And so it ends. Exactly one year to the day that the Canucks had their season ended in Game 6 of the second round, the Blackhawks dispatched them once more. It was different this time though. While the Canucks came out of last year’s series feeling they’d let one slip away from them, there were no questions about it in this series: the better team won, and Vancouver got spanked. They lost all three games on home ice in embarrassing fashion, and outside of their dominating performance in Game 1, never looked like they even had a chance.
Their faults were clear throughout the first round. Really, we should have all seen it coming: questionable defensive depth, up-and-down goaltending, a disappearing second line, and most damning, a lethal combination of poor penalty-killing and a lack of discipline. All of this was apparent against Los Angeles. But there was something about the way they came back and beat the Kings that was just so intoxicating, it made me believe they could overcome these issues. It’s foolish to think, but it’s part of being a fan.
Unfortunately the Blackhawks, no matter how many warts they may have shown in their own first round series, are not the Kings. They have a deeper offense and better high-end defensemen. Still, there was reason to believe they could be beaten. Though their young core were all one year older, they got weaker on the back-end between last year’s series and now. They lost Cam Barker, then lost their Barker replacement. This time around, Brent Sopel would be a regular. The Canucks lost Willie Mitchell, sure, but they had a top-end goalie who was out for blood. Last year was a battle, but this…this was war. It didn’t matter in the end. Whatever adjustments the team made over the past season were all for nought. This was war. And war? War never changes.
Now come the questions. Is Roberto Luongo overrated? The obvious answer is yes, but I don’t think so. He has a reputation as one of the league’s top goalies, a reputation he has not lived up to these past two seasons. But it is a reputation he earned. For five months in the winter of 2007, he was without question the single best goaltender on the planet. It is a shame his skills were wasted on a team that had absolutely no offensive ability, and a cruel irony that he failed to live up to expectations in a year when the Canucks could finally out-score their problems. Gold medal aside, this has been a very rough year for Luongo. Just like in the regular season, there were moments of brilliance in his playoff performance this year, but too often they were bookended by nervous, shaky and at times awful play.
When he’s on his game, he’s still one of, if not the best. But it’s becoming increasingly easy to rattle him, and no one throws him off his game better than the Blackhawks. I don’t buy the hype that “Dustin Byfuglien is in his head”, but the crease presence of the Blackhawks does get him to stop focusing on stopping pucks and start looking to the refs for interference calls. The ref will help, or he won’t — looking to him while the puck is in play is only going to break your focus. As much as the Canucks need to be better at keeping the traffic away from out front, this practice of his needs to stop now for him to take this team to the next level. Vancouver doesn’t have a Chris Pronger, or a Drew Doughty, or a Duncan Keith. They don’t have a true #1 defenseman. But when you sink that much money into goaltending, you’re not supposed to need one.
It is too easy to pin it all on the goaltender though, when this team’s failings lie primarily on the defense. It doesn’t even matter that they lost Game 6, honestly. Without Alex Edler they would never have had a sniff at taking #7. This is a team that was supposed to have eight or nine NHL quality defensemen on the back-end, but between injuries (Mitchell, Rome, Lukowich, Baumgartner) and attitudes (Mathieu Schneider) that number was reduced considerably by the time the season was on the line. Assume for a moment that the Canucks had managed to force Game 7. While you’re at it, imagine if you will that Sami Salo could not play through his…well, whatever was wrong with his balls. Without Edler and without Salo, the Canucks would have been forced to dress a defense corps of Christian Ehrhoff, Shane O’Brien, Kevin Bieksa, Andrew Alberts, Lawrence Nycholat and Evan Oberg. Atrocious.
There are two major issues with the D, and they compound each other when taken together. The group lacks mobility. This is in part because some of them (Bieksa, O’Brien) have never been fleet of foot, but also because the keystones of the defense are getting older and losing a step. Mattias Ohlund was already jettisoned for this reason, and Salo and Mitchell (were he available) are not much faster. The rest of the blame falls on drafting. Montreal too has faced terrible injuries on defense in these playoffs, but they’ve pulled through because they have players like P.K. Subban waiting in the wings. Evan Oberg is the closest thing the Canucks have to that at the moment, and he is still years away from being a solid contributor — assuming he ever gets there.
It gets even more painful to consider that Subban could just as easily be a Canuck right now. Vancouver had the chance to take him in the 2007 draft, but instead selected Taylor Ellington at 33rd overall, allowing Subban to fall 10 spots to the Habs. Ironically, Ellington is the slowest of all Vancouver’s defensive prospects at the moment, with no offensive game to speak of. The sad fact is that the defense is getting older and slower, and there is nothing coming to plug the holes.
Kyle Wellwood was the series MVP for Vancouver. That says all you need to know about the forwards. Keith and Seabrook shut down the Sedins completely, while Mason Raymond struggled to carry the second line as Ryan Kesler failed to battle through a shoulder injury. There are plenty of excuses for the team’s failings up front, but in the end they’re just that: excuses. They couldn’t cut it when the pressure was on, losing their composure in every home game in the series.
Alain Vigneault must bear some, if not most of the responsibility. I love Alain as a personality, especially after enduring years of Marc Crawford, but he may need to be fired. You simply can not be thoroughly out-coached by Joel Quenneville two years in a row. Quenneville is no Scotty Bowman, the fans in Colorado and St. Louis will be quick to tell you that. But after getting blown out in Game 1, he made the proper adjustments. Can Vigneault say the same? He couldn’t seem to make even the most glaring adjustments. Bieksa and Pavol Demitra remained on the point of the first unit powerplay no matter how terrible they were. This proved to be particularly costly in Game 6. The NHL even made a “History” commercial about it: What if Pavol Demitra had a brain?
Most shocking of all, Michael Grabner did not play on the speed line with Raymond and Kesler once. When you look at the way the Hawks struggled to contain their speed, it is such an obvious correction, but it never happened. Grabner was even scratched in this series in favour of Tanner Glass and his “toughness”. In the game in question, the team fell apart. They showed no discipline, a complete lack of leadership, and basically gave away the series with penalties. Vigneault simply could not control his team.
Changes need to be made. Big changes, especially on defense. But this team is not that far away. The Canucks have never had forward depth like they currently enjoy, and it’s been quite a while since they had young players showing such promise. This is still a relatively young team that will get younger next year, and they’re currently set up to contend for the next half decade at least. Tough as they may be to find right now, there are a lot of positives to be taken out of this season. Overhauling the defense in one summer is a lot to ask, but it’s what Mike Gillis must do. We shall see if he has what it takes.