Head coach Alain Vigneault and his Vancouver Canucks watch from the bench as their season slips away in Game 4 of their NHL Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The Sharks won 4-3 in overtime to sweep the best-of-seven series four games to none.
Photograph by: Christian Petersen, Getty Images
Erect a tombstone on the Vancouver Canucks’ season and the epitaph would read: What if?
Like, what if Richmond referee Kelly Sutherland hadn’t blown an overtime call from 100 feet away? Or what if coach Alain Vigneault hadn’t publicly blasted Sutherland after another terrible call cost the Canucks a regular-season game in Calgary?
What if Kevin Bieksa hadn’t accused the San Jose Sharks of diving, a charge that doubled as an allegation against the referees?
What if goalie Cory Schneider didn’t bobble pucks on the two goals that ended the Canucks’ season? Or what if Vigneault had made a safer choice — on numerous levels — to start Roberto Luongo in the last game that mattered?
What if Jannik Hansen hit the empty net near the end of Game 2 or Daniel Sedin had buried his open-net rebound chance in Game 4?
What if key secondary scorers Hansen and Chris Higgins had managed even one goal each in the series instead of combining for zero points against the Sharks?
What if Canuck penalty killing or discipline had been even a little better?
What if general manager Mike Gillis had acquired Raffi Torres and Michal Handzus instead of Derek Roy at the National Hockey League trade deadline?
What if the obvious need for more size and grit among the top nine forwards had been addressed any time in the last two years or Gillis put money wasted on Keith Ballard to better use any time in the last three?
Only losing teams ask questions like these.
And we’ve been asking them about the Canucks for four decades.
For half that time, the team wasn’t good enough.
For most of the last 20 years, it hasn’t been good enough when it mattered in the playoffs.
Sure, the Canucks got robbed on Tuesday. And if two paramount officiating decisions had gone the other way, Vancouver would still be down 3-1 in the first round to the Sharks, precisely 15 wins shy of the Stanley Cup. Fifteen more playoff wins for these Canucks? May as well be 50 or 500.
None of the what-ifs should cloud the fact that the Canucks, as configured, simply are not good enough and require substantive changes.
This should have been a series, not a sweep. But even had Vancouver, which managed its A-game for maybe three periods out of 12 (plus overtime), somehow made it through San Jose, it was not going to advance further against a brawny, powerful second-round opponent like the Anaheim Ducks or St. Louis Blues or Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks lack physical heft. They are too small, too easily forced to the perimeter, on the top three lines. They’ve had no third-line centre — or a third line — since Max Lapierre played above himself in the 2011 playoffs after Manny Malhotra’s eye injury.
The defence is solid at the top but needs better depth.
And the irony in goal is that a team that boasted of having "two No. 1 goalies" couldn’t get enough saves from either Luongo or Schneider to beat Antti Niemi.
And looming bigger than all this is the uncomfortable truth that the best seasons of the Canucks’ best players are melting away, year by year, like the Greenland ice sheet, gone forever. The team is one or two neglectful seasons away from joining the Calgary Flames at the precipice.
There is also this troubling big-picture question: Is the Canucks’ reputation for diving and complaining, a cliché unfairly applied to all their players, so permanent the team can’t escape the toxicity and will never get the benefit of the doubt from referees?
If the answer is yes, then the Canucks are doomed until they dismantle or part with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows.
If the answer is no, it’s difficult to explain the 24-10 disparity in power plays against the Sharks. To be sure, there were some plain careless or dumb penalties by the Canucks. But they weren’t two-and-a-half times rougher or more reckless than the Sharks.
I was unfairly hard on Bieksa for his cross-check of Tommy Wingels late in Tuesday’s third period, which set up the Sharks’ tying goal. But knowing the officiating climate through four games, the leeway given Vancouver — almost none — and the likelihood a Sharks player would topple if given the chance, no Canuck could afford to push a player from behind into the boards.
Vancouver failed to adapt to the officiating, although even that doesn’t explain Danny Sedin’s boarding penalty in overtime.
Outrage aside, the Canucks need to get younger and stronger, and deeper at forward. Yes, these are largely the same things we were saying last season. And, yes, it remains harder to achieve than people realize due to the salary cap and no-trade clauses that have been given out like Timbits. That’s why management teams get paid millions to run NHL clubs.
Gillis, NHL general manager of the year only two years ago, had as bad a season as anybody on the Canucks. Well, maybe winger David Booth’s year was worse. The sleep doctor is nice; a genuine third-line centre would be better.
Nothing if not methodical (see Luongo trade mission), Gillis will now take his time deciding when he might fire Vigneault. But coaching is down the list on Canuck problems.
Hope has always heartened Canuck fans still waiting after 43 years for their first Stanley Cup parade. Almost always there is the belief that next season will be better, partly because so many years have been atrocious and, recently, because the trajectory of both the team and its top players tilted upwards.
That trajectory has flattened as the players age. Without key fixes, there’s no reason to think next season will be less disappointing than this one’s four-game playoff exit. Unless the immediate objective no longer is to win the Stanley Cup.
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