Losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was emotional for Vancouver, to say the least. It’s a familiar feeling from countless hockey games, watching the time on the clock slowly dwindle, and with it any hope of a comeback. If you watch a lot of hockey, you get pretty numb to that. This time, though, it was accompanied by the painful knowledge the Canucks had come within a game of their ultimate goal, and there wouldn’t be another game.

It felt bad, man.

As soon as Kevin Bieksa scored the series winner against San Jose, all Canucks fans seemed to have the same thought: this is our chance. As the time on the clock for the third period wound down, it wasn’t just the game that was ending, or even the season. We were watching the team once again let their chance slip away. Last time it happened, we had to wait seventeen years. How long would we have to wait now?

Some of us looking for something to blame, others looking for something to take from this experience, we are all led to the same question: how did this happen? How did the best offense in the NHL dry up when it was most needed? How was the league’s top power play stymied as soon as the Stanley Cup was in reach? How did a Vezina candidate goaltender implode so completely when he was one win away from the big prize?

All of these question pale in comparison to the most frustrating one: what more can the Canucks possibly do?

The Canucks went into the playoffs with the league’s best offense, best defense, best power play, second-best penalty kill (by a tenth of a percent), best faceoff percentage and best record. They won the franchise’s only President’s Trophy. They have two Art Ross winners and a Selke finalist up front, a Jack Adams winner behind the bench, and a Vezina finalist between the pipes. They entered the playoffs with no clear weakness. This is not only the best team Vancouver’s ever seen, it was one of the best teams the NHL has ever seen. If that’s not enough to hoist the Cup, what, exactly, are the Canucks supposed to do to improve?

There’s no answer. We can blame circumstances — the referees were awful, the Canucks were injured, the bounces weren’t going the right way — but making these excuses feels dishonest. We can’t even find a player to blame, because the Canucks’ offense, defense, and goaltending all failed. The team, as a whole, sputtered and stopped. This season, there was no Nathan Lafayette, no chance to tie it up in the dying seconds, no “what if.” Every one of the Canucks’ losses in the Final came by at least three goals. It just wasn’t there.

It’s wrong, though, to feel like the Canucks have missed their chance. This season had a magical feeling about it, but just because TSN coverage included pictures marked “Canucks Cup Quest” doesn’t mean it was written in the stars this season. Legends are forged after the fact. The “History Will Be Made” commercials may replay events with sepia tones and emotional music, but the events depicted are real and chaotic as they occur. The Canucks’ making it as far as they did wasn’t the result of destiny, and neither was their ultimately falling short.

Things could easily have happened differently. The Canucks could have won Game 7. The Canucks could have swept the Bruins and wrapped things up in four games. Or, Chicago could have won the first round, leaving Canucks fans to ask many of the same questions they are right now (if this team can’t do it, what does it take?) a couple months earlier. The answer would remain the same.

The loss is devastating because these Canucks aren’t like the others. This isn’t a Cinderella story about a team that somehow had a shot. This loss feels worse because this time, the team was supposed to win. That same quality about the Canucks is what guarantees this group won’t vanish into legends of almost and could have been, like the other teams did. The 1982 Canucks had no business making it into the Final. The 1994 team was a strong one, but they weren’t the strongest. When those teams went on those runs, it was amazing because they were overcoming the odds to do so, and it was exciting and heartwarming. This season’s Canucks team didn’t beat the odds until they dropped four out of five games in the Final to lose the Cup.

This team seemed destined for the Cup Final, not because there is such a thing as destiny, but because that’s where this group belongs. It’s still a team unlike any the NHL has seen in a long time, and this time, there won’t be a decade and a half of waiting, all the while telling stories about what was.

The Canucks made it as far as they did without the aid of hockey gods, fate or even much in the way of luck, which means it won’t take those things for the team to make it back.

They will.

But Should They?

I watched Game 7 with my mom and dad on their big screen television. When my mother saw hope becoming fainter, my mood gradually becoming more dismal, she commented, “Well, if they have to lose, this is the way it should be. No last-second heartbreak or late goals. Let that crowd of people get good and used to the idea of losing so they don’t do something stupid.”

If that was the plan, it clearly didn’t work, as many stupid things were done that night.

I know Montreal has done similar things over games far less important, but it’s still hard not to feel like Vancouver embarrassed itself in front of 29 NHL cities, not to mention the rest of the hockey-watching world. Once initial worry over the safety of family and friends had passed, we all just got to feel ashamed. Does our city feel so entitled that if they don’t win a Cup they’re going to break things?

As an aside, one of the things the Canucks have been trying to do is lure free agents and get people to take hometown discounts in order to build a great team. They’ve had some success, but I have to wonder what the riots will do for the city’s reputation.

How do the players have to feel when the best thing they can do for the safety of Vancouver’s citizens is to never make it out of the 2nd round ever again?

Lack of Versatility Cost the Canucks

So I know we’re all looking for what went wrong, and I just said there was no single specific thing we could point to. That said, I’m going to point at a single specific thing.

Before the Bruins-Lightning series, both teams had a long break because they’d both swept their 2nd round opponents. The Lightning had been playing a tight defensive system, but when the series began, Guy Boucher surprised Boston with a system that had adapted to Boston’s playing style. The Lightning generated more offense against the Bruins than any other team did this postseason.

There’s the immortal saying in football that the hardest thing to do as a coach is to go into halftime at the Superbowl and throw away the strategy that got you there. Still, the Canucks’ offense has shown throughout these playoffs that they had difficulty adapting.

The Sedins’ struggles didn’t begin in the Cup Final. They flourished against San Jose, but they were effectively shut down in the Nashville series, and at times against Chicago. Many will blame the twins, and they deserve some of it, but the truth is, the Canucks just weren’t willing to throw out the strategies that won them the President’s Trophy. They were too predictable, and were unable to change and adapt. That falls on the coaching staff.

That said, I’m not pinning this on Alain Vigneault, who won the Jack Adams trophy, and is just the third coach to lead the Canucks to the Cup Final. Comparison of his system in 2007 and the system the Canucks played in their most successful season in franchise history shows that Vigneault is capable of changing and adapting the way he plays.

But, in the playoffs, he didn’t. And he’ll need to look at that at some point.

So What’s Gillis Gonna Do?

The key to this off-season is going to be Keith Ballard. Obviously, when Mike Gillis gave away Michael Grabner and a 1st rounder for him, he didn’t expect that KB4.2 would be a healthy scratch in the playoffs in favor of Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts and Chris Tanev.

Something went wrong. What it is that went wrong — and why it is that Vigneault seems so unwilling to play Ballard — will determine what the Canucks do this off-season. Ballard’s a talented defenseman whose skillset could be highly sought-after once the free agent pool dries up a bit in mid-July, so the Canucks aren’t necessarily stuck with his salary. His no movement clause likely won’t be an issue if the team wants to trade him. How insistent could he possibly be on remaining in Alain Vigneault’s no game 7 for you doghouse?

But, if the Canucks ultimately decide to keep him, that makes re-signing Bieksa, Ehrhoff and Salo much harder, especially looking at the talent up front that the Canucks probably wouldn’t mind keeping. Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre all had big impacts on the Canucks’ run this season, and it’s hard to see management not wanting to retain them.

If Ballard stays with the Canucks, he has to be a mainstay worthy of his salary, because his cap hit means it’s likely one of the Canucks’ defensemen will have to be on their way. If he goes, then the Canucks have plenty of cap room to re-sign who they liked and replace who they didn’t with a better free agent.

If it were anyone but Gillis and Gilman managing the contracts and cap space, I might be concerned.

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  1. Pseuccubus
    June 17, 2011

    How I miss those halcyon days when the most embarrassing thing that could have happened to us in the playoffs would have been to lose to Chicago in the 1st round.

    Excellent article, Qris.

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  2. Don
    June 17, 2011

    Hey Qris,

    Nice story but unlike you, i do blame AV and the other coaches. Bear with me… we won the regular season by playing the “cycle”, making dangerous cross ice passes and playing a speed type of game. A good coach should know that the cycle is the easiest play in hockey to defeat and he should also know that playoff hockey is different- it’s more like ‘old time hockey’. To defeat the cycle all one has to do is to pin the player in the corner and have him turn the puck over. How many times this playoffs did we see the Canucks dump the puck in the corner start the cycle and then have the puck almost immediately get turned over without even a shot on goal? Or only getting a very low percentage shot from the corner? It is very difficult to score using this style of play in the playoffs. The long cross ice passes were killer too (see the brutal short handed goals the Canucks allowed). SO this brings me back to the coaches. Yes the twins were invisible, yes Lu let us down (on 4 of the 7 nights) but I think the team wasn’t given the plays to change that allow them to gain an advantage so late in the series. Tampa changed their play for Boston and the Canucks almost got blasted by Chicago,Nashville gave us a run too. To add to the style of play, coaching decisions were suspect too. Ballard is not a worse player than Rome. By only playing him one game in the final round he sacrificed him. If Av had played Ballard and Tanev from the beginning, instead of Rome and Alberts, the Canucks would have had a strong defines pairing instead of a mix and match hodge podgy on d. AV also didn’t seem to have faith in his players by never setting a unit- players were in and out of the lineup every night- something you don’t see with other successful teams- this boggles my mind as an ex coach and player. How does one expect a team to really gel when more than half o the players don’t know how many games they’ll be playing in?

    Much like Luongo had to change up his style of play this season, the twins need to be taught another way to play as the cycle just won’t do and I don’t believe coach V is the man to do that.
    Cheers, once again great story.

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    • anom
      June 17, 2011

      Nice post. I agree completely.

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    • kim r
      June 17, 2011

      Nice post, good thoughts. This team didn’t manage its assets (the players) as effectively as they could. Mentioned in another post that Samuelsson (sorry if spelled wrong) should have been sat/healed/had surgery/whatever to be ready for the playoffs. Where was Hodgson? Ballard?

      It was obvious that Boston had watched tapes, saw habits and exploited that knowledge. The Canucks, not so much. They just didn’t see that Boston was ready and knew before they did what they were going to do. Like you said, Don, for whatever reason, hubris, laziness, inability the coaching staff didn’t adjust.

      Maybe it is time for this coaching staff to go or at the least be fine tuned.

      I trust Gillis on doing the right thing and it will be an interesting summer to see what he will do.

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    • Qris Johnson
      June 17, 2011

      I’d agree if you weren’t so completely wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

      Funny that the cycle is so easy to defeat. Detroit had a lot of trouble dealing with San Jose’s cycle game. The two top teams in the West employ the cycle game. The cycle is really hard to defeat when everyone’s playing it correctly — especially on the power play.

      The lack of versatility I’m referring to is evidenced, for example, in the Canucks’ failure to employ the points when the Bruins started to collapse towards the net. Same thing happened in Nashville. The Canucks have worked well with Henrik Sedin feeding the puck to Daniel down low from the halfboards, and they didn’t change the tendency when it stopped working.

      Vigneault made a decision with Keith Ballard that I don’t support, but like you, I don’t know what went on. Ballard looked pretty shaky in his one game these Finals, and Tanev looked solid. If the Canucks won Game 7, no one would be saying they won despite Alain Vigneault, but now that the team came up short, it’s easy to criticize with a list of things that you’d have done differently. Fact is, only two other Canucks coaches have gone as far as he did, and neither of them managed to put together a team as strong as AV.

      Let it go, man. They’ll be back.

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    • peanutflower
      June 18, 2011

      I’d like someone to give me an example of another SCF where there was a whole new set of rules employed, please. Or non-rules. The Canucks had every reason to expect that they would be able to continue to play their game albeit with some additional toughness thrown in. Why wouldn’t they expect that? Why would the rules change? I think it is preposterous to believe that the Canucks were/are a sham team, which is basically what all the critics are saying, that their style was something that just barely worked in the regular season and was soon put paid to in the playoffs.

      And I’m so tired of hearing about the “sisters”. To me, the Canucks have two Gretzkys. Gretzky, probably the best player ever, was often accused of whining and of being too soft, which is pretty much the same criticism that is directed at Daniel and Henrik. The problem is that the Sedins don’t have a Semenko. The further problem is that if they DID have a Semenko he would spend the greater part of the game in the penalty box because now the NHL hates an instigator. Why should the Sedins be forced to change the game that they play?

      And somehow the Canucks have become a whole team of biters, floppers, divers and whiners. That’s just plain ridiculous. I bet Burrows rues biting Bergeron, if he did, but given the same situation I bet he’d do it again. I would. I bet anyone would. He couldn’t get his hands up to push Bergeron’s stinky glove away so he did what he could. As a Canuck’s fan from the day the first puck dropped (where I was in fact watching live at Pacific Coliseum), I have never seen a series that was so strange, where the media-fueled vitriol was so, well, vitriolic, where the team faced such largely undeserved criticism and “hatred”. It made the whole thing really unpleasant at the end, and while I am sad my team didn’t win, I was pretty much glad it was over.

      I bet if the Canucks re-tooled and went to play what is so euphemistically called “old time hockey” there would be just as many detractors and criticisers. In my opinion the Canucks play beautiful hockey, just the way I personally think it should be played, Speedy, accurate, beautiful to watch. I would much prefer that over Boston’s style. Gillis’ challenge will be to somehow beef up that style a bit. I look forward to next year. Go Canucks!

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  3. AM
    June 17, 2011

    “Round 5′s Opponent is Crippling Depression”

    That’s hilarious. And so true.

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  4. nuckluck
    June 18, 2011

    This was a good read. I just disagree with your thoughts on AV. I put some of the blame on the players, but I think that AV should get it equally if not more. Your absolutely right when you say its a big mistake to not adapt or change something if it isn’t working. AV’s refusal and “determination” (thought this would be the nicest way to put it) led the Canucks to be predictable throughout the playoffs. The players in Montreal didn’t like it and I don’t think all of the players on the Canucks do either. The Sedins made comments about it after we got knocked out last year and Bieksa seems to be puzzled too. He always seems to compliment Ballard a little more when asked… he must be saying it for a reason.

    I think AV made 3 monumental decisions that ‘may’ have decided the Stanley Cup Champions:

    1) Ballard – There is NO doubt in my mind that Ballard is a better player than Rome or Alberts. I don’t know what the reasons are for AV, but he doesn’t want Ballard to succeed with the Nucks and he set him up for failure. His decisions throughout the regular season puzzled me and I think it Puzzles Ballard even more. How can he penalize Ballard for every single minor infraction and not utilize the same barometer for Rome or Alberts? (I have another thought about the refereeing and NHL officials that sound vaguely similar) Why wouldn’t he give this proven player a chance to grow some chemistry with another proven defense men? So, AV benches Ballard so much it confuses him and he starts to question himself, he never pairs him with a steady defense men for a long enough period to establish chemistry, he pairs him with a rookie (and Ballard plays well) and all throughout the season, one single mistake and Ballard is benched for the next +games while Rome and Alberts are given plenty of opportunities. Why didn’t he match Tanev with Rome or Alberts?

    Finals come along and we have injured defense men…Ballard gets his chance, after what seems like a month, and what does AV do? He pairs him on the 2nd line with Bieksa in the Finals? He should have eased him into the playoffs as you would a player returning to the line up after being out for most of the year. And you punish him by sitting him out of game 7??? With our defense depleted… he decides to punish Ballard at this time? Does AV think he’s coaching kids? go sit in the corner for game 7…the MOST important game of the year? Didn’t he do the same thing last year? benched….(too lazy to google) – I think it’s Raymond – for the final game. He didn’t give Ballard a chance to succeed all year… and now, if we wanted to trade him (god forbid), what would we get?

    2) This is the biggest mistake in my eyes. AV would have known that Samuelsson was injured in the playoffs… I don’t know when it happened, but it was very obvious that he wasn’t the same player in the Nashville series. Now, I never had any anxiety about losing the series to Nashville after the first game. I wasn’t sure on the number of games, but I had no doubts that we would win the series. Samuelsson was not producing on the ice and he just seemed s-l-o-w out there and a lot of people were questioning Samuelsson’s health. His reward, in AV’s mind, don’t change a thing and keep giving him time on the pp. Something was wrong with Samuelsson and he wasn’t doing anything on the ice and doing even worse on the PP! Why didn’t AV give him time to rest? Why didn’t AV at least drop the minutes to a minimum? Why didn’t AV take him off the PP? We could have given him at least 1 game to heal and recoup and give Tambi or Hodgson a chance.

    Tambi has had his moments and maybe his heart alone could have brought that spark back… it would at least ignite the fans at a home game (Nashville wasn’t the most exciting series). At the worst, he would have been able to do the same, but more likely, better than Samuelsson did being injured.

    What about Cody? Why not give him a chance? He has proven himself and played some solid games this year… He was healthy, fully rested and definitely passionate! I know he’s a center, but he could have moved to the wings. Look at Seguin in the ECF… he did phenomenal! He was given a chance and proved himself in a big moment… Cody could have done the same! All this kid needs is a proper chance. The worst that could have happened is that Cody would have played slightly better than a injured Samuelsson. This only benefits the team on the ice, but it gives our rookie a real opportunity to prove himself and give another Canuck rookie some playoff experience. Imagine if he did have a ‘Seguin’ moment… Van has another weapon! His trade value increases dramatically (we may get offers that we can’t refuse – last I heard, center men are pretty valuable)! If he doesn’t and just plays average… no harm no foul. He couldn’t have done worse.

    Typical Canuck moment in the playoffs. Samuelsson gets injured… I am completely convinced of one of the two following factors, that this could be the same injury amplified or the season-ending injury could have been a result of the initial injury (Samuelsson’s speed, mobility, strength, etc). I think that AV should have given Samuelsson time to rest and properly heal while giving some other players that are skilled, healthy, fully-rested and hungry a opportunity that is well deserved. Had he done this, Samuelsson would have been available for the Finals against Boston. Had he done this, Vancouver’s chances would have been much improved!

    Anyways, isn’t that one of the reasons why we picked up Samuelsson? His playoff experience? We didn’t need him playing against Nashville and he showed that he couldn’t play against Nashville. We didn’t need his experience in the series prior to the WCF, we have lots of players with that kind of experience. The experience needed was his STANLEY CUP FINALS experience, THAT is where we needed Samuelsson.

    I would have really appreciated a healthy Samuelsson on and off the ice during our Finals against Boston.

    Lastly and these points have been in no particular order, I think his separate standards for the keeper situation was a key factor in our loss to Boston. Everyone knows that Loungo has some “confidence” issues and he has proven this in the past and there is a good probability it could happen again. After Lou let in the first 4 goals, why didn’t he take him out? What is the point? The way the game was going, Boston looked like they would score some more (I’m not blaming Lou for all the goals, I think Lou and team are equally at fault). Bringing in Cory might have sparked the Canucks, in the past, they played well with Cory between the pipes. Cory might have been the difference to at least stop the bleeding, still give our team some respect and confidence. It doesn’t matter what people say about the final outcome, it’s very close to humiliation and this doesn’t favor Vancouver in the slightest, not with our history.

    5th goal, 6th goal, 7th goal… are you kidding me? I can’t believe I lasted until the 8th. How is this not going to effect Lou? I wonder if he still thought it was a good idea to tell the coach to let him play after the 5th goal, 6th goal,..etc. How the hell could AV let Lou coach himself? AV should have mentioned something to Lou after the 3rd goal or even taken him out. The game was still within reach and we didn’t have to worry about throwing kindling on the little embers in Lou’s head. Instead, AV lets Lou coach and the final score is 8-1, there is no way that this didn’t effect his play in the rest of the series. Next game… and that little ripple became a wave.

    Why not let Cory take over for Lou and give the Canucks a chance to win, Lou wasn’t. If he let in 4 goals, no one would blame him and the B’s confidence might not have been so high with Lou. Think how different things would be if he had played great! We would have walked out of the game with a slightly respectable 4 – 1 loss, the rest of the team would have been sparked and they might have started to produce, and AV would have had the option to start Cory or bring him in quicker at least for another game. Cory shouldn’t have to, but he could have proven that AV could count on him.

    I didn’t know Cory would be playing in another game, but I was thinking… Cory is from Boston and I could remember him mentioning getting tickets for his family and friends there, why not let him play in his hometown, isn’t that every players dream? Plenty of moments the game was out of reach.

    At the very worst, nobody would have blamed him for letting in 4 goals… he’s the back up and our starter didn’t do better. If he played great, Cory’s trade value would have increased accordingly! What team wouldn’t be interested in a proven regular season goalie who’s stats will also include SCF experience where he played great!. The upside here completely outweighs any reasons/excuses for not pulling Lou.

    How could AV not make the right call here and let Lou decide to coach himself? This ‘pampering’ is not benefitting Lou, the team, the organization or the fans!

    These are my 3 reasons for getting rid of AV and I have more, I’m sure others have their own reasons too…but this is long enough (apologies). I just think that if Lou didn’t make these decisions or was able to be a little less stubborn/arrogant, the outcome could have been different in the Finals. He was given the right tools to work with and he decided to use some and ignore others, he made some questionable calls…but all in all, he just couldn’t deliver.

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    • nuckluck
      June 18, 2011

      edit: meant to say AV not Lou in the final paragraph.

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