As the Vancouver Canucks know all too well, there is no correlation between capturing the Presidents' Trophy and winning the Stanley Cup. In each of the past two National Hockey League seasons, the Canucks have finished atop the regular-season standings. It’s something, but as fans here are aware, it sure isn’t everything. Alas, the wait continues for the hockey club to get its hands on the ultimate prize.
And so, as the Canucks prepare to launch themselves into a shortened season rife with questions on the heels of a four-month lockout, one of the most interesting things will be to see what this team has learned from its mistakes.
Do the Canucks keep their foot on the accelerator in an attempt to “threepeat” as regular-season champions, hoping the third time is, in fact, the charm? Or is there a better way to approach the rigours of the regular season, so that the Canucks are ready to scale the playoff mountain when the time comes and finally plant their flag?
“Our goal is to win the President’s Trophy,” Daniel Sedin tells the Straight in a recent interview, prior to the team’s January 19 season-opener at home against the Anaheim Ducks. “That should be our goal. We have to win as many games as possible. We’re not going into games aiming for fourth place in our conference. We’re going to aim to be at the top. I think that’s how you gain confidence.”
Clearly, the greatest reward for finishing with more points than the 29 other teams in the league isn’t the hardware the NHL hands out to its regular-season front-runners. Rather, it’s the home-ice advantage throughout the postseason, the chance to start every series at home, and the opportunity to play a deciding seventh game in front of the home fans should a series go the distance.
But two years ago, home ice wasn’t a factor when things mattered most, with Boston hoisting the Stanley Cup at Rogers Arena. And last year, finishing first meant nothing when the first-place Canucks were eliminated in the opening round by the eighth-seed Los Angeles Kings, who struggled early in the season but hit their stride at just the right time.
Could—or should—the Canucks have approached the stretch run differently last season? Did they extend themselves too much to ensure they finished ahead of the pack, and did that come back to cost them once the playoffs began? Would the Canucks have been better served by resting key players during the final weeks of the regular season or holding others more accountable when individual performances began to slip?
Those are certainly questions the Canucks coaching staff must consider in order to avoid falling into the same trap for a third year in a row. But if it’s left up to the players, they want to win at all costs.
“I think you push for first place—you push to win every game,” says veteran defenceman Kevin Bieksa when asked about the best approach to the regular season. “We’re not looking just to squeak into the playoffs. Once we get into the playoffs, it’s a whole different season. We’re well aware of that, but the goal is still to finish in first place and win every single game that we play. If not, mediocrity sets in, and this team is different than that. We have high goals and high expectations, and that’s our mindset.”
Down the stretch last season, the Canucks relied far too heavily on the heroic goaltending of both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, which masked all kinds of issues with the team’s power play and individual offensive output. The Canucks held firm to their belief that playoff hockey would bring out the best in the so-called scorers. That very clearly didn’t happen, with just eight goals in five games against the Kings. Instead, in the blink of an eye, the Canucks were punted from the playoffs, and all of the good that had gone into producing regular-season fireworks fizzled out.
And now they get set to start all over again, with lofty goals for the regular season and hopes of reaching even higher heights. And the belief in the Canucks' locker room is that the way they’ve done business in the past remains the preferred way of getting their hands on the Stanley Cup.
“First of all, it’s not easy to win the Presidents' Trophy two years in a row,” says captain Henrik Sedin. “That’s a tough thing to do, and it shows we’ve got a good team. I think we’ve had that mindset two years in a row. With the way we play and when we are successful, we roll four lines and we play everyone, so it shouldn’t be that tough on each and every player to play that way in the playoffs. That’s the way we were built, so I don’t think we have to worry about it. It’s more about learning from the past and staying healthy.”
The Canucks can only hope they aren’t ravaged by injuries, but they are in full control of how they use the wisdom gained from the painful lessons of the past two seasons. The coaching staff better have figured out what went wrong in key moments in order to make it all right in 2013. The team appears to have the pieces of another very solid squad in place.
But is it a championship contender? We’re about to find out.
This much is clear, though: there is no appetite for a third consecutive Presidents' Trophy in this city’s hardware collection unless it’s joined by the Stanley Cup.