Vancouver Canucks: 7 Keys to Success for Next Season and Beyond
After following up their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy with a disappointing first-round playoff exit, the time has come from some inward reflection for the Vancouver Canucks.
With the pain of an underachieving postseason starting to fade, the organization, specifically the ownership group, has had plenty of time to contemplate where the team will go from here.
With head coach Alain Vigneault absent from Mike Gillis' postseason press conference, there has been growing speculation that the bench boss could be on his way out of town. Gillis himself could be asked to move on by ownership as well when he eventually meets with them to atone for the results of the year.
Both Gillis and Vigneault have one year remaining on their current contracts.
Should one or both leave the team, it would mark a drastic change of direction for the club—a team that was one game away from a championship a mere season ago.
Whether firing people is the right course of action or just a knee-jerk reaction is irrelevant for now. It's simply an early indication of the club's future and the measure of change that fans will start to see as the playoffs end and the offseason begins.
For a team that had such high expectations heading into the playoffs, expect some form of change this summer. It could be minor tweaks, it could be major deals.
Here are seven keys to success for Vancouver heading into the 2012-2013 season.
Learn from Their Mistakes
In order to come up with a plan for the future, the Canucks' management must first analyze what went wrong with its most recent season and fix those issues.
There are a number of reasons why Vancouver fizzled out against the Los Angeles Kings in a series in which they were badly outplayed. The first one is simple: Their best player was out for the first three games.
Daniel Sedin, the victim of a vicious elbow by Chicago Blackhawks defender Duncan Keith, was unfortunately unable to shake the cobwebs in time to save his team's season. Alain Vigneault was forced to try a variety of first-line combinations that created a trickle-down effect throughout the entire roster.
With a musical chairs-like top six, the team went in trying to figure out its chemistry and identity on the fly and the Kings took full advantage of the Canucks' offensive woes.
However, don't be naive in thinking that this was the only reason for the team's playoff exit.
In his postseason press conference, Gillis alluded to his team peaking in January following a very emotional and high-octane rematch of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins. And he's right.
Following that game, the team's power play was never the same, and it struggled to score goals with any kind of consistency. The team's philosophy changed, and it suddenly became a good idea to dump pucks in on goal from anywhere and crash for rebounds rather than sticking to the cycling, control style of play that the team's been so successful with.
The negative shock waves extended past the team's game and into individual performances as well. The Sedin twins were very marginal for the second half of the season and, of course, Ryan Kesler was just a shadow of himself, too. Kesler finished the season without a goal in his last 17 games.
In the end, it all culminated into a jumble of problems that was exposed in a five-game series. Vancouver's special teams were a mess, and its best players were not their best players.
Now, that's the good news. The bad news, would have been if this team poured its heart and soul onto the ice, defied the odds and played unbelievably well to capture a second straight Presidents' Trophy before being outbattled by a team that was simply better than it was.
Those are the teams that get blown up. What this team needs is a few minor changes and to realize how they got here and how to stick to that for 82 games.
Sure, the Canucks finished with a nice little win streak, before getting some help in the Eastern Conference to snag their second straight league-best season. But they did it by playing sloppy, underwhelming hockey that gave them a false sense of security.
Had it not been for two phenomenal goaltending performances by both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, this team wouldn't have made it to 45 wins this year, much less a Presidents' Trophy.
So, take solace in that fact. This team has and can play much better, and perhaps all that's needed is a minor tweak behind the bench to help stir the fire beneath the cauldron.
Fire the Coach
That leads me into my next point, and what must become the team's first major change of the summer. It pains me to say it but coach Alain Vigneault has to go.
There are a number of risks that come with making a coaching change, especially when a team is in its Stanley Cup window like Vancouver is, but that doesn't alter what should be the team's first course of action.
Assuming that GM Mike Gillis is extended by the club, the first problem that he would have to deal with is finding a quality replacement that's compatible with the style of play employed by the team.
With speculation growing that bench bosses Todd McLellan and Joel Quenneville could both be on the move from their current teams, he would have a couple of fine candidates right there. However, if their teams should decide to keep them, then the options start to get narrow rather quickly, with the most obvious choice being the Canucks' AHL affiliate coach, Craig MacTavish.
MacTavish has had some success at the National Hockey League level, most noticeably with the Edmonton Oilers where he made an improbable run to the Cup Finals in 2006. Still, he may not be an ideal candidate for a team that's knocking on the door, as it's been quite a while since he's coached at an elite level.
The possibility that Mike Gillis will extend coach Alain Vigneault and keep him around is still there, too, and it would make sense on a couple of levels. Not only does he have a Finals appearance and two Presidents' Trophies under his belt but he's also the most successful coach in Vancouver history and has led the team to the playoffs in five out of the six years that he's been here.
Simply put, it's the way the team's play deteriorated for half a season, on a trajectory that Vigneault seemingly had no control over.
The risk that his message has become stale, and his voice silent to his players is the reason he must go. Don't forget, it's always easier to change the coach than change the core.
Cut the Players Who Aren't Part of the Future
For me, one of the hardest parts of watching the first-round exit this year was seeing Sami Salo after the team was eliminated in Game 5. He was visibly shaken, and you could tell that his reaction was more than that of just disappointment.
Many have speculated that this was Salo's last season in Vancouver, and while he still has a couple of years left in him at this level and he'll be of value to a contending team this summer, it's always hard to see a veteran go.
Salo first came to the Canucks in a trade with Ottawa in 2002, and he's since spent nine seasons in a Vancouver jersey.
The oft-injured blueliner has at times been the brunt of the jokes here in Vancouver in relation to how often he gets injured, but the truth is he's been one of the team's most dependable players when healthy. And it will be hard to see him go if he doesn't receive a new contract over the summer.
But this is business, and part of that includes making hard decisions. Vancouver has a handful of aging players that are holding down roster spots that should be going to younger players that can bring more energy and sand paper to the lineup.
Look no further than Philadelphia this offseason to see how important it is to continue to bring fresh, young bodies into the lineup. The league has slowly become dominated by younger players, and it's time that this team started to trend in the right direction.
This summer, the Canucks have to make decisions on the future of the following players, all without contracts heading into next season:
- Sammy Pahlsson, Unrestricted Free Agent, $2.65M cap hit
- Mason Raymond, Restricted Free Agent, $2.55M
- Byron Bitz, UFA, $700,000
- Aaron Volpatti, UFA, $612,500
- Dale Weise, RFA, $605,000
- Andrew Ebbett, UFA, $525,000
- Aaron Rome, UFA, $750,000
- Marc-Andre Gragnani, RFA, $550,000
- Sami Salo, UFA, $2M
- Cory Schneider, RFA, $900,000
From the players on that list, Vancouver needs to bring back only five. Byron Bitz, Aaron Volpatti, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrew Ebbet can all straddle the NHL and AHL on either two-way contracts or through becoming frequent healthy scratches. Bitz, Volpatti and Ebbett are all useful depth players, while Gragnani could become a good offensive blueliner with some seasoning in the AHL.
The fifth player is, of course, Cory Schneider, the man of the hour in Vancouver and next year's starting goaltender.
Mason Raymond should not be brought back as he's too inconsistent, unreliable and undeserving of a top-six roster spot. Salo, as previously mentioned, just isn't part of the future here anymore, and Rome's spot will be going to Chris Tanev next season.
As for Sammy Pahlsson, he was a cheap but failed experiment, and the team should look to a younger player to assume the role of the third-line center next year.
Get Younger and Bigger
When news first broke of Cody Hodgson's trade to the Buffalo Sabres for power forward Zack Kassian, fans were divided on the move as some lamented the loss of a young, stud contributor in Hodgson for an unknown prospect mere months before the playoffs began.
"When something isn't broken, don't fix it" was the prevalent logic of the day, and the reason why the move baffled and eventually frustrated some fans as it became clear that Kassian needed more time to develop.
It wasn't until Mike Gillis finally touched on the subject at the end of the year, perhaps out of exasperation, that fans finally realized why the popular forward was first traded. As it turns out, it seems like the relationship between the team and player was poor and beyond repair, causing Gillis to build up his value before dealing him for a player with size.
While we won't know who "won" the trade until these players have had a chance to mature and establish themselves, it should be noted that Kassian has a lot of offensive upside and he could become an integral part of this team down the road.
If he can develop and refine his game, becoming the bull in a china shop that he was in juniors, then the Canucks will have a physical, offensive player they can use up and down their roster for years to come.
In the meantime, the team has to begin looking to their farm system for young players to bring up and use in an effort to get younger, and there are several who will most definitely get an opportunity to earn roster spots this fall.
Chicago Wolves Statistics:
C: Jordan Schroeder, 76 games, 21 goals, 23 assists, 44 points
RW: Mark Mancari, 69 games, 30 goals, 28 assists, 58 points
LW: Bill Sweatt, 71 games, 16 goals, 18 assists, 34 points
D: Kevin Connauton, 73 games, 13 goals, 20 assists, 33 points
LW/RW: Nicklas Jensen, 6 games, 4 goals, 0 assists, 4 points
Mike Gillis has endorsed 2009 first-round pick Jordan Schroeder on numerous occasions, maintaining that he's close to being ready to make the jump up to the NHL. The speedy forward enjoyed a very strong second half to the year, and has become a more complete player for the Wolves, killing penalties and improving his faceoff numbers this past season.
While his small stature arouses questions about his effectiveness in the league, it doesn't change the fact that he's probably the most deserving and closest prospect Vancouver has to making the team next year. He should be a shoo-in to take Sammy Pahlsson's spot next year.
Then there's Nicklas Jensen, Vancouver's 2011 first-round pick from Denmark. Jensen is coming off two strong seasons for the Oshawa Generals, where he recently posted 25 goals and 33 assists in 57 games.
After concluding his junior season, he went to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for six games, recording an impressive four goals. He has NHL size and skill, and looks to be a bright piece of the future in Vancouver. The question is, how near in the future? Some believe that Jensen is a dark horse to make the roster next year, and replace a struggling forward like Mason Raymond.
Both Mark Mancari and Kevin Connauton are long shots to make the roster, as Connauton still needs time to round out his game, while Mancari has not been able to establish his offensive game at an NHL level.
It's also worth mentioning that Chris Tanev, a player that's been up and down between the Canucks and Wolves for the past two seasons has earned a starting spot next season, likely ushering journeyman player Aaron Rome out of town.
Trade the Elephant out of the Room
The Canucks' situation in goal has become well documented over the past two seasons, so much so that it's no longer just a Vancouver problem. The crease has become quite crowded, and either Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo will be leaving.
No matter which player is shown the door this summer, the ripple effect is going to be felt by other teams, too, as several clubs will certainly be interested in either netminder.
If fans want to know which player will be available this summer, look no further than the team's decision to keep franchise starter Roberto Luongo on the bench for a crucial Game 4 scenario, opting to ride their younger, hotter goaltender, Cory Schneider.
The move signified a changing of the guard, as the team seemingly gave their nod of approval to the young rising star from Massachusetts over their aging veteran.
After being eliminated, it came as no surprise to anyone to hear that Luongo agreed to waive his no-trade clause this summer and accept a trade out of Vancouver, which would mark the end of his six-year tenure in the market.
Still, moving his mammoth-sized contract won't be an easy task, and the team would get tenfold more for a trade involving Schneider than it will with Roberto Luongo. The reward here will likely be freeing up cap space and handing over the reins to the new No. 1 rather than bringing in a game-changing forward.
Teams like Toronto, Chicago and Tampa Bay have been linked to Luongo's name since the trade rumor mill hit full swing, with the Leafs being the most plausible destination. A deal with Toronto would likely see the Canucks taking a contract back in return, to go with a young prospect or high draft pick as well.
No matter how this turns out, though, the most important thing will be resolving what has become a lengthy distraction and a polarizing issue within the organization and among its fans.
The team has gone past the point of no return, with their lack of faith in their No. 1 clearly on display. It's time to move on.
Be Active When Free Agency Opens
July 1st will be a red-letter date for many teams around the National Hockey League.
Teams will be looking to upgrade their roster by landing a name or impact player, and Vancouver should enter the day looking to be active, with a top-six forward and top-four defender leading off its wish list.
Already, teams like the Detroit Red Wings have gone on record as saying that they'll be aggressive at the start of free agency, as the queue for the top players begins to form.
One man who should be at the top of the Canucks list is New York Islanders winger P.A. Parenteau, assuming he's still available at the start of July.
Parenteau is a playmaking winger, and someone who would help stabilize the second line, playing with Ryan Kesler and David Booth. He posted 18 goals and 49 assists in 80 games.
With two shoot-first players that like to play off the rush already in place, having a pass-first forward is essential to that line's success next season.
Other forwards that could be of interest to Vancouver if they remain available are: David Jones, Jiri Hudler, Gregory Campbell, Adam Burish or Torrey Mitchell. Jones and Hudler would provide some skill on the wings should nothing else become available, while Campbell, Burish and Mitchell could provide upgrades on the third and fourth lines.
On defense, Vancouver would be doing well to land a top-two defender that could help lead the defensive corps. The problem with that wish is the fact that there's only one available, and 29 other teams want him.
However, Dennis Wideman could make it to free agency this summer, as could Matt Carle out of Philadelphia; both are dependable shut-down defenders on their respective teams this year.
The trade option is also there.
Keith Ballard's trade value has never been lower; however, there are teams with money to spend and holes in their defense that could afford to take a chance on the puck-moving defender, allowing Vancouver to free up more cap space in a salary dump.
Perhaps what the team needs is to abandon their buzz phrase of "hometown discount" and just reach deeper into their pockets then everyone else for a star like Parise.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how the team shapes up over the summer, with moves and additions an absolute certainty at this point.
Refocus and Work Hard for 82 Games
After a traditionally slow start to the season in October, the Canucks went on a nice run over November and December, raising fans' expectations for a Finals appearance once again. Even after the team stalled, following its January meeting with Boston and the subsequent weeks that ensued, the team preached patience and faith, and the notion that one-goal games were good.
To the the Canucks' credit, they did manage to hang around a lot when they had no business remaining in games, only to squeak out the win in extra time. Is it a great way to enter into the playoffs, though? I think that question answered itself.
It's no secret anymore that this team is judged by its playoff performance, with many fans wishing there was a fast-forward button to April during the dog days of the season. However, if there's one thing that this postseason proved it's that there are no switches when it comes to elevating play during the big show.
After months of being told not to worry, that this team was biding its time and gearing up for playoff hockey, it became hard not to believe that this was the case. But the proof is in the facts, and the truth is that this team did not look good for a large portion of the season and did nothing to correct it before the end of the 82-game schedule..
Was this team tired? Sure. Was this team complacent, playing in a weak division where making the playoffs has become a foregone conclusion? Absolutely. But that's not an excuse.
Starting next season, this team has to recommit to "proving themselves" or finding motivation to put in a full effort during every game. Their stars have to stop thinking of themselves as stars, and return to playing a blue-chip kind of game that includes getting their work boots dirty and proving their "elite" status among their peers. (I'm looking at you, Ryan Kesler.)
With a long summer for the team to refocus, get healthy and enter into normal offseason workouts and routines, there will be no acceptable excuses. Its stars have to be its best players once again.
This team has to play with urgency and with a chip on their shoulder. The clock is still ticking on Vancouver's Cup chances.