the weekend never before being on the winning end of a handshake line in the playoffs. He took a giant step closer Thursday night when his 31 saves backed a 4-0 win, giving Pittsburgh a 3-2 series lead over the Islanders (Game 6 was Saturday). Vokoun got the call for Game 5, ending Marc-Andre Fleury’s run of 79 consecutive playoff starts for the Penguins, dating to 2007 (including a 2009 Cup win). Out of work after spending last season in Washington, Vokoun technically was traded to Pittsburgh last June, then signed a two-year free agent deal at a budget-friendly $2 million cap hit. Given Fleury’s case of the shakes (3.40 GAA, .891 save percentage), that’s a cheap insurance policy for the single most important position on the ice.
Not so quick on the draw
There’s no denying Ryan Getzlaf’s talent or importance to the Ducks’ lineup. Through five games vs. Detroit, he was their top goal scorer (tied with ex-Boston University Terrier Nick Bonino with three) and point getter (3-2—5). However, the 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound Getzlaf proved himself a weakling at the faceoff dot, losing nearly 70 percent of his drops (24 for 78). Aged ex-Habs pivot Saku Koivu stood a far more respectable 53 for 95 (55.8 percent). If the Ducks squeeze by the Winged Wheels, the 28-year-old Getzlaf will have to improve in the possession game, especially if he ends up head to head against Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, who went a beefy 69 for 108 (63.9 percent) in the five games against the Wild.
Part of his job description
In a rare, refreshing moment of candor, Bruins coach Claude Julien during a pregame media session last week in Toronto openly stated, “It’s my job to make excuses.’’ Context: If he has someone playing poorly (example: Milan Lucic most of the season), he’ll find ways to cover for his charges. It finally got to be too much with Lucic, of course, when Julien finally pulled him from the lineup April 20 vs. Pittsburgh. That excuse making goes a long way with the stick-carrying employees, who hear the unvarnished version from Julien in the dressing room, but are spared more open public scrutiny and criticism. A more transparent approach is far better for the media, especially in the US, where many covering the game rely heavily on the coach’s public statements as a measure of how a team is playing, or how an individual is performing.
Wearing it proudly
Keila Penner, an 11-year-old Montreal schoolgirl, was the guest of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk for Game 4 of the Canadiens series in Ottawa, ushered to the game by limo. Penner, a Grade 5 student at Maple Grove Elementary, opted to wear her Ottawa jersey to school the day of Game 1, while many of her classmates wore the traditional CH brand. School officials gave Penner her choice: switch into a white T-shirt or go home. She chose the latter, leading Melnyk to extend the invite to Game 4 for the entire Penner family. Nice touch by Melnyk, along with an effective publicity play, of course. Penner’s dad, Cary, correctly noted that school officials missed an opportunity to educate the students about such things as differences, tolerance, and bullying.
Still no official word on whether the NHL will return to Olympus for a fifth time when the 2014 Games are staged in Sochi, Russia. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly and pals continued to sort through the details last week in Stockholm, where the NHL struck what amounts to a tentative deal on an important Player Transfer Agreement with nine countries — including, for the first time, France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, and Germany also have agreed to the PTA, with the NHL Board of Governors expected to rubber stamp it, possibly this week. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation, without such a deal in place since 2004, told Daly et al that it will consider joining in the deal, which could last 4-7 years. What bridges the gap, convinces the Russians to agree to such protocol with the West? The bet here: the NHL putting a check mark in each of those five Olympic rings. Sochi would be a very lonely place without the NHL’s best and brightest.
With Carey Price unable to play for Game 5 and Peter Budaj left to mop up the series with Ottawa, the Habs’ backup goalie role was filled by Czech-born Robert Mayer, a fixture in AHL Hamilton the last three years. Mayer came to the Quebec League (Saint John) as an undrafted 18-year-old in 2007 and then signed with the Habs as a free agent the following September . . . Josh Harding, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis less than a year ago, handled most of the Wild net duties against the Blackhawks with Niklas Backstrom sidelined. Harding’s backup, Darcy Kuemper, the former Red Deer Rebel, filled in for a total 73 minutes, including the bulk of Game 4 after Harding suffered a leg injury. Harding’s injury forced Backstrom, though unable to play, to suit up hurriedly and watch from the bench during Kuemper’s Game 4 relief appearance . . . Olympic rosters for Sochi will be expanded by two, to include 22 skaters and three goalies. Previously, it was a 20-3 mix. Puck drop is Feb. 12. If the NHL shuts down, rinks over here will be dark Feb. 9-24 . . . The Bruins and Maple Leafs combined for 120 hits in Game 4, which went to OT. The Capitals and Rangers posted 120, also in a Game 4 in 2011, but that was in double OT . . . Their coach, Paul MacLean, maligned as a “bug-eyed, fat walrus’’ by Montreal’s Brandon Prust, the Senators could have some real fun if they all grew big bushy mustaches for the remainder of their playoff run. Way better than Mohawk haircuts.