The 2013-14 NHL season is winding down, and teams are quickly falling out of the playoff picture now. I’ve already looked at what went wrong for the Buffalo Sabres, the Panthers and Oilers, and the Flames, Jets and Islanders. Today, it’s time to look back at the season of the Vancouver Canucks, who were eliminated following a 3-0 loss Monday on home ice.
What’s most shocking about the Canucks’ elimination is how sudden it feels. On New Years’ Day, Vancouver had 23 victories over the first half of the season, and was one of the better puck possession teams in the NHL. Given that their lineup was largely unchanged from the one that won President’s Trophies in 2010-11 and 2011-12, it seemed safe to assume that they would slot comfortably into one of the playoff wild cards. Over the following 38 games, however, they would win just 12 times, with the final blow coming against the Anaheim Ducks. In Monday’s game, they were held to just 18 shots and shut out by a goaltender making his first NHL start. Thus ended the hopes of a team I picked to make the postseason. Part of the decline looks to be attributable to a dip in their possession game. They entered 2014 with a stellar 53.4% Fenwick Close through 41 games; over the remaining games, it was a more pedestrian 50.8%. A bigger factor in their protracted slump, however, is the disappearance of their shooting luck. Through 41 games, the Canucks shot 8% at even strength, just as they had in the shortened 2012-13 season; from January 1 until now, they’ve shot just 6.25%. Critics have charged that John Tortorella’s shot-block-happy system is responsible for Vancouver’s collapse (for the record, the Canucks have blocked 14.9 shots per 60 at 5 on 5 this season, compared to 11.8 last season), but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to win games in a tough division with such cold shooting. Remarkably, a roster that led the NHL in goal-scoring in 2010-11 is the third-lowest scoring team in hockey today. As such, the talk of firing Tortorella seems a little rich to me: do you really fire a coach on a pricey multi-year contract for coaching a 52.2% Fenwick Close team with terrible shooting luck, especially after his starting goaltender was traded away at the deadline? Torts’ first season in Vancouver is likely to be best remembered for the Calgary line brawl and his confrontation with Flames coach Bob Hartley, which can only be described as an embarrassment, and his abrasive public persona makes him easy to dislike. But I’m inclined to view the Canucks’ struggles as the result of players underperforming rather than coaching.
Of course, reading the tea leaves of front office thinking around the Canucks is never an easy task. Since coming within a game of winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup before being Thomas’d in 2011, Vancouver has wrapped up the longest sustained run of success in its history by:
- Winning two division titles and a President’s Trophy in the following two seasons.
- Losing eight important games.
- Alienating a former captain, franchise goaltender, and likely Hall of Famer in Roberto Luongo, then trading both Luongo and his heir apparent Cory Schneider within a span of 12 months, leaving no proven netminder in place.
- Firing the most successful coach in franchise history, and bringing a famously prickly coach into the pressure cooker of a Canadian NHL media market as a replacement.
- Just yesterday, firing long-time GM and team president Mike Gillis.
What all of this suggests, to me, is an organization that rapidly lost faith in its roster and abruptly decided to enter a rebuilding mode. In fairness, injuries and ineffectiveness resulted in disappointing seasons for many key offensive performers. Former scoring champion Henrik Sedin has been held to just 47 points in 67 games; his brother Daniel has managed just 14 goals in 70 games. For a total cap hit of $9.5M, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows have tallied just 58 points combined. David Booth has just 17 points this season heading into a contract year. Ownership will need to move quickly on a GM hire if they hope to trade any of their big contracts soon, but after such poor seasons, finding takers may be hard. Much of the team’s blueline corps have had strong seasons, but it’s hard to know what to expect from Vancouver defensively next season with no proven starting goaltender in place. Eddie Lack has had a strong rookie season (0.925 even-strength Sv%), but projecting the future of a goalie with 41 career NHL games is next to impossible. Moving Luongo’s enormous contract has freed up some cap space for next season, as would the rumored trade of Kesler. But, in general, this team is heading into territory next season that it hasn’t seen for a long time.