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New President Trevor Linden will need to determine if there's any more juice left in the Canucks' core?

New President Trevor Linden will need to determine if there’s any more juice left in the Canucks’ core?

Is it a  retool, a reset a refresh or a rebuild?  It’s a known fact that the Canucks are breathstrip thin in the offensive ranks and are in need of serious help all over the roster.  Even a quick glance at this year’s playoffs will tell any Canucks fans who watched the game closely that the team is neither strong enough or quick enough to compete with any of the remaining eight teams in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Trevor Linden gives the Canucks a face that's difficult to hate.

Trevor Linden gives the Canucks a face that’s difficult to hate.

Newly appointed President of Hockey Operations, Trevor Linden, knows a few things about playing the north/south game, and will be looking to understand what the franchise holds in current talent vs. what the franchise needs vs. what it can afford. But without a GM and a coach his job is significantly more difficult.  Linden will have to prove that he’s not just a figurehead, and soon.

It is assumed that the team returns with Sedin as their primary scoring center and Kesler as the team’s premier two-way pivot and not as the  slow defensive pass-first center and a swashbuckling right winger as under the Tortorella regime.  Even so, with Mike Santorelli’s health in question (and a UFA himself) the team will be looking to add a quality player as insurance in the middle at the three spot, while bolstering the lines with quality scoring wingers.

The other assumption is that the Canucks new direction is a departure from the old direction.  Former President/GM Mike Gillis’ s main strength was to scour other teams’ rosters in order to mastermind a roster.

GM Gillis’s acquisitions were mostly misses anyway.

In the case of Dan Hamhuis, Mikael Samuelsson and Manny Malhotra, the strategy seemed to pay immediate dividends. In other cases such as in Jason Garrison’s or Mike Santorelli’s, the results are still in the balance.

Mike Gillis's acquisitions often made the Canucks the target of league-wide scorn and mockery.

Mike Gillis’s acquisitions often made the Canucks the target of league-wide scorn and mockery.

The list of failures, however, is lengthy: Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Hordichuk, Ryan Johnson, Curtis Sandford, Pavol Demitra, Rob Davison, Mats Sundin, Andrew Raycroft, Tanner Glass, Marco Sturm, Dale Weise, Andrew Ebbett, Byron Bitz, Steve Pinizzotto, Mark Mancari and Alexander Sulzer all arrived to the Canucks via free agency and were never better than just roster filling support players for a core that he neither drafted nor traded for.

Rest assured, Trevor Linden’s philosophy will be to search from within to succeed from without.

Linden will not be as involved with the free agent chase, unless to sign his own, for nothing says “F-U” to other GM’s in the league more than signing their players for more money than they’re worth, a talent for which Mike Gillis appeared to have a penchant.  If Linden is the second coming of Pat Quinn, the talents of other teams’ player development and scouts will will take a back seat to his own.

The Linden regime’s first move will determine what the team is doing going forward.  A Ryan Kesler trade for youth and draft picks, for example, would indicate a movement towards rebuilding.  A signing of a big name UFA like Paul Stastny, Andrei Markov or Dan Boyle, for example would indicate a reloading.

And then, of course, everything depends on what the team’s new GM’s philosophy is and, ultimately, who the new coach is too.

If the Canucks acquire the right combination of management and coach, a veteran UFA like Dan Boyle might find Vancouver an appealing choice.

If the Canucks acquire the right combination of management and coach, a veteran UFA like Dan Boyle might find Vancouver an appealing choice.

Linden’s most pressing concern is to fill the gaping management hole with a seasoned professional who has numerous connections league-wide.  The next step is to find a coach whom the players will enjoy playing for.  In the end though, Linden’s most critical stamp on the team will be to repair the bridges Mike Gillis burned in his five-year tenure with the team.

Perhaps it isn’t a retool, reset, refresh or rebuild inasmuch as it is a re-engineering of the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks and their fans are hoping  these bridges hold this time, because the franchise is one collapse away from a protracted period of futility.

 

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The Canucks mourned the 2011 Stanley Cup loss because they knew they'd never get a better shot at it.

The Canucks mourned the 2011 Stanley Cup loss because they knew they’d never get a better shot at it.

With a half an hour to go prior to the Calgary Flames vs. Vancouver Canucks tilt, and a mountain of my own to climb in terms of personal deadlines, I need to stop and reflect upon what has been the most memorable Canucks season in recent history, a history worth remembering for all of the wrong reasons.  Even if I was optimistically fanboying the Canucks into first place to begin the season, I did add the cryptic “if all goes according to plan”.  Well, it didn’t.  It really didn’t.  As expected, with injuries to any significant player, the team’s organizational depth was never strong enough to sustain any need to replace key roles.

Luongo's days of wondering in Vancouver are over.

Luongo’s days of wondering in Vancouver are over.

And how the team has had to replace key roles! Love him or hate him, Roberto Luongo’s contract is lengthy but it is somewhat plausible that he will play to the near end of it, as he is still, on reputation anyway, an elite all-world goalie.  Still, moving the Canadian goalie to his old stomping grounds in Florida means the team has a dubious NHL backup, a towering under-performing center and a promising junior player in Bo Horvat, who is now nursing a leg injury to show for not only Roberto Luongo, but also a second starting goalie in Corey Schneider.

Without Luongo, Eddie Lack's job gets a lot more serious all of a sudden.

Without Luongo, Eddie Lack’s job gets a lot more serious all of a sudden.

So the Canucks fans and, to a greater extent, the team must realize the fact of the matter.  He’s gone.  Swedish rookie, Eddie Lack is the Canucks new starter, as the deflated lineup still struggles to win.   When the great saviour tonight is Nicklas Jensen who, up until recently, was so far down the depth chart that the replacement call for Daniel Sedin was not Jensen but Darren Archibald you know the Canucks are stretched thin.

The Canucks organizational depth has never had such a stiff challenge from injuries than this season.  Even the proverbial cupboards are officially bare, with Hunter Shinkaruk needing hip surgery and Bo Horvat suffering a knee injury just the other night.  Brendan Gaunce has slowed down from his early season pace.

Moreover, what cannot be denied is that the move of Roberto Luongo has signified what hockey fans perhaps have failed to realize for the last three seasons, however — this Canucks team simply isn’t the same team that needed one less Maxim Lapierre taunt to win it all in 2011.

Former Alternate Captain Sami Salo was written off like so many others.

Former Alternate Captain Sami Salo was written off like so many others.

The list of names missing from that roster are now retired or fixtures on other team’s first unit power plays, penalty kills, goaltending, and situational plays.  Since the team has parted ways with players such as Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, Mikael Samuelsson, Sami Salo, Corey Schneider and Christian Ehrhoff, to name a few, the team has been searching for a winger who can score and hit, a faceoff winner, a veteran scoring winger and steady reliable defensemen who can move the puck on the powerplay.

It won’t be long before the team is in search of reliable goaltending, and everyone will point to the days when the team had the two best goalies in the league, too.

So where does it go from here?  The injury to Shinkaruk, a long shot to make the team, is more serious than the can’t-miss  prospect Bo Horvat’s, but injuries to 18 year-old rookies are not as concerning things as injuries to a veteran’s pride, as we’ve witnessed with Luongo.  Case in point, we need look no further than Ryan Kesler’s recent interest in playing for a contender and how it will only become more magnified around draft day. The media storm was palpable this time around, just imagine how much of a distraction it will become towards the 2015 trade deadline if it drags on that long.  And, just how long will it be before other veterans on the team feel that it’s now or never for a chance at the Stanley Cup?

Alaign VigneaultDespite all of this, the lineup, on paper, looks good enough to make the playoffs, but at least one other element appears to be missing from previous years of domination.  The baffling drop in production of not one or two but all of the Vancouver Canucks directly coincides with the removal of its all-time winningest coach in Alain Vigneault and the arrival of John “I don’t coach the powerplay” Tortorella.  Tortorella’s often mysterious choices have already led to a suspected divisiveness in the dressing room and dissension in the ranks.  The signs are all over the ice too.

But the signs are also there that the Canucks are suffering through what every once-great team eventually suffers.  Time catches all of us. The Edmonton Oilers have taken years to recuperate after the Gretzky and Messier led era.   After Roy, Sakic and Forsberg, the Colorado Avalanche took years to rebuild and are only now showing signs of rebounding.  Even the Detroit Red Wings, seemingly invulnerable to this effect for years, are not what they once were.

Osgood isn't better than Luongo... but he did win more cups... so far?

Osgood isn’t better than Luongo… but he did win more cups… so far?

The Canucks are no different, for the exception of one key aspect.  These other teams I mention, when they were given their window of opportunity, used it to win a championship.  They are the franchises’ untouchable names, permanently engraved on a silver ring and in all the memories of the legions of fans devoted to their respective teams.

The Canucks, meanwhile, instead of opening the window and emerging into the freedom and immortality a championship provides a player, may have used the window to leap to their sudden death.

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22 year old Cody Hodgson has turned his back on the past, and will be scoring big goals for Buffalo for a long time. Kassian, meanwhile, has struggled.

As the final horn sounded at Rogers Arena and the 18,000 fans went home to digest another harrowing defeat to the L.A Kings, the questions are beginning to mount about this 2012 version of the President’s trophy winners.  Last season, it could be said that the statistics didn’t lie.  First in the league in multiple categories including faceoffs, penalty kills, power play, goals for, and goals against, the team seemed formidable at every position, and hungry for a deep run into the eventual finals.  The points they piled up weren’t even of the cellar dwelling variety, as they lost 4 games to the then lowlier Edmonton Oilers and took losses to the other cellar dwellers of the league.  The wins they compiled were impressive, and their run to the finals made sense.  2012, however, with the L.A. Kings’ sheer domination of an older and apparently more satiated Vancouver Canucks team, looks infinitely different.

After a series with the Boston Bruins that left the Canucks searching for answers, Mike Gillis began transforming the roster from a swift and preeminently skilled lineup with finesse goal scorers and gritty speedsters to a tougher, bigger, stronger lineup to help combat that element everyone said they were missing from last season.  The Cody Hodgson trade was the final nail in that particular organizational direction.  It was a statement which irrevocably changed the complexion of a team in favour of a lineup which was, theoretically, “hard to play against”.  You may correct me if I’m wrong, but a rookie with 20 goals on the third line of a team with two already prominent scoring lines is pretty damn hard to play against.  In fact, as this blogger so poignantly describes, there actually is no historical correlation between teams which fight a lot, and Stanley Cups.

Instead, and because of this “harder to play against” team, the Canucks are in a massive hole, and depending on players like recently acquired Sammy Pahlsson who sports 68 goals in a near 800 career games.  Granted, Daniel Sedin’s concussion is not helpful, but where is another winger on this team who can score?  On any other team, Alex Burrows is a second line player at best.  Ryan Kesler, the beneficiary of a better puck-moving back end with Ehrhoff in the lineup in 2011, must depend on breakout passes from the likes of Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts and a host of other D-men who clearly enjoyed career years in 2011.  In fact, everyone had a career year in 2011, a downturn is not only predictable, but to be expected.  The difference this year is that the Canucks did feast on the lower echelon teams, while they clearly struggled against teams down the stretch, who were exhibiting the will to succeed.  The intangible desire to win.  The same desire that they clearly showed up until game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, and the same will which is rightfully being questioned right now.

The identity of the team has shifted to a more methodical, slower, less skilled team in favour of a tighter checking, more physical grinding team, but it remains to be seen if Gillis abandoned a successful style of play far too early in the experiment.  In trading Cody Hodgson, Gillis may literally have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  How good would Cody’s big shot look on the powerplay right about now, instead of Zack Kassian’s propensity for ill-timed checks which yield penalties and scrums?  How nice would it be to receive an unexpected boost from a breakout pass from Christian Ehrhoff, whose 4.5 million dollars are currently being spent on Keith Ballard, David Booth or the combination of an ineffectual Mason Raymond and Bitz/Weiss?  Even with the Sedins, Burrows, Kesler, Hamhuis, and Luongo this team has about as many chips to stack up against other teams that are boasting their own roster of upper echelon players.  On paper, perhaps the Canucks truly don’t have any right to be in a series with the likes of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown, and Justin Williams, all players in their prime and all world-class caliber in their own right.

Perhaps.

Perhaps what Gillis should have been looking for is more skill to add to Hodgson’s line instead of stripping the team of a blue-chip prospect for a young physical player with good hands who has had allegedly struggled to be physical or score goals.  Perhaps instead of targeting the Dale Weiss’s and Byron Bitz’s of the NHL world, Gillis should have been making deals to move some of this team to retool with scorers instead of grinders.  Wasn’t this team supposed to be the second coming of Detroit, equipped with a constant flow of quality hockey players with quality and finish around the net?  Doesn’t Detroit continue to build with talented young players they develop themselves instead of scouring the market for another GM’s missed marks?

The identity of the Canucks is in flux right now, and the current series reflects it.

The patience of the market will grown thin if the team is eliminated by the Kings next week, and the questions will begin about Gillis’s player acquisition, and movement from a team which appeared impenetrable defensively, because they were constantly dominating the puck.  Now as a “more physical” team, Gillis and the Canucks are going to have to get used to the team chasing younger, faster and more skilled players all over the ice again. With their backs against the wall, the Vancouver Canucks are now challenged to prove that Gillis’s faith in being “difficult to play against” isn’t misplaced. One thing is certain.  If the Canucks are eliminated by the Kings, the patience for Gillis’s new direction and the loyalty he has fostered in the seasons since joining the Canucks will be all but destroyed in one fell swoop, and no spin doctoring and none of his men will be able to put this fanbase back together again.

It is that fickle.

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