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Shout out to James Lynch for commenting on the Canada’s Game, But Not Canada’s Game to Win column a couple weeks back and inspiring this series.
Nine points separate fifth place in the Western Conference and 12th place in the Western Conference and the Vancouver Canucks are smack-dab in the middle of the chaos.
As of right now, Canada’s West Coast representatives are locked into a playoff spot, but having lost to fell chasers Los Angeles last Thursday night before rebounding with a win over the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, let’s just say they’re not making things easy on themselves.
Until last season, making the playoffs was a guarantee in Vancouver. Since the 2004-05 Lockout Season, the Canucks had made the playoffs in six of eight seasons, including reaching the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010-11, losing a heartbreaking series to the Boston Bruins after being up 2-0 and 3-2, only to fall 4-3, dropping Games Six and Seven by a combined score of 9-2.
They made two more playoff appearances after that, losing in the first round both times and entering into the “Luongo Wants Out” period before ultimately missing the playoffs last year. They’re likely to make the playoffs this season, but anyone expecting a Stanley Cup run is probably going to be disappointed. This team just doesn’t have the pieces and quite frankly, it’s going to get worse in the next few years before it gets better.
So how did they get here?
Vancouver failed to recognize that they’re window was closing and opted to keep trying to add parts to a core that wasn’t good enough. That led to bad deals where they either overpaid for players that didn’t work out (Keith Ballard) or held on to guys far too long, ultimately getting minimal return (too many to list).
The shining example in all this, of course, is the Roberto Luongo situation. After winning 30+ games in each of his first six seasons in Vancouver, resulting in five division titles, Luongo took the brunt of the blame for the Stanley Cup Finals loss to Boston and an early playoff exit in 2011-12. During the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, he split time with Cory Schneider and it became apparent that “Bobby Lou” and the Canucks needed to part ways.
So what did they do? Well, they traded Schneider of course, jettisoning the younger half of their tandem to New Jersey for the ninth overall selection in the 2012-13 Entry Draft, where they selected Bo Horvat.
Luongo suffered through five months of the 2013-14 season in Vancouver before mercifully being shipped back to Florida (along with Steven Anthony) for forward Shawn Matthias and goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
Down to Markstrom and Eddie Lack following last season, the Canucks went out in the offseason and signed 34-year-old Ryan Miller to a three-year, $18M deal to become the new No. 1 goalie. It should be noted that the 28-year-old Schneider re-upped in New Jersey for the same per-year dollar figure as Miller is currently making in Vancouver and took over the No. 1 duties in “The Swamp” from the legendary Martin Brodeur this season.
While there are some young players with upside on the roster, the core of the Canucks is aging. The Sedins, Kevin Bieksa, Chris Higgins, and Alex Burrows are all in their 30s and seeing their production decline and there isn’t young talent ready to step up and pick up the slack.
They either traded away (Michael Grabner, Cody Hodgson) or missed (Patrick White, Jordan Schroeder) on each of their first-round selections between 2006 and 2009 and of the players selected since then, only Horvat has risen to become a regular with the big club.
As a result, they’re a “bottom half of the draw” playoff team with the 34-year-old Sedin Twins on the books for two more seasons a couple years to wait before the quality youngsters in the system are potentially ready to contribute.
Vancouver feels like a team that needed to make the same hard choices the Calgary Flames made by trading Jarome Iginla. “Iggy” was the heart and soul of that franchise – their captain and leader for the better part of a decade – but he was clearly winding down and getting a first-round pick and two prospects in return helped the Flames quickly regroup and become surprise playoff contenders this season. Iginla was 35 when he was traded to Pittsburgh.
Instead, they’ve kept many of their veteran leaders and tried to make “one last run” at the Stanley Cup, but it hasn’t materialized and won’t for this crop of Canucks. They need to get younger and replace their skilled veterans up front or else this team is going to really struggle in the next few seasons.