"We'll get 'em next year!"
Those were the words on the lips of many a fan after the Vancouver Canucks' heartbreaking game 7 loss to Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. When a team gets that close, it's clear that it has all the tools it needs to capture the big prize—it just needs the hockey gods to smile.
As it turns out, those hockey gods were even less gracious in 2012, sending the Canucks packing in the first round with just one playoff win.
Is this the beginning of the end? Have the Canucks missed out on their golden opportunity to go all the way?
Here are six reasons why this could be the case.
In the salary-cap era of the NHL, past performance is not an indication of future performance.
That means 12 of the NHL's 30 teams have appeared in the Final in the past seven years.
In the age of parity, there is not a lot to choose between one team and the next. As we saw in this year's upset-riddled playoffs, a little confidence and some puck luck can go a long way towards determining the outcome of a seven-game series.
They look eternally boyish, but Daniel and Henrik Sedin will turn 32 in September. Certainly, today's well-conditioned NHLers can play longer than their counterparts from years gone by, but there comes a time when every player becomes more injury-prone and starts to lose a step.
Skating has never been the twins' strong suit. Their game is based more on smarts than on speed, and they're in great shape, but even a small slip in mobility could prove problematic down the road.
Henrik's production has dropped for the past two years since his 112-point Art Ross trophy season in 2009-10. Daniel's production also dropped significantly after his own 104-point Art Ross year in 2010-11. Last season marked the first time since 2007-08 that both twins finished with less than a point a game.
For the Canucks to contend, they need their top line to be on par with the best in the league. The Sedins are key to Vancouver's success, but it's hard to know how much longer they can maintain their current level of play.
During the 2010-11 regular season and Stanley Cup run, Ryan Kesler was the player who stepped in when the Sedins faltered.
After a career-high 41 goal regular season which also featured enough strong defensive play to win the Selke trophy, Kesler was the difference-maker in the Canucks' second-round series against Nashville. He tore his labrum during the last game of the conference final against San Jose, a fact that wasn't revealed until the playoffs were over. He kept playing, but his effectiveness was diminished in the Final against Boston. That might have been the difference in the series.
After his hip surgery, Kesler did not come back strongly during the 2011-12 regular season. He scored just 22 goals and seemed frustrated for much of the year. It was eventually revealed that he'd developed a shoulder problem which would require major surgery.
It's hard to know how Kesler will perform once he returns, but it's certain that the Canucks need him to be the beast he was two years ago if they hope to get back in the Stanley Cup picture.
Once you look past the Canucks' first line, there are plenty of question marks.
The only players that have shown consistent improvement of late have been goaltender Cory Schneider and young defenseman Chris Tanev.
Mason Raymond missed the first two months of the regular season recovering from the broken back he suffered in the Stanley Cup Finals, and struggled to find his form. It's hoped that a full summer of training will bring him back to his 25-goal production level of 2009-10.
Manny Malhotra suffered permanent damage to his eye after getting hit by a puck near the end of the 2010-11 regular season. This has limited his effectiveness as a defensive specialist to very specific situations.
The Canucks are still a very good team and will likely finish near the top of the standings once again, but they'll need to see some of their role players take big steps forward if they hope to contend for the Stanley Cup.
The Canucks' continued interest in Shane Doan is a sure sign that they know they need to get grittier.
Vancouver is a team built on skill, but Boston definitely beat them in the corners in the Stanley Cup Final, and Los Angeles was a bigger, tougher team in this year's playoffs.
Vancouver has a reputation as a team that can be intimidated. Zack Kassian was added last year at the trade deadline with the hope that he could help provide a physical presence. So far, his NHL skills haven't been strong enough to keep him in the lineup on a regular basis.
The Canucks need their existing players to show grit, and they need to add a big body or two if they hope to match up against today's Stanley Cup contenders during the grueling playoff run.
In the first round of the 2010 playoffs, the Canucks had a tough time with the Los Angeles Kings. Despite the 3-vs-6 matchup, the Canucks fell behind 2-1 in their series before rallying to take the series in six games.
In 2012, the Canucks might have been just as good, but the Kings were a lot better. This time, the matchup was 1-vs-8, but that didn't stop Los Angeles from dominating the series in five games before rolling all the way to the Stanley Cup.
The Kings aren't the only Western Conference rival making big changes. Minnesota served noticed that they're a force to be reckoned with when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to their $98 million free-agent contracts this summer. Other teams have also been working to improve without dominating the headlines quite so dramatically.
When the new season starts, we'll start to see who has made the most effective adjustments. If the Canucks aren't also getting better, then they're sliding backwards.
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