It can be tough watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Canucks having already been eliminated. While the games are still entertaining, it’s just not the same without a proverbial horse in the race. Cheering against the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings only gets you so far.
Fortunately for the dedicated Canucks fan, there are three significant former Canucks still in the playoff picture. At the very least, Canucks fans can cheer for the individual success of Willie Mitchell, Taylor Pyatt, and Steve Bernier. I thought it would be worthwhile to look at these three players and see how they got to where they are and how they have found a place with their respective teams where, perhaps, they were not able to on the Canucks.
Mitchell played with the Canucks for 4 seasons and played a key shutdown role. Unfortunately, in the final season of his 4-year contract, he suffered a concussion on an ugly hit by Evgeni Malkin that caused him to miss the final half of the regular season and all of the playoffs. His recovery seemed uncertain even through the offseason and the Canucks were not willing to offer him more than a one-year contract.
Instead, the Canucks moved ahead with signing free agent Dan Hamhuis and trading for Keith Ballard. Mitchell moved on to the Los Angeles Kings, who were willing to take a chance that he would return to form after his concussion and gave him a two-year deal. This season, the second year of his deal, Mitchell has set a career-high in points with 24 and finished the regular season with 104 shots, eclipsing his previous career high of 88. Mitchell is even getting significant powerplay time with the Kings, as we saw when he scored a powerplay goal in the first round against Vancouver.
Mitchell is averaging nearly 25 minutes per game in the playoffs, while facing the toughest competition among Kings’ defencemen. It’s fair to say that his role would not be anywhere near as large on the Canucks.
Prior to the happy discovery that Alex Burrows, a left-shooting agitator, was the best fit with the Sedins, the prevailing thought was that the twins needed a big, strong, right-shooting power forward on their wing. Pyatt was Dave Nonis’s attempt at filling that need, acquiring him from the Sabres for a fourth-round draft pick.
The expectation created by the signing made it hard to view Pyatt objectively: while he worked with the Sedins for one season, scoring 23 goals in 2006-07, it didn’t last. Pyatt just didn’t quite have hands soft enough to tap in the multiple scoring opportunities the Sedins gave him and he didn’t really play the way fans expected a 6’4″ hockey player should.
2008-09 was a difficult year for Pyatt, on and off the ice. While he struggled offensively, he more importantly had to deal with the tragic loss of his fiance in a car crash. He took a leave of absence from the team, not returning until the playoffs. It was unclear in the following off-season if Pyatt simply wanted a change of scenery or if negotiations simply stalled between him and the Canucks, but he went to free agency and was signed by the Phoenix Coyotes for just $600,000, a significant cut in salary.
Pyatt found his legs in Phoenix, playing a third-line role that seems to fit him better than the top-six expectations did in Vancouver. He was re-signed by the Coyotes after his first season and is now in his third year with the club. Pyatt has 3 goals and 1 assist so far in the playoffs, but his role is mainly defensive: his line starts the bulk of their shifts in the defensive zone, with Pyatt starting just 35.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Bernier was Mike Gillis’s attempt at filling the right-handed power forward spot on the Sedins’ right side, but he ended up with even more expectation placed on him than Pyatt. While he was also acquired from the Sabres, he cost the Canucks two draft picks, a second rounder and a third rounder. In addition, his acquisition occurred just after Mike Gillis had signed Blues’ forward David Backes to an offer sheet and, to a certain extent, Bernier was seen as a “Plan B” to Backes, a comparison that does not shine favorably on Bernier.
To make matters worse, the Blues then signed Bernier to an offer sheet of $2.5 million, well above what the Canucks wanted to pay him. Gillis matched the offer sheet, resulting in a larger cap hit and more expectations for what role Bernier would play on the team. Unfortunately, it wasn’t slated to be on the top line with the Sedins. Bernier lacked finish and ended up playing on the third line. That would have been fine if there weren’t expectations of him being a top-six power forward on the Canucks.
Unfortunately, Bernier just didn’t pan out and was traded to the Florida Panthers in the Keith Ballard deal. He didn’t seem to fit with the Panthers either, even to the point of being put on waivers and going unclaimed. The Panthers eventually chose not to re-sign him and Bernier couldn’t find a team willing to sign him. Bernier eventually signed a deal with New Jersey’s AHL affiliate, the Albany Devils, and later signed a two-way deal with New Jersey.
Bernier has found a fit on the Devils’ bottom-six, averaging just under 11 minutes per game in the playoffs with 4 points. He is also third on the Devils in hits with 42 in 16 postseason games, something he did do well for the Canucks. In all honesty, if Bernier had been brought in as a third or fourth-liner, with the contract and expectations that role carries with it, he would have been just fine with the Canucks.
Or maybe not. He still gets tossed around awfully easily.Coyotes, Kings, playoffs, Rangers, Steve Bernier, Taylor Pyatt, Willie Mitchell