Canucks may have missed the boat on their one Stanley Cup shot (with video)
Oldish team could find it hard to keep up because of NHL lockout
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa talks with reporters on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 after an informal practice with the UBC Thunderbirds at the Vancouver Universities arena. A tentative agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association was announced early Sunday.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
VANCOUVER — It’s quite all right to be angry with the National Hockey League, and it’s OK, too, to feel just a little less warm-and-fuzzy toward your on-ice heroes, since neither party covered itself with glory in the lockout.
But as you troop back to the rink like the well-trained flock that you are — lacking even the gumption to put your opening-night ticket in the garburator as a token gesture of contempt for the two sides’ 113 days of collective bargaining arrogance — remember to save a little spleen to vent on the fellow who, by his silent assent to a needless dispute, brought a lot of lesser opponents into the equation for the 2013 season.
If your hockey team is one of those healthy franchises with few pressing financial concerns — and that pretty much covers the seven Canadian entries — you ought to be asking yourself what it was all about. Why you had to go through it. Why, in the bigger picture, seven Canadian team owners formed part of that supposedly unanimous vote to lock the players out.
Granted, there weren’t a lot of lesser opponents last season than the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens — none of whom made the playoffs — and the Ottawa Senators just snuck in as the eighth seed in the East.
So maybe we’re really talking about the current class of the Canadian clubs, the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, who had absolutely no need for the CBA fight at either the ownership or player level, and whose owner’s decision to meekly join Gary Bettman’s Axis of Cancellation might yet prove to have taken his team beyond its window of opportunity to win a one-and-only Stanley Cup.
No one, of course, has the crystal ball on how a 48-game regular season might pan out.
But it’s worth considering the possibility that the Canucks — oldish as they are, with zero obvious prospects on the verge of making an impact, zero hot rookies, no one who played in the world junior, no one of major consequence (other than goalie Cory Schneider, briefly) who kept the engines running by playing in Europe, and only a couple of lukewarm youngsters toiling unproductively in the American Hockey League — may have missed the boat entirely.
Either that, or they are so clever, their Rope-a-Dope strategy is beyond the average sportswriter’s ability to grasp it, which admittedly is not out of the question.
“It’s just great for you guys to be able to go back to writing something you, uh, somewhat understand,” said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa.
Fair enough. Few of us have MBAs. His own financial acumen, meanwhile, allowed him to cash a $3.5-million cheque on July 1, most of a $4.5-million signing bonus that was timed to insulate him against the probability of a lockout. Chalk one up for Bieksa and his agent, Kurt Overhart.
But what about it, Kevin? The Canucks are going to be competing against teams who, almost without exception, had key players in Europe or the AHL or starring in junior.
Of the almost 200 NHL players who signed with European clubs during the lockout, Boston and Philadelphia had 11 each overseas, Ottawa and the New York Islanders had 10 apiece, and Montreal had eight.
The Canucks had four, and one of them, Dale Weise, was in Holland, which almost doesn’t count, and Raymond was only in Sweden (in the second division) for two games.
They are, in essence, the anti-Oilers.
Edmonton, which occupied the Northwest Division cellar last year (and the two years before that), had its three top forwards — Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — as well as its ballyhooed defensive signing, Justin Schultz, playing (and starring) with their Oklahoma City AHL affiliate, while No. 1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov played in the Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov both played in the World Junior. Ryan Smyth and goalie Devan Dubnyk were on Canada’s victorious Spengler Cup team.
The Canucks will face the Oilers four, perhaps five, times this year in a 48-game format that will feature conference-only play. It’s not too far off-the-wall to speculate that the Oilers could come roaring out of the gate while Vancouver struggles to get up to speed.
And a slow start, in a season that amounts to a sprint, would be a dangerous thing. Not fatal, because as long as they make the playoffs, there is always time for ultimate victory in the post-season tournament, which will be later, but otherwise unchanged.
Bieksa, who has never met a theory he couldn’t refute, isn’t buying it.
“I don’t think the fact that they’ve been playing in Europe for the last month will help them for too long,” he said Monday, after nine Canucks skated with the UBC Thunderbirds.
“I think it will help them the first week or two, but after that everyone catches up and we’re all in midseason form.
“There’s only one NHL. It’s the best league in the world for a reason.”
At least Schneider, who’ll be the everyday stopper once the Canucks get around to trading Roberto Luongo — which can’t be done until the CBA is ratified, likely Wednesday — played in eight games with Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss-A league before being called home.
“I’m not going to contradict myself,” Bieksa said. “I think it’s good for him for the first couple of weeks. He’ll be ready out of the gates. After that, it’s the same for everybody.”
Even so, it’s probably a good thing Vancouver — with advantages in experience, winning mentality, defence and goaltending — finished at the top of the league, and Edmonton near the bottom, nine months ago.
The gap figures to have narrowed a little, or a lot, by the end of April.
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