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Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Canucks fell short of expectations, now expect change

Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- After four seasons of early playoff exits, this was supposed to be the year that the Vancouver Canucks finally took another step.

They did, but in the wrong direction.

Done in by midseason indifference, late-season ineffectiveness, and an all-season injury bug, the Canucks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000, prematurely ending a campaign that started seven months earlier with Stanley Cup aspirations.

The next step might be breaking up a core group that has only won one playoff series in seven years together.

"We all expect some changes to be made," captain Markus Naslund said as players gathered Sunday to collect equipment and have year-end meetings with the coaches and management. "It's sad, especially for this group. We've been together such a long time that you create a deep bond and friendship with the guys in here."

That familiarity was just one reason the Canucks were picked to succeed coming out of the NHL's lockout. Add in new rules designed to promote offense and the run-and-gun Canucks were considered Cup contenders.

"You couldn't have painted a better picture for us heading into this season," top-line center Brendan Morrison said. "With the rule changes and the type of offensive players we have, the team speed, the way we moved the puck, nobody envisioned this happening."

Heading into the season, Calgary coach Darryl Sutter was telling anyone that would listen the Canucks were the best team in the Western Conference, and they backed it up by winning eight of their first 10. Vancouver was 13-1-0 at home after an early December victory over Ottawa that many heralded as a possible Stanley Cup preview.

By the time the Flames visited in early April, however, Vancouver s post-Olympic slide had the Canucks fighting for their playoff lives. Sutter amended his comments, calling the Canucks the best team "on paper.

That potential never played out on the ice, where the Canucks struggled to stay out of the penalty box -- only seven other teams were short-handed more -- and compounded it with a 17th-place penalty kill.

"For whatever reason early in the year we felt we could get away with not playing a complete game and there were nights we got out competed and we made a lot of mistakes," veteran Trevor Linden said.

Losing No. 1 goalie Dan Cloutier to season-ending knee surgery in November didn't help, even though Alex Auld filled in admirably, going 33-26-6 while playing 56 of the next 60 games in his first full NHL season.

The Canucks also lost top defenseman Ed Jovanovski for 38 games because of a groin injury that later required hernia surgery, then watched as defenders Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund were both injured in the Olympics. Ohlund only missed four games, but labored at times while recovering from the bruised ribs. Salo (shoulder) never returned.

Naslund, Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi also struggled to find the form that made them one of the league's best lines before the lockout. The trio combined for a respectable 76 goals and 206 points. But Naslund and Betuzzi were a combined minus-36, and were split up for most of the Canucks' ill-fated stretch drive, which saw them win just two of their final eight games.

Any hopes of a playoff push ended officially with back-to-back losses to San Jose last week -- with the Canucks blowing late leads in both.

"As a team we just weren't good enough defensively and our deficiencies came to the forefront when it mattered most," Morrison said.