Two years ago, the Vancouver Canucks were the final team eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. This season, they were the first to go. Sixteen teams started down the road to the Cup a week ago, but the Canucks have already been punted from the playoffs after being swept aside by the better, stronger, faster, tougher San Jose Sharks in a series that ended almost before it began. It’s just the latest glaring example—on a long and troubling list of them—of how far this once-mighty hockey club has plummeted in a relatively short time, and how far it is from getting back to the top of the sport’s food chain.
Shockingly inconsistent throughout the lockout-shortened season, the Canucks were remarkably consistent in their short series with the Sharks—consistently second best in on-ice battles, races for loose pucks, and every area that matters when the chips are down in the high-stakes game of playoff hockey.
Save for Ryan Kesler’s inspired effort in the third period of Game 2, it’s hard to point to an example of a Canuck player elevating his performance at any point in the four games. The Sharks had the best forwards, the stronger defence, and the best goalie in the series. They dominated the special-teams battles and won the coaching chess match, too. Certainly, San Jose had a ridiculous edge in power plays (24-10) in a series that had two games so close they required overtime. But make no mistake, the better team prevailed here.
This was the first round of the playoffs—the starting point of an epic climb where 16 wins are needed to reach the top of the mountain. The Canucks got none this year, after scraping together just one last spring against Los Angeles. Forget victories for a moment: it’s debatable whether the Canucks had 16 scoring chances in their four-game flyby against the Sharks.
It’s clear Henrik and Daniel Sedin are no longer elite scorers in the NHL. But at this stage of their careers, they shouldn’t be the only ones on the team expected to produce points. However, they remain the best the Canucks have, and it doesn’t excuse the fact that neither one scored a goal in the series. As noted, Kesler had 20 extraordinary minutes, but that’s hardly enough at this time of year. Alex Burrows came out of hiding in the final game of the series, but there are search parties still trying determine the whereabouts of Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond, Zack Kassian, and deadline debacle Derek Roy.
That so many of the Canucks supporting cast were allowed to float through four games makes no sense. Then again, very little about the way the Canucks have rolled over in their last three playoff series does.
Some of it speaks directly to coaching and the inability to push the right buttons, motivate players, and identify the ones who aren’t giving their all. But to lay it all at the feet of the coaching staff—which will surely be replaced in short order—absolves the players of blame, and they have no choice but to share ownership of another early exit.
At what point does personal pride kick in? Higgins and Raymond and Hansen have brought next to nothing to the offensive mix for three straight playoffs now. And their indifference and ineffectiveness seemed to rub off on Kassian and the newcomer Roy. It’s a team game, and the leaders can’t be expected to shoulder the load every night. The leaders needed to be better this year, but those around them had to show up too. The Canucks have been at their best over the past few seasons when spreading the scoring and coming at opponents with a balanced attack. But that’s impossible at playoff time when those expected to provide the secondary scoring pull a vanishing act year after year.
In this case, the numbers simply don’t lie: one win and only 16 goals in their past 10 playoff games, dating back to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
And so it’s on the Vancouver Canucks’ management now to sift through the rubble of another crumbled season and figure out why its supposed scorers whimper and cower at the thought of tough playoff checking, instead of embracing the challenge. This is the time of year when heroes are made. But it’s also the time of year that exposes the weak.
Like the losses to the Boston Bruins in 2011 and to Los Angeles last year, this sweep by the Sharks has shown the Vancouver Canucks to be a team that talks a good game, but for a variety of reasons isn’t able—or willing—to play one once the spring arrives.
And it will only get more difficult for this hockey club to turn things around and get headed in the right direction again. The core is aging and under contract, the team still has the black cloud of goaltending uncertainty hovering over it, and the number of its NHL–ready prospects is the same as its recent playoff win total. On top of all that, the league salary cap is dropping.
And that is the backdrop against which the Canucks, for the first time in a decade, will have to try to win back many disgruntled fans who’ve had all they can take—or who’ve at least reached their threshold for paying through the nose for what’s supposed to be entertainment.
When the hockey team hits the ice again next September, it must have a decidedly different look. Fans simply won’t accept more of the same.
And as an organization, neither should the Vancouver Canucks.