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.
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.Tags: Canucks, Off-Season Blues, Pass it to Bulis, Round 5's Opponent is Crippling Depression, Third Man In, When Ballard is your seventh defenseman life is actually not that good