Iain MacIntyre: Storm clouds hang over struggling Canucks' squad

 

Turmoil or blip? Before his firing Torts warned this roster was stale

 
 
 
 
It's been that kind of a season so far for star winger Daniel Sedin and his Vancouver Canucks.
 

It's been that kind of a season so far for star winger Daniel Sedin and his Vancouver Canucks.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI Via Getty Images, Vancouver Sun

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PHILADELPHIA — The only fireworks at the extraordinary morning practice for the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday was the winter lightning storm that raged, brief and unexpected, outside the arena as grim-faced players trudged on to the ice in St. Paul, Minn.

Canuck coach Willie Desjardins, who looked like he hadn’t slept after his team’s humiliating 6-2 loss Tuesday to the Minnesota Wild, changed what was supposed to be an optional afternoon workout in Philadelphia to a mandatory early practice in St. Paul. Typically, something is seriously wrong when a National Hockey League team fully practises at 9:15 the morning after a game.

Of course, some things are seriously wrong with the Canucks.

As the boom of thunder reverberated inside the Xcel Energy Center and rain fell heavy enough on the tin roof to be heard far below at ice level, an old warning from former Canuck coach John Tortorella faintly echoed, too.

“It’s not for me because I may not be here,” Tortorella told reporters in April of 2014. “But for the team ... you can’t say: ‘OK, we’re old, we’re going to get younger, but we’re going to win the Stanley Cup.’ It doesn’t happen that way.”

Those words were overshadowed at the time by Tortorella’s stronger comments about the “stale” roster soon to be inherited by new general manager Jim Benning, and the organization’s need to rejuvenate it.

Everyone knew then there was a cliff-drop looming for the Canucks. But like a traveller in the dark, we just didn’t know how near the precipice was. About a year-and-a-half away, it turns out. With five wins in 20 games and only five points clear of last-place overall, this team that has made the playoffs all but three seasons since Year 2000 and averaged 100 points per year since 2001 is dangling above the abyss.

Two years ago, when the Canucks unravelled soon after Tortorella did, we could take comfort that perfect storm — critical injuries, a goaltending gong show, the mismatched coach’s suspension and over-use of players who expired before the schedule did — would pass.

It did. The Canucks had 101 points last season under Benning and Desjardins.

But Tortorella’s warning haunts them now.

It’s almost impossible to rebuild the roster by pushing a handful of young players into the NHL, ready or not, and still get enough from the older players remaining to get back to the Stanley Cup tournament.

Thirty-five-year-olds Daniel and Henrik Sedin may, under the circumstances, be playing the greatest hockey of their lives. And yet the Canucks haven’t looked this bad, so inept defensively and alarmingly uncombative at times, since the 1990s.

If there was fire to Wednesday’s emergency practice, it paled compared to the storm outside.

Desjardins had his players in the same forward combinations that have brought the Canucks to this, except that Hank Sedin took a day off for medical treatment and extra Ronalds Kenins rotated in and out of drills.

Desjardins said later that Kenins may play tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers, and Jacob Markstrom may start in goal.

Otherwise, same old same old. So, overmatched teenage centre Jared McCann is between Chris Higgins and Radim Vrbata (five points combined in their last nine games — three of them a hat trick by Vrbata), and shell-shocked sophomore Bo Horvat between Alex Burrows and Sven Baertschi (zero points between them in 10 games).

Best-case scenario before the season, if everyone stayed healthy and played to projections, the Canucks could have been a 90- to 95-point team. Maybe that would have got them back to the playoffs. Maybe not. But that scenario hopped the last train to Yuma weeks ago when marquee summer acquisition Brandon Sutter got hurt, goalie Ryan Miller struggled after being over-used in October and Horvat started playing like a 20-year-old being asked to do too much.

With Sutter and defencemen Dan Hamhuis and Luca Sbisa injured, the Canucks just aren’t good enough to win more nights than not. But that doesn’t explain their lack of intensity and drive in several games recently: the loss to Minnesota, 4-0 defeats against Anaheim and Boston, a 4-2 home loss against Dallas.

“I’m a little surprised, but I know what can happen if you’re struggling,” Henrik Sedin, the captain, said Wednesday. “It can (slip away) fast. Missing Sutter, I think, is a huge blow for us. We’re in a tough spot. Individually, to see what guys are going through, not scoring, not producing the way they want, it wears on them. And it creeps into the rest of the game.”

“We’re all professional guys in here; we all want to win,” Danny Sedin said. “I’m not worried about that. But the way it was yesterday, that’s not good enough. You can talk about forgetting last night’s game, but we’ve got to realize, too, the way we’re built right now, if we have three Ds and six forwards who are not there, we’re not going to win any games. We need 18 or 20 guys to bring it every night.

“You can go two ways: you can either fall apart and just be horrific for a long period of time, or you can come together as a team. We have a lot of young guys, but they’re going to have to learn, too.”

The storm had passed by the time the Canucks left for the airport and their charter to Philadelphia. There was no meltdown from the coach, no players-only meeting.

“I think we’ve talked enough,” Daniel said. “If we don’t understand now, we’ll never get it.”

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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It's been that kind of a season so far for star winger Daniel Sedin and his Vancouver Canucks.
 

It's been that kind of a season so far for star winger Daniel Sedin and his Vancouver Canucks.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI Via Getty Images, Vancouver Sun

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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