As injuries have piled up for the Vancouver Canucks and their depth has whittled itself down to its single reducible core, what remains is the group that has been here the longest, suffered the most, and is most readily associated with the blue, green and white of the Vancouver Canucks zeitgeist.
And isn’t that the way it should be? The way you would write it if you had to sit down and plot out an epic redemption story?
Longtime franchise players finally delivering on a Championship victory?
(Insert Dirk Nowitzki reference here.)
After all the bolstering done to this core in the offseason (Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini, Victor Oreskovich), and the additions made at the trade deadline (Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre), it almost feels as if the support structure has stepped to the sidelines and presented the core with the spotlight all to itself.
(Throw in the free-agent signing of Mikeal Samuelsson as well; added two offseasons ago for his Stanley Cup experience, he’s been injured and out of action since Game 5 of the Nashville series.)
With Hamhuis and Ballard out of the lineup completely (each for drastically different reasons), Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler are the undisputed top two blue-liners (even though they’re paired separately); both are homegrown Vancouver Canucks draft picks.
And with an inert and limping forward core, the onus of applying pressure has fallen squarely (as it should) onto the shoulders of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler. Again, all homegrown and developed Canucks draft picks (Burrows was never drafted, but signed with the team after clawing his way up from the ECHL to the AHL).
To be sure, Higgins, Lapierre, Torres and Malhotra are not the expected or demanded sources of offense and creativity on this team. But they’re also no longer difference makers or required difference makers—instead, they’re sources of quality minutes, faceoff wins and timely penalty kills. (And yes, whimsically and poetically and cosmically, two game-winning goals.)
But the onus to produce and be a difference-maker is not on them, and nor should it be.
While all that they do is incredibly important and vital to victory, the players this team needs to step up now in order to win—to vault over the wall in front of them—is the core of superstars that this organization has drafted, developed and turned from boys into men.
And how sweet will it be if it happens?
They’ve been pieced together for the better part of a decade, and their trials and tribulations are well documented.
The Sedin’s were messiahs and then busts. Then useless. And then ascendant, dominant, over-valued and under-valued. Then stalwarts—Art Ross winners. But still “soft,” and not respected.
Kesler had legs and hands that moved faster than his brain—along with some of the most spectacularly useless tunnel vision ever seen in a professional sport. Give him the puck at any point during his first two seasons and it was like watching a slight and scrawny pit-bull chasing a beam of light up the ice to no effect whatsoever.
Now he’s a 41-goal scorer, the front-runner for the Selke trophy and arguably the next captain of Team USA.
If only for the sake of brevity, we won’t explore the various nuances of the rest—Burrows (a once seeming career ECHL player), Bieksa (a “bonehead,” traded 27 times during the offseason), Salo (injured for 73 percent of his career), Luongo (there isn’t enough Internet to explore it)—but they’ve all been equally maligned and left for dead at various times of their careers in Vancouver.
And that’s the key: “in Vancouver.”
They’ve each survived this city and this market; while most players go through ups and downs and reformations during their careers, the core of this Canucks team has done it without having to uproot and leave for the much clichéd “refreshing change of scenery.”
They’ve weathered their respective storms; each re-upped with the team for less than market value.
Throw in their commitments to one of the most demanding charity and community schedules in the league and you have, despite the prevailing narrative of them as villains, an otherwise extremely likeable bunch of unlikely heroes. Dare we say underdogs, or maybe more accurately, once-underdogs, now status-in-question-dogs.
And that’s what makes this team's potential for a Stanley Cup victory on Wednesday night all the more intriguing.
While they were augmented heavily in the offseason and at the trade deadline, it still comes down to this core, and this core alone—and its ability to overcome all of its various nagging and serious injuries.
No recent big-name addition to this team will skate during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Rogers Arena—instead, it will be the muckers and grinders and the “stars” who have formed the nucleus of the organization and its future for the better part of 10 years and are finally starting to blossom.
Whether they reach full bloom or not is the only thing left in question.
In Hollywood, emotionally fulfilling sports scripts are loaded with shades of loyalty, humility and redemption ripped from the clutches of near-tragedy: So close to death, so close to the edge of the cliff, written off and left for dead, and then the heroic upper-cut. Victory from a place previously unseen.
The Bruins have their own script, of course, and it's a good one, no doubt about it. But this Canucks one is loaded for bare: If they lose, they’ll be drawn and quartered and humiliated. Not just in Vancouver, but continent wide, it's already happening.
But if they win, it will be ten years of commitment, perseverance, development and loyalty finally reaching its maximum pay-off—and it will be had on home ice, at the tail end of a hard, physical series full of controversy, injuries, and an evil-versus-good narrative, where manhood's were questioned, entire careers thrown into jeopardy, and the integrity of the entire professional sport put on, dare we say it, thin-ice.
It all dies on the sword Wednesday night, and to steal a quote from Bob Cole, “In the world of sports, can there possibly be anything better?”
Without a doubt, there cannot.