For the second consecutive season, a ho-hum Vancouver Canucks regular season resulting in a Northwest Division title went up in flames due to a quick playoff exit.
In 2012, it was the No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings that took down the Canucks in five games. Last spring it took San Jose one less game to send Alain Vigneault and company packing.
Back-to-back underwhelming playoff showings resulted in Vigneault’s firing after the season. The controversial John Tortorella was brought in to help steer the Canucks in the right direction. That wasn’t the only surprising move of the summer, as Cory Schneider – not Roberto Luongo – was traded away on draft day.
The Canucks didn’t re-sign a number of their depth pieces and expect to replace them with younger options, as Brad Richardson was the team’s marquee off-season addition.
Will the Canucks finally put it all together and win 16 games at playoff time? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t win their first Stanley Cup:
1. If Tortorella was a good hire
“The way things ended last year, I don’t think anybody looks at themselves as a top dog anymore. We’ve got to find our way and battle every night,” Ryan Kesler told The Province last month.
Tortorella should help what Kesler is referring to. He’s a demanding coach, a polar opposite of Vigneault, and perhaps that’s what the Canucks need to get over the top. Things appeared to have gotten too stale the last two seasons; they were never the same team after losing Game 7 to Boston in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup final.
This Canucks club is still very good, yet the window is closing on the Sedin twins, Kesler and Luongo to win in their prime.
A different voice, one that has Cup-winning experience, could be just what the doctor ordered for the Canucks. They need a kick in the pants, if you will. And if Tortorella’s message gets across to his new team this season, the Canucks will emerge as serious Cup contenders.
2. If Luongo has amnesia
About 99.9 per cent of the human population expected Luongo to be wearing another uniform at the start of the 2013-14 campaign. It seemed as if he had already moved on after the trade deadline when he admitted that his contract “sucks.” But a bizarre turn of events in Newark has Luongo unexpectedly staying in Vancouver for the long haul.
Many wonder how Luongo can possibly go back in the Canucks’ crease and succeed despite the pressure that continues to mount on him year after year. Although he has plenty of good hockey left in the tank, he needed a change of scenery – and now it may be a long time before he gets one.
However, if he’s been able to endure the pressure and criticism in his first seven years in Vancouver he can do it again. If he puts a rocky 2012-13 season in the rear-view mirror – easier said than done – he will be just fine.
3. If Kesler stays healthy
Kesler might be the most important player on the Canucks roster. The depth at centre is weak. To be honest, beyond Kesler, the Sedins and Alex Burrows there isn’t much for the Canucks to hang their hat on offensively.
Lots of question marks up front, as Kesler – when healthy – will be anchoring a second line that could feature David Booth and Zack Kassian, two players that have yet to meet expectations in their respective careers.
The key, though, is Kesler’s health. He missed 17 games last season and has been a shell of what he was during a dominant playoff run from a short two years ago. At the same time, this is a guy who scored 41 goals in 2010-11 and could return to being one of the league’s top No. 2 centremen if 100 per cent healthy.
He’s fragile, he may not be a 70-point producer again under Tortorella, but Kesler’s health is absolutely crucial for the Canucks to have a chance to compete for the division, let alone do damage in the playoffs.
1. If Tortorella was a bad hire
While the potential is there for Tortorella to succeed in Vancouver, there are reasons to believe it won’t work. First of all, he may not be the perfect fit for the Canucks’ locker room. In May, before Tortorella was hired, defenseman Kevin Bieksa said, “I don’t think we need somebody to come in and crack the whip. We can work together toward a common goal.”
Bieksa, along with many other players, have since voiced their approval of the hiring. However, not every player in the league is cut out to thrive under Tortorella (see: Gaborik, Marian).
Another factor is that the defence-first, shot-blocking coach is taking over a Canucks team where offence has been their bread and butter over the years. Defence and goaltending have always been there, but their multi-faceted attack up front is what scared teams the most. Will the Canucks have trouble scoring goals like Tortorella’s Rangers did more times than not? If so, the media will be tougher on him than it was in New York.
2. A watered-down all-around product
Since losing to Boston in the 2011 Cup final, the Canucks have lost the following players, among others, via free agency or trade: Christian Ehrhoff, Max Lapierre, Manny Malhotra, Mason Raymond, Derek Roy, Sami Salo, Cory Schneider and Raffi Torres. More of those players haven’t been replaced than have been. Not only have the Canucks lost an influx of depth, but the organization hasn’t drafted particularly well, either.
The two offensive cornerstones, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, may be in the beginning stages of their career decline. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, the twins dominated opponents at a combined clip of 1.28 points per game. That average has dropped to 0.94 (still very good) over the last two seasons and they will be 33 years old when the season starts. Not to mention, they don’t have much support at the forward position to pick them up if those numbers continue to regress.
The reality is the Canucks aren’t as good as they were two, three, four years ago.
3. Stiffer divisional competition
What the Canucks dealt with in the cakewalk that was the Northwest Division is nothing compared to the division they’ll be joining via realignment. The Canucks will now reside in the Pacific Division, home of the Kings, Sharks, Ducks and Coyotes (and yes, the Oilers and Flames, too).
The Canucks won five consecutive division titles and were never really challenged in the last four seasons. They took advantage of gimme games against Calgary, Colorado and Edmonton and annually breezed to a top-three seed in the vaunted Western Conference. It won’t be that easy from now on. Over the last two seasons the Ducks and Coyotes won the division and the Kings won the Cup, while the Sharks are still the Sharks. Also, the Canucks’ schedule is road-heavy in the season’s first five weeks.
While realignment may not have that big of an effect on the Canucks’ season, the stiffer competition certainly makes things more challenging for Tortorella to start off on the right foot in Vancouver.
Prediction: The Canucks suffer some first-half growing pains under Tortorella but become a factor in the division race as the season goes along. How far they go in the playoffs will come down to health and the play of Luongo. The safe bet is that the Canucks still won’t find a way to win their last game of the season.