Stanley Cup Finals 2011: After 40 Years, Vancouver Canucks Look Ready for Title

Mac DCorrespondent IJune 1, 2011

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 24:  NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and Captain Henrik Sedin #33 of the Vancouver Canucks pose with the Clarence Campbell Bowl after the Vancouver Canucks defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-2 in double-overtime in Game Five to win the Western Conference Finals series 4-1 during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Arena on May 24, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Bieksa got the game-winning goal in the second overtime to win the series 4-1.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

This is the 40th anniversary for the Vancouver Canucks.

Like many teams, there have been the highs and lows, but for the Canucks the highs do not include a Stanley Cup.

In 1982 against the Islanders dynasty, they were swept 4-0. In 1994 in one of the most exciting Stanley Cup Finals, they lost 4-3 to the Rangers.

Now 40 years have come and almost gone and this year looks like the year more than any other before.

For the second time in as many years the Canucks bowed out of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions the Chicago Blackhawks.

Injuries on defence and lack of depth on the bottom six were the areas of concern that needed to be addressed in the offseason.

On June 25th, the Canucks started to address those needs by trading forwards Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and a first round pick to the Florida Panthers for defenceman Keith Ballard and forward Victor Oreshkovich. Bernier was eventually placed on waivers and Grabner didn’t make the team out of training camp (Islanders claimed him and 34 goals later made Florida look even worse).

On July 1st, the Canucks signed defenceman Dan Hamhuis to a six-year, $27 million contract. This gave the Canucks the defence it needed, and at the time it looked like Kevin Bieksa was to be shipped out due to salary cap restrictions (more on that later).

To help beef up their bottom six, the Canucks signed centre Manny Malhotra and winger Raffi Torres. This greatly bolstered the Canucks line-up from a season ago, giving them a defence full of depth and two experienced bottom six forwards.

To go with this excitement and to celebrate their 40th year in the league, the Canucks organization did a lot off the ice.

The first thing came when the lease of General Motors expired ending the Arenas name as General Motors Place and changing it for the next 10 years to Rogers Arena.

Next came when the Canucks named Henrik Sedin their 13th captain, taking over for Roberto Luongo in their season opener on October 9th. 

This year, the Canucks introduced a Ring of Honour (write-ups by Canucks.com);

October 26th Orland Kurtenbach – “Kurtenbach played for the Western Hockey League Canucks in the late 1950s before beginning his 13 year NHL career. He concluded his career in Vancouver as the Canucks captain for their first four seasons and later went on to be Vancouver’s Head Coach for two seasons.”

November 24th Kirk McLean – “Kirk McLean played over 10 seasons in a Canucks uniform from 1987-88 to 1997-98 setting regular season and playoff franchise records for games played, wins and shutouts. Revered for his contributions during the Canucks 1994 playoff run, McLean posted 15 wins and four shutouts through 24 games.”

January 24th Thomas Gradin – “One of Vancouver’s first European-born players, Gradin played eight of his nine NHL seasons in a Canucks uniform from 1978.79 to 1985.86. He finished second in scoring in his rookie season, recording 51 points (20-31-51) in 76 regular season games.”

March 14th Harold Snepsts – “Snepsts wore a Canucks uniform for 12 seasons from 1974-75 to 1983-84 and again from 1988-89 to 1989-90. Adored by fans for a hard-working, physical style of play, Snepsts completed his career with Vancouver having recorded the most games played (781) and most penalty minutes (1,446) in franchise history.”

On October 20th, the Canucks, led by Hall of Fame announcer Jim Robson, unveiled their All-Time Canuck team.

On December 11th, the Canucks retired their third jersey in franchise history. No.19 of former captain Markus Naslund was raised to the rafters. Naslund played from 1995-2008 and captained the Canucks from 2000-2008. He leads the franchise in goals (346) and points (756). He was a part of one of the most exciting lines in the 2000's called the West Coast Express. He also won the Lester B Pearson (now called the Ted Lindsey) award as the most valuable player as voted by the players in 2003. He was a First Team All-Star in 2002, 2003 and 2004 while appearing in 5 All-Star games.

On April 7th, the Canucks unveiled a bronze sculpture of former coach Roger Nielson outside of Rogers Arena in his famous pose holding a stick with a white towel on it showing surrender from the 1982 Playoffs, which resulted in fans back home waving towels which spread throughout the league.

Now to how the actual season turned out and the Canucks did not disappoint making the party last all season long.

For the first time in franchise history the Canucks led the league in points resulting in winning the President’s Trophy. Usually when a team wins this, they have a great offence and so-so defence. This year, though, the Canucks racked up leading the league in home record (27-9-5), away record (27-10-4), goals (262), goals against (185), power play percentage (24.3%) and finished second in penalty kill percentage (85.6%). This is the most complete team in franchise history and has to be one of the most dominant single season performances in the post lockout era. For personal franchise achievements, the Canucks set a record in points (117), wins (54) and road wins (27).

To have this much success comes down to the players and the coach.

For coach Alain Vigneault, in his fourth season, used 13 different defenceman, which isn't new for the Canucks and at one time four of their top six defenceman were out injured. This didn't slow down the Canucks; credit it to Vigneault and General Manager Mike Gillis for having players able to fill in when called upon. Their work was noticed off the ice with Vigneault being nominated for the Jack Adams award and Mike Gillis for General Manager of the Year.

For the first time in NHL history, brothers won back-to-back Art Ross Trophy's for leading the league in scoring. Last year Henrik Sedin, without his twin brother Daniel (63 games 29 goals 56 assist 85 points) for 19 games, led the league with 112 points (29 goals 83 assists). This year Daniel led the league with 104 points (41 goals 63 assists) making a strong case for the Hart Trophy. Henrik did not fall off either, leading the league in assists again with 75 (19 goals 94 points). Alex Burrows (26 goals 22 assists 48 points) missed 10 games at the beginning of the season due to offseason shoulder surgery but still played well complementing the Sedins.

The biggest surprise this season came from the emergence of Ryan Kesler in the goal-scoring department.

Known for his defensive play (two time Selke finalist and again this year), Kesler netted 41 goals, an increase of 15 over his previous career best, which was tied with Daniel for fourth best in the league. His 73 points were two off from his career high. Another big difference was his +24, which trounced his best of +8 in 2008-09.

Mikael Samuelsson (18 goals 32 assists 50 points) did not put up the numbers from last season (30 goals 53 points), but that can be attributed to Daniel not missing games this year, reducing ice time for Samuelsson.

After a breakout year last season of 25 goals and 53 points, Mason Raymond (15 goals 24 assists 39 points) vastly regressed, and if he doesn't improve in the playoffs (so far hasn't), next season he may be cut loose with the incoming prospects over the next few seasons ready to step in. 

The biggest upgrade coming into the season aside from the defence was the third line.

Manny Malhotra (11 goals 30 points) was signed to add size (6'2, 220) but also to help win faceoffs (61.7% 2nd in the league) and on the penalty kill (85.6% tied for 2nd). However, he suffered a scary eye injury that had some questioning if he might ever to be able to fully regain vision in his eye. It was a huge blow as he was named an alternate captain by Henrik Sedin after just signing in the offseason. There was some hope when Malhotra returned to the ice in time for the Stanley Cup Finals, but his return is still questionable.

Raffi Torres (15 goals 14 assists 29 points) brought what he was asked for, playing a physical game while chipping in from time to time. However, due to tougher rules on headshots, Torres was suspended for 4 games (2 playoff games).

The final piece of the third line is Jannik Hansen, who set a career high in points (29) and plus minus (13). He fits the role with his other two teammates with his hard-nosed play.

Jeff Tambellini signed as a two-way free agent hoping to make his hometown team and did just that, playing in 62 games while setting career highs in goals (9), points (17) and plus minus (10).

Tanner Glass filled the role as the teams enforcer having 72 penalty minutes and adding 10 points.

At the trade deadline, Gillis brought in Chris Higgins (13 goals 28 points) and Max Lapierre (12 points 80 PIMs). These were great depth pick-ups, and Higgins has been playing on the second line. Many liked the Lapierre trade, which solidified the fourth line, but due to the Malhotra injury, Lapierre was forced into the third line and has not looked out of sorts at all. With the Malhotra injury, the additions of Higgins and Lapierre made Gillis look like a genius.

As noted before, the Canucks defence was hit hard not being able to play their top six until the final game of the regular season.

Christian Ehrhoff (14 goals 36 assists 50 points) was the only defenceman to play in 75+ games and led the team in scoring from the back end while setting career highs in assists (36) and points (50).

Alex Edler (8 goals 25 assists 33 points) only played in 51 games due to having mid-season back surgery, but before that was having a Norris-worthy season. Edler has returned and for the most part has not missed a step.

Kevin Bieksa (6 goals 22 points 73 PIMs) was already penciled in to be traded in the offseason because of the Ballard and Hamhuis acquisitions. However with Sami Salo injuring himself in the offseason, it allowed Bieksa to stay and revitalized his career. Though he missed 16 games, he finished with a plus 32.

Dan Hamhuis (6 goals 23 points plus 29) was highly sought after being from Smithers, B.C., and only missing seven games in his career. That didn't save Hamhuis with suffering two concussions, which resulted in missing 18 games. 

Keith Ballard (2 goals 7 points) did not have the season many expected, but coming into the season he had not fully recovered from offseason surgery and then hurt his knee, which set him back again.

Sami Salo (3 goals 7 points) ruptured his achilles tendon in the offseason playing a type of floor hockey in Finland. Salo has not played more then 70 games since 2002-03. 

Aaron Rome (5 points) played in a career-high 56 games this year thanks to injuries, but filled in admirably and could be relied on when needed. He scored his first goal since 2007-08 and just his second in his career.

Andrew Alberts last year was traded for to fill in as a top four defenceman but was too slow and sluggish. This season Alberts showed up in way better shape, and it showed in his play using his physical presence (6'5) but keeping up with the speed of the game. However, a broken wrist has sidelined Alberts since Valentine's Day and has only played three games in the playoffs.

With all the injuries, a bright spot was rookie free agent Chris Tanev who played in 29 games with only being one year removed from college. 

Roberto Luongo enjoyed his best season statistically as a Canuck with a reduced work load. Luongo tied for the league lead in wins (38), second in GAA (2.11) and fourth in save percentage (.928). He also posted four shutouts. Luongo has looked a lot sharper this season, not allowing as many weak goals, which can be credited to new goalie coach Roland Melanson. As well the emergence of Cory Schneider has allowed Luongo to rest more often.

Gillis stated in the offseason that Schneider was to start around 20 games and that held true. Schneider played in 25 games qualifying for official statistics, which had him finish third in save percentage (.929) and fourth in GAA (2.23). His 16-4-2 record was equally just as impressive, which allowed Vigneault to rest his starter and still feel confident. Since the Canucks allowed the least amount of goals this season, Luongo and Schneider will both have their names engraved on the William Jennings Trophy. 

With all of this success and being the 40th anniversary year, the hype and expectations are as high as ever in the city with a Stanley Cup run much needed, which finally happened for the first time in 17 years.

Many just wanted to see them advance past the second round for the first time since 1994, then go from there.

The difference for this years team is the depth on defence as all eight are healthy, with more depth upfront in Higgins, Torres and Lapierre.

As well the health of Kesler (offseason shoulder surgery from an injury he played through in the playoffs) and Burrows (offseason shoulder surgery - missed first 10 games of the season from it, which occured during the playoffs). Those two need to be healthy, which didn't happen last year and it showed while this year the opposite has shown.

As well with Luongo being fresh due to the play of Schneider makes this team the most dangerous one in franchise history.

Now paper needs to transpire into results and they are four wins away from that happening.

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