Canucks turning into a circus
Having stable ownership doesn't necessarily denote good ownership, a reality worth keeping in mind as the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in a state of chaos. Somehow, in less than three years, the Canucks have gone from being a perpetual Stanley Cup contender to a team in disarray. We're about to find out about the character of this team, and the search for the character (or identity) of this franchise starts at the very top, with owner Francesco Aquilini. On Tuesday, Aquilini fired GM Mike Gillis, ostensibly because Gillis all but came out with a sandwich board that said, "You know, I wasn't so hot on that Tortorella guy to begin with" during a recent radio show. Gillis' comments reinforced the commonly held belief that it was Aquilini, not Gillis, who was driving the bus when it came to hiring coach John Tortorella in the offseason. The comments were bold but ultimately self-destructive for Gillis. So the Canucks are out of the playoffs for the first time in six years and Gillis is gone, which isn't necessarily the wrong call, given how the team's personnel has been mismanaged the past three or four years. Ownership now has to find someone to un-bungle this mess. Whether that means promoting Laurence Gillman to GM or hiring from outside with a proven NHL manager -- which could fall to former captain Trevor Linden, who was named president of hockey operations Wednesday -- this is a defining moment for a franchise that has fallen precipitously from its run to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. And what of Tortorella? Ownership must also decide if it believes in the combustible coach and, if so, must come out quickly to reinforce that he'll be back. If not, ownership will have to suffer the dual embarrassment of having to fire both a coach and GM less than a year after presenting both with four-year contracts. Sadly, embarrassment is something with which the Canucks are becoming intimately acquainted, and it will be up to ownership to prove it can turn the tide and not simply add fuel to the fires of discontent.
Jets aren't flying high
Speaking of ownership decisions, the Winnipeg Jets continue to flaunt the Atlanta Thrashers' DNA as the Jets will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season (the third straight since moving to Winnipeg). We've known Paul Maurice a long time. He is a smart, forward-thinking coach, and his impact on the Jets after taking over for Claude Noel was immediate and stunning. But it didn't last. After closing in on a playoff berth at the Olympic break, the Jets won their first two post-Olympic games but have not won two in a row since. They went winless in six games shortly after the break and have suffered from periods of listless team defense, mediocre to awful goaltending, and a lack of offensive production. In short, they are what they've been for most of their existence: an average to below-average team that shows flashes but never enough consistent quality play to be a legitimate playoff team. The question for ownership is whether that is a function of coaching or personnel. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made no significant moves at the trade deadline. That inactivity, coupled with the team's swoon out of contention, raises the question: personnel or coaching? Could the Jets be a playoff team under Maurice next season? Sure. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, including the emergence of Jacob Trouba as a top-end young defender. The Jets have proved, in some ways, to be a resilient lot, with 15 wins after giving up the first goal, third-most in the NHL. And maybe status quo is the way to go for the Jets, although for a team with so little to show for its efforts over the past decade, "Hang on for another year" is a tough idea to sell to fans.
Not just the shootout for Devils
The New Jersey Devils are on a collision course with missing the playoffs for a second straight season after their surprise run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals. Most will point to their shocking 0-11 record in shootouts and, yes, that's pretty unbelievable. Win just five of those, and the Devils are playoff-bound. But for us, it's not just the breakdown in the skills competition but the team's inability to overcome. As of Wednesday, the Devils were dead last in wins after falling behind in games. In games where they gave up the first goal, the Devils had come up with just five wins. The Anaheim Ducks have won 20 games when giving up the first goal, best in the league. The Detroit Red Wings, whom the Devils are chasing for a wild-card spot, have 15; the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team holding down the final wild-card spot, have nine. Nine is not a lot. But it's four more than five, and for the Devils, that difference represents the difference between being in and being left behind. Again.
Halak makes curious call
Not sure what to make of Jaroslav Halak's decision that he'd rather not play Tuesday against his old team, the St. Louis Blues, in what was a must-win situation for the Washington Capitals. As it turned out, Braden Holtby was excellent for the Caps, who came up with a crucial 4-1 win as they kept their slim (and growing slimmer by the day) playoff hopes alive. But "I'm not comfortable" as a reason for not being available to take the ice in a crucial moment leaves us more than a little cold. Kudos to Halak for being honest, and maybe there's a backstory but it's the kind of honesty that we're pretty sure is going to make a lot of GMs take notice as Halak heads for the open market as a free agent this summer. Allan Walsh, Halak’s agent, denied in a statement that his client asked out of the game. But it still remains another curious development for a team fighting for its playoff life.
Bishop-less Bolts' hopes are looking grim
What are the chances that the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens if top netminder Ben Bishop is lost to injury? Slim. Sub-slim. Bishop injured his wrist early in Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and there's no word on when he might return. Anders Lindback came on to preserve the shutout and keep the Bolts within two points of Montreal in the hunt for home-ice advantage in what should be a terrific first-round matchup. But Lindback has played sparingly, with Bishop earning Vezina Trophy buzz for his work in keeping the Lightning afloat in spite of injury and turmoil that has enveloped the team at various points of the season. And when Lindback has played, he has been OK. Well, let's be honest, less than OK. The 6-foot-6 Swede has not won back-to-back games all season and boasts a pedestrian .884 save percentage. He has exactly 13 minutes of NHL playoff action to his credit. The upside? Well, not sure it means anything, but recently top NHL analysts suggested to us that the Minnesota Wild would have the worst goaltending in the Western Conference come playoff time and maybe the worst goaltending of all 16 teams. Since then, Ilya Bryzgalov has gone 5-0-1 and helped the Wild secure the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Maybe similar reports of doom and gloom will prompt a similar response from Lindback and the Lightning. Maybe.