Canucks headed toward summer of turmoil
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- There are people who believe the Mayan calendar forecasts the world will end this December. More people probably believe that prediction than anyone who said the Vancouver Canucks would lose the first round of the NHL playoffs in five games to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks, who lost last year's Stanley Cup in seven games to the Boston Bruins, were eliminated Sunday night when Jarret Stoll scored at 4:27 of overtime in a 2-1 Los Angeles win. Not only did the Kings win the best-of-seven series 4-1, three of those victories were at Rogers Arena.
"Nobody envisioned this,'' a sullen coach Alain Vigneault said. "We came here on Day 1 with a plan and a lot of hard work ahead of us. We wanted to take the steps one at a time. Unfortunately, this first step we weren't good enough.''
There was stunned silence and disbelief in the Vancouver dressing room. Defenseman Dan Hamhuis tried to explain how he lost the puck at his own blueline, setting up Stoll's winning goal. Like they always do, win or lose, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin answered every question asked of them. Ryan Kesler sat with his head in his hands, then quietly left. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was relegated to spectator for the final three games, was nowhere to be seen.
As good as the Canucks were this season, there were signs late in the campaign that some of the sparkle was beginning to tarnish. These flaws were either ignored or glossed over when Vancouver finished with the best record in the NHL for the second consecutive season.
During the playoffs the Canucks' faults were exposed.
You don't win a playoff series with a power play that is 3-for-21 and allows two shorthanded goals in one game. You don't win when you score just eight goals and Kesler, David Booth and Mason Raymond can't put the puck in the net. You don't win when a defenseman such as Alex Edler suddenly begins making rookie mistakes.
The Canucks never could climb out of the hole they dug by losing the opening two games of the series at home.
"If you give away two games, it's tough to win four out of five," captain Henrik Sedin said. "We didn't score enough. They had a great goalie and played tight defense. They scored enough to win."
This time Luongo can't be blamed for Vancouver's playoff exit. But Vigneault's decision to start backup Cory Schneider in his place probably signals Luongo has played his last game as a Canuck.
Los Angeles deserved to win its first series since 2001. The Kings showed more speed and aggression. Their forecheck created turnovers. Captain Dustin Brown stepped up his game, scoring four goals and delivering a crushing hit on Henrik Sedin in Game 3. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick stymied Vancouver by stopping 164 of 172 shots.
Los Angeles also exposed Vancouver's soft side. When the Kings shoved, there was little pushback from the Canucks. No one really challenged Brown after his hit on Sedin. Instead, the pesky Burrows wanted to fight Anze Kopitar, who had just 20 penalty minutes all season. It was a sad sight to see the bruising Kesler flop to the ice to draw a penalty against L.A. defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Vancouver won the Presidents' Trophy by finishing the regular season with a 51-22-9 record for 111 points. The Canucks also play in the Northwest Division, where they collected 37 points against Edmonton, Minnesota, Calgary and Colorado. None of those teams made the playoffs.
Even down the stretch, when the Canucks won eight of nine games with Daniel Sedin out with a concussion, there was concern. Five of the teams Vancouver defeated didn't make the playoffs. In four of those games Vancouver scored two or fewer goals. The power play was 4-for-35 with two goals coming in the final game of the season.
"We didn't play our best hockey coming down the stretch," veteran defenseman Sami Salo said. "You can't just turn up your game by pressing a button."
Vancouver's scoring dried up near the end of the season. Henrik Sedin had one goal in the final 23 games. Kesler didn't score in the final 12. Booth had three in the last 16 while Raymond had two in 17.
In the 10 games before he was hurt, Daniel Sedin had just two goals, both of those in a win over Columbus.
Vancouver summers can be damp but there will be heat on the Canucks. One Vancouver newspaper columnist has already suggested Vigneault should be fired. Even if Vigneault stays you have to think Newell Brown, the assistant coach in charge of the Canucks' power play, is on thin ice.
It's hard to believe Luongo and Schneider will share the crease next season. Only 26, Schneider has proved he can be a starter. The 33-year-old Luongo is locked up through the 2021-22 season with a 12-year, $64 million contract. At $5.33 million a season, that's manageable for other teams.
The Canucks have built a team full of talent. Mental strength and intensity are two ingredients that still are lacking.
"You realize you only get so many chances," Schneider said. "You can't let them slip by, especially with a good year like we had this year."
Getting back to the Stanley Cup finals wasn't going to be easy for Vancouver.
What's surprising is how easily the Canucks were bounced from the playoffs.
No one, not even the Mayans, predicted that.