VANCOUVER – If the 1990s were the promise of what was possible for the Vancouver Canucks, the early part of the 21st century was a vision realized: an entertaining, talented, star-driven team that was excellent not just for one season but many.
General manager Mike Gillis preserved the precious pieces left for him by Dave Nonis, including coach Alain Vigneault, and added to the roster strategically, and the Canucks evolved into one of the best teams in the National Hockey League.
Over a seven-season period starting in 2006-07, the Canucks won six division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and more games than any team in their conference other than the San Jose Sharks.
The Canucks made it past the first round of the playoffs four times and were easily the best team in the NHL in 2010–11 until the Boston Bruins battered them in the Stanley Cup Final.
That loss will sting forever, but that era has become even more golden with time on the West Coast.
As Sportsnet is compiling teams by the decade to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary in the NHL, the best players from that era have been split into two squads. Here is our all-2000s team.
CANUCKS ALL-2000s TEAM
2006–2014, .919 Sv%, 2.36 GAA
It’s possible that no other trade in franchise history so immediately and profoundly changed the perception of the Canucks and boosted the team’s trajectory as Nonis’s 2006 acquisition of Luongo from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a packet of players that featured Todd Bertuzzi.
One of the best goalies of his generation and just entering his peak years, Luongo changed the way opponents viewed and planned for the Canucks, and helped turn a good up-and-coming team into a championship contender. Luongo was so important to the Canucks that Gillis, who replaced Nonis in 2008, named his goaltender team captain even as the NHL refused to acknowledge the designation.
Luongo will go to the Hockey Hall of Fame as the third-winningest goalie in NHL history, and more than half of his 489 wins came during his eight years in Vancouver. “Lou” is also the only player who appears on more than one of Sportsnet’s all-decade Canucks teams.
1997–2009, 93 G, 232 A
The Swedish defenceman with the all-around game was a warrior for the Canucks, spending 11 seasons in Vancouver before leaving as a free agent in 2009 as the team’s all-time scoring leader among blue-liners. Remarkably, he did all this after suffering damage to his eye when struck by a puck during warmup early in his career. He played the rest of it with a valve implanted in his cheek to relieve pressure around the eye.
The 1994 first-round pick, one of the few shining ones from the dark ages of Canucks drafts, was instantly made a top-pairing defender by coach Mike Keenan, and became a fearless and respected leader on the team. He was skilled, mobile and physically tough — the kind of defenceman you build around, which the Canucks did.
2002–2012, 74 G, 162 A
We were torn between Salo and Ed Jovanovski for the second choice on defence for the 2000s team. The powerful, fleet Jovanovski was the more dynamic and impactful of the two, good enough to be part of Canada’s gold medal–winning Olympic team in 2002. But “Jovo” played only six full seasons in Vancouver before bolting to sunny Arizona as a free agent in 2006. Salo, on the other hand, spent nine seasons and his best NHL years with the Canucks, who acquired him in 2002 when GM Brian Burke traded Peter Schaefer to the Ottawa Senators.
Salo was never the team’s best defenceman, but always one of the most important. The scorn directed towards him by some for his unlucky medical record was grossly unfair; the games the Finn played while injured were innumerable, and he competed every shift. Unforgettable chants of “Balls of Steel! Balls of Steel!” rolled down from the stands during the 2010 playoffs, when Salo dragged himself out to play against the Chicago Blackhawks after getting hit by a slap shot in the pelvic region in Game 5.
Salo led by example and made his defence partners better, and his shot was arguably the hardest in franchise history.
1996–2008, 346 G, 410 A
Perhaps because his personality was so understated and calm and he rarely celebrated his goals, Naslund didn’t generate the same emotional and adoring response from fans that the other greatest players in franchise history have. But that doesn’t diminish his impact or his achievements.
Acquired in 1996 from the Pittsburgh Penguins by Pat Quinn in one of the most lopsided trades in Canucks history (Alek Stojanov went the other way), Naslund evolved from a talented but enigmatic and inconsistent winger into one of the best scorers in the NHL at the start of this century. He scored 48 goals in 2002-03 when he became the first Canuck to win the Ted Lindsay Award – league MVP as voted by the players. No Canuck has scored close to that many goals in a season since then.
Naslund was the lynchpin among linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison on the West Coast Express, and his eight-year reign as captain matches Stan Smyl’s and Henrik Sedin’s as the longest in franchise history. When he left the Canucks as a free agent in 2008, Naslund had surpassed Trevor Linden as the Canucks’ all-time leading scorer. Smyl, Sedin, Linden – that’s pretty good company.
1998–2006, 188 G, 261 A
There were few figures more divisive in the NHL in the 2000s than Bertuzzi, who was already one of the most disliked players by opponents when he ended Steve Moore’s career with a sucker punch in 2004. That attack, payback for Moore’s dirty hit that had injured his best friend, Naslund, earlier that season, was also the beginning of the end for Bertuzzi.
The incident and the decline in Bertuzzi’s play that followed, which accelerated with his 2006 trade for Luongo, made it easy to forget how good “Big Bert” had been for the Canucks when his unworldly combination of size and skill made him one of the most dominant power forwards in the NHL. He scored 46 goals in 2003 and hit 25 or more in six of his seven seasons in Vancouver. Bertuzzi’s burn was relatively short but blindingly bright, and he remains in the top 10 in franchise history in goals, points and penalty minutes.
2003–2014, 182 G, 211 A
Speaking of divisive players, Ryan Kesler’s peak years with the Canucks bridged the first two decades of this century. But we’re including him in the 2000s team partly to leave room for someone else alongside the Sedins in Sportsnet’s 2010s team, and because Kesler was so darn effective almost from the time he was picked in the first round of the 2003 draft.
The Canucks had never had an elite, shutdown centre like Kesler, who won the Selke Trophy in 2011. An absolute beast to play against, the American combined his checking, skating and agitating abilities with terrific offensive skills, making him dangerous at both ends of the ice. With centres Henrik Sedin and Kesler, Vancouver had the best one-two punch in franchise history – current Canucks Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat may challenge that – and there was pretty good debate around the NHL back then about which star was more important.
Fans in Vancouver hated Kesler when he forced a 2014 trade to the Anaheim Ducks — then lied about it — after 10 seasons with the Canucks. But that fractured relationship began to heal when Kesler showed up for the Sedins’ jerseys retirement last month, and one day his name could be added to the Canucks’ Ring of Honour.