Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, coach Alain Vigneault must answer for team’s failure
But questions here echoed around the NHL with other powerhouse teams’ similar post-season exits
Unlike last season, neither Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis (in the foreground) nor head coach Alain Vigneault can take away positive feelings from this spring's first-round playoff exit against the Los Angeles Kings.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG
VANCOUVER — Today was the day the Vancouver Canucks joined the queue of National Hockey League teams leaning into the gale-force winds of public angst and struggling to keep their balance.
Ahead of them in line were the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks, each organization suffering according to the height of its post-season expectations, each licking its wounds and trying to figure out what to do about a first-round playoff exit.
Ideally, they find perspective in the face of emotion, rely on analysis rather than blame, and get everyone to take a step back and calm down.
Fans want blood, and we in the critical end of the business, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.”
But there is no escaping the fact that two weeks into the post-season, a whole slew of big-time hockey clubs already have been kicked to the curb, and nobody wants to hear the hometown team use “See? It’s not just us” as justification.
Even Hemingway would want some answers and he’d probably have his protagonist slap a couple of people around to get them. (Not an option here.)
In the immediate wake of the Canucks’ five-games-and-out humbling by the Los Angeles Kings — having fallen a single win short of the Stanley Cup a year ago — the most notable reaction was a distinct lack of outrage.
At least on game night, the fans trudged home, eschewing the burning and looting, having had ample preparation this time for the team’s demise after the Canucks lost the first two at home.
But it was only a delayed reaction. Figuratively, at least, the thirst for destruction hasn’t gone away. Pretty shortly now, GM Mike Gillis and head coach Alain Vigneault are going to have to give good reasons for the team’s failure, and drop some hints about the character and/or personnel flaws that precipitated it, and maybe offer a human sacrifice or two.
It’s not even out of the question that one or both of the highest-profile officials of the hockey operations department will jump or be pushed, depending on the frame of mind of owner Francesco Aquilini, and how ticked he is at missing out on another post-season bonanza.
In Detroit, they’ll be asking if the potential retirement of franchise cornerstone Nick Lidstrom and legendary crease camper Tomas Holmstrom will be the first dominos to fall in a significant rebuild, and whether one Stanley Cup under Mike Babcock, considering the talent he’s had to work with, is enough.
In Pittsburgh, they will be tearing the Pens’ porous defence apart, for starters, weighing the chances of re-signing Jordan Staal against the pressures of the salary cap, debating how Marc-Andre Fleury is ever going to get over the trauma of being outplayed by Ilya Bryzgalov, asking why it is that Evgeny Malkin goes into a funk the minute Sidney Crosby shows up, and whether there are enough pucks to make them both productive at the same time.
In San Jose, they have given up asking. The Sharks’ conundrum is too deep to tackle. The Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau leadership combo never worked, and isn’t going to start now, and as sharp as Doug Wilson has been as GM, and as smart as Todd McLellan is as coach, you wonder when the breaking point will finally come.
In Vancouver, the issues are every bit as thorny.
Two Presidents’ Trophy-winning clubs in succession have failed to deliver. Clearly there is talent here — regular-season talent, anyway — and plenty of it. But there is no getting around the shortcomings of Ryan Kesler, who ended the playoffs on a 17-game goalless streak ... and trade bust David Booth, who did little before or after his desperation-inspired promotion to the first line with the Sedin twins ... and Mason Raymond, who surely has run out of chances to turn all that speed into tangible results.
The list of nonentities in these playoffs was stunning.
Alex Edler, gushingly referred to at times as the second coming of Lidstrom, abruptly turned into an error-prone wreck for reasons unexplained. Kevin Bieksa, a rock in the 2011 playoffs, constantly tried to do too much. Manny Malhotra became a faceoff specialist with little else to offer. Chris Higgins was a ghost.
Only the goaltending was solid, and even there the status quo looks untenable now that Cory Schneider — who gave up just four goals in his three playoff starts, and lost two of them; that’s how weak the Canucks’ offence was — has supplanted Roberto Luongo as the better of the club’s options for both the short and long term.
But what to do about Luongo, and his 10 remaining years at a $5.3-million cap hit?
The idea that the first order of business should be to fire Vigneault is so breathtaking, it defies belief.
Is the town’s memory so short that it doesn’t recall the seasons before he got here? The minor-leaguers who have developed into solid pros under his regime, including Bieksa, Edler, Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Chris Tanev and Schneider? The steady hand on the tiller that has kept the team rolling, through injury plagues and goaltending controversies, to a level of prosperity never glimpsed before in the Canucks’ spotty history?
Yet the truest statement about the Vancouver Canucks, or any team that is thought to be a favourite and falls short, is that nothing reveals the flaws like a whacking good defeat.
Learning from the exposure, though, is the part the Canucks didn’t get right after last year’s final, when they remained in a state of denial despite a comprehensive beating in the latter half of the series by the Boston Bruins.
Learning from this shelling starts, hopefully, with an admission of that miscalculation, and others, by the brain trust. And something a little meatier than parity on which to hang the loss.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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