VANCOUVER — It wasn’t our intention to arrive for a few days in Canucks land and end our stay with a treatise on the perilous future of the team. But how could you not?
Spend a few days in Vancouver, and that’s all hockey fans (and my media friends) are talking about. It’s not, "What will the Canucks do this year?" in Vancouver anymore. It is, "How can we avoid turning into Calgary or Edmonton?"
It’s not that the Canucks’ current level of play is that low. This is still very likely a playoff team, though one on a pretty tough skid these days. But we’ve watched this movie unfold in Calgary, where they went to the Cup in ’04, then chased the dream for a while until they ran out of assets. And in Edmonton, where they had their Cup appearance in ’06, and it all went south from there.
Vancouver is a better team, yes. But they have a similar gap in drafting success to the Alberta teams — the prerequisite to a rebuild — and frankly, have scant better chance of winning a playoff round with this lineup, as it currently sits.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? It seems like five minutes ago we were asking the rhetorical question of Vancouver: "Is their window to compete for a Stanley Cup closing?"
Well, we barely got out the word "Cup," and slam! Between the California teams, the declining Sedins, and a roster that looked defeated on Wednesday night against Chicago, that window is shut tighter than Ben Scrivens’ five-hole right now.
Say what you want about Canucks fans, they are not a naïve lot. They see the ol’ Rebuild Railway coming down the track. And judging by the Canucks’ body language after coughing up a 2-0 lead to the Chicago Blackhawks, so too do the Vancouver players.
You can say that this is still the best of Canada’s seven National Hockey League teams — at this moment. But it won’t be for long if general manager Mike Gillis stands pat with this roster. Suddenly it’s obvious what needs to be done here: find a way to move some of these veteran assets, despite the fact almost every pertinent veteran here has some form of no-trade clause.
Calgary sat on Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla too long, never won anything, and didn’t get enough back for the assets. So the Flames had to start from scratch.
Gillis has way more assets — defencemen like Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis; forwards like Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins; Roberto Luongo — but he’s hamstrung himself by giving them all no-trades. And suddenly, those clauses aren’t the worst thing about a few of these deals.
Alex Edler is in his second year of decline, but received a six-year, $30 million deal this past summer anyhow. Daniel Sedin has become a 20-goal man where once he was good for 35. He and Henrik were given four-year extensions at $7 million per, while San Jose GM Doug Wilson got Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau for less money and less term.
David Booth has been a disastrous acquisition. Garrison has been better, but not by a whole lot. Keith Ballard, Derek Roy… the pro scouting needs some serious work here.
But perhaps the real tell starts with this little nugget, from an old friend who lives here now, and owns a piece of a pair of seats. "You can’t re-sell tickets anymore," he says.
Open a newspaper on the day the Chicago Blackhawks come to town, and the headlines aren’t talking about what not long ago was the Western Conference’s premier rivalry.
Vancouver Province: "Is Daniel Sedin done as an elite offensive player in the NHL?"
Vancouver Sun: "Canucks’ Alex Burrows has excuses, won’t use them, as goal famine reaches 22 games."
Vancouver Province: "Blackhawks have established a dynasty; For Vancouver, mere memories remain."
The facts are grim and under the John Tortorella regime, these stats are perhaps even more disturbing: Kesler leads all NHL forwards in ice time, averaging 22:15 prior to the Blackhawks visit. Daniel ranks fourth (21:38) and Henrik sixth (21:15). In the 2011 season that ended with a Stanley Cup berth, Kesler averaged 20:29 in ice time, Henrik played 19:15 and Daniel 18:33.
So under new head coach John Tortorella, the ageing Sedins are playing more and producing less. The Sedins are also playing tougher minutes, with more defensive zone starts and penalty-kill time. Kesler has had multiple surgeries. The Sedins appear to no longer be able to carry the team. And Bo Horvat is 19 years old.
At Rogers Arena Wednesday, in what was once the Western Conference’s premier rivalry, a late-arriving crowd was emptying out of the building with five minutes to play in a 4-2 game. There was little juice to this one, if any.
This team needs to get worse with a purpose, make the process fast and begin getting better again. Staying the same simply isn’t an option.