Once ‘arrogant’ Canucks now look like they’re just going through the motions

Photo from Flickr/kempedmonds

When you get to the end of most long, multi-installment film franchises you’re usually treated to a clumsy pile of recycled, familiar elements that are trotted out to replicate previous successes.

You’ve seen this movie before, you say to yourself, two or three times, and now the whole thing is just stale. It leaves a sour taste for fans of the franchise, because it suggests the peak has passed — with the best of it gone forever.

You probably see where this is going.

The Vancouver Canucks are once again nonchalantly idling down the stretch, meandering toward the postseason like it’s a private members club to which they feel they have exclusive entry rights, regardless of how poorly they’re dressed or how foul they’re acting on the way up to the front door.

“We’re from the Northwest Division, step aside.”

There’s nothing to tell them to act otherwise. They’re winning games and coasting through long stretches of the season, again.

Harken back to this time last year, when the same team was piecing together another President’s Trophy winning campaign like it was a Jackson Pollock painting. The process was ugly, haphazard, unstructured. It should not have resulted in anything impressive. And yet there they were, feathers fluffed at the top of the league, only to be taken down easily in the first round by a Kings team that had been hacking away in life-or-death combat for the previous two months.

There’s a big shiny Hollywood twist with this years version: adversity. Last season the team lost Daniel Sedin for the stretch drive and most of the first round. But this year they’ve yet to play a single game with a complete lineup.

There’s some good vibes to lean on here. The Canucks have ripped off six straight wins in the heaviest chunk of their schedule — an earlier portion of which saw them grind out five games in seven days. They’ve done it with injuries and absences of varying lengths to Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Manny Malhotra, Zack Kassian, Keith Ballard, Steve Pinizzotto, Dale Weise, and a two-game suspension to workhorse defenseman Alex Edler. Cory Schneider has put the groove into his throne atop the organization’s goalie depth chart, the power play is showing some minor twitches of life, and the Sedins are looking more and more like their old selves — instead of just of their shadows.

But the same lackadaisical approach which sucked the life out of the Canucks last season is present yet again. Maybe there are advanced-stat numbers that can be conjured from a witches cauldron to back up the claim or not, but this is all once again boiling down to arbitrarily defined and unevenly evaluated intangibles.

Where’s the killer instinct with this team? Is it coaching — telling the players to take the foot off the gas part-way through games, to play for the loser insurance point?

Make as many bear-baiter, hunter-trapper, David Booth jokes as you like, but this team misses his combination of foot-speed, puck possession, and eagerness to (most games) finish every check he’s ever started. It sets a tone which too many have only been willing to grant Ryan Kesler as having an ability to produce.

In their combined absence Jannick Hansen has been left to supply this quotient all by himself. And as remarkable a season as the Great Dane is having, it’s not enough. Nor will it be enough if and when Kesler and Booth return to the lineup. 

This team lacks something even more impossible to define than "energy": they've lost the swagger which they once used to crush opponents the moment they stumbled or went down on one knee for a split-second.

Many around the league called it arrogance, no surprise given the way it worked for the Canucks. Success was never been about dominating whole games, out-shooting or out-hitting opponents, or running up scores. Success was about opportunism and precision — surgical strikes and exposing or creating moments of weakness in opponents.

That’s missing now — possibly gone forever due to age and personnel changes — and it’s not all on injuries or the effects of a lockout shortened season. It was missing last season, and it was missing in the Stanley Cup Finals before that.

We’re watching a plodding, uninspired effort game-in and game-out with the Canucks, and have been for some time now. 

It explains why, despite their current six-game winning streak — impressively built in the fires of adversity — the outlook both short and long-term with this franchise is murky, at best.

So far this sequel has failed to deviate in any significant way from last years version, and holding out hope that this team can or will 'flip the switch' once the playoffs start would be no different than what transpired ten months ago against the Los Angeles Kings.

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The finger points to Mike Gillis

Once the Canucks exit from the play-offs after the first or optimistically the second round, it should trigger for the media pundits in this city to earnestly evaluate Mike Gillis's 5-year tenure as the team's GM.

When they do, they will have to revisit in detail his dismal drafting, trading and signing record.

More specifically, they will have to ask what exactly has he brought to the team's top six forwards (the under-achieving and injury-prone Higgins and Booth), top four defencemen (the slightly above average Hamhuis and Garrison), and in goal (an un-tradeable Luongo due to his signing of that contract).

And in this light, they will have to consider the unspectactular talent on the second units who one day have to take over from the first, and the implications of this.

And then they will have to examine the actual value of the roster's lesser lights, which he has staffed with marginal, inconsistent and interchangeable role players.

Then finally, they will have to look at the unnervingly shallow pool of prospects he's amassed and whether they will realistically be able to maintain the franchise as a perennial contender.

In short, they will have to realize that his predecessors gave him the foundation for whatever success the organization has enjoyed to date, but that he's been unable to take to the top through his own additions, and nor likley will he any time soon.

Right now, based on the team's current trajectory, the dark days of the 1990s don't seem all that far away, when full houses were scarce.