Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Questions abound for Canucks after sweep
By Pierre LeBrun
It was always going to be the "window" series, two of the Western Conference's long-standing contenders facing off in the first round, with the losers having to face questions about their immediate future.
The San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks have been kicking at the contender can for a long time, and folks in both cities this year began to wonder if things were getting a little stale.
Heck, the Sharks even retooled on the fly this season, trading away pending UFAs Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus (while adding Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan) as GM Doug Wilson publicly acknowledged the need to begin the "reset" of his roster.
So a first-round loss to Vancouver would have spurred more moves -- no doubt toward youth -- for the Sharks, who have played the second-most playoff games in the NHL since 2004, behind only the Detroit Red Wings.
Instead, the re-energized Sharks are very much alive, thinking once again about their title hopes, after a four-game dismantling of the Canucks. It's Vancouver that has to answer very difficult questions after a debacle of a series.
The Canucks' window appears to be closing. Back-to-back first-round playoff losses since their run to the Cup finals in 2011 suggest the recipe isn't right anymore.
And getting rid of the cook may not be the only solution.
Everyone who has an opinion seems to think coach Alain Vigneault will pay the price. Certainly, it's a bullet GM Mike Gillis has kept in the chamber ever since he took over the club in April 2008, having inherited "AV" as coach.
Gillis has to shoulder some blame here, too, as all GMs whose teams have higher expectations must after being swept in the first round.
In retrospect, he should have taken whatever the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best offer was last summer and divested himself of Roberto Luongo, as the goalie drama did not serve the team well at all, even if both netminders stayed on good terms with each other.
Of more concern is that Luongo was the better goalie in the series than Cory Schneider, whose confidence has to be rattled after the way things worked out.
But the problems here run deeper.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin deserve some scrutiny here as well. Neither scored a goal in the four-game sweep. They looked tired and head into the final years of their contracts next season ($6.1 million per year). The Canucks will have an interesting decision to make -- one would think as soon as this summer, so as not to have the twins' pending UFA status hang over the team next season.
The defense is set, which is either a good thing if you like this group or a bad thing if you're a Canucks fan who wants change. But Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler all have contracts that run at least through 2015-16. Unless they trade some of these big contracts, that's the Canucks' core blue line for a while.
The Canucks also have the highest payroll in the league, and the salary cap is going down to $64.3 million next season. Obviously divesting themselves of Luongo's $5.33 million cap hit via a trade or a compliance buyout will help in that regard, with Keith Ballard ($4.2 million a year for two more seasons) another buyout candidate as well.
And because of the years of contending and going for it, there isn't a deep pool of prospects in the pipeline, either.
So, to recap:
• Do the Canucks have a bona fide No. 1 goalie in Schneider moving forward?
• Should this team still be built around the Sedins?
• Will Ryan Kesler ever be injury-free?
• Does this team have the right supporting cast to still contend?
• Is it time to retool, rebuild or be patient for one more run with this core?
Many questions at this point, but very few answers.
The only thing for certain is that it won't be dull in Vancouver this offseason.