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Canucks post-mortem week

Mike Gillis faces his most difficult offseason yet, as GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

All season the Vancouver Canucks preached sticking with the process to prepare themselves for the playoffs. After coming up a game short last year, all that mattered to the team and fans was another long run this spring. After just five games the Canucks found themselves as spectators for the rest of the playoffs, ingloriously ousted by the 8th-seeded Los Angeles Kings. So what the heck went wrong and where do the Canucks go from here?

Yes, the Canucks again won the President’s Trophy, and yes, they were picked by many to make the Stanley Cup final, but as I wrote a couple weeks ago, this year’s team hadn’t shown the same dominance.

They are no longer the offensive juggernaut with a lethal powerplay that basically dared teams to take a penalty. Last year, again and again the team found a way to turn a one-goal advantage into a two or three goal lead. When they needed a key goal with the man advantage they always managed to find it. The Canucks headed into the playoffs needing to flick the switch, to turn it on when it counted, but were unable to find the magic.

Their powerplay was abysmal through the first three games against the Kings. It cost them game two, when they gave up two short-handed goals. Admittedly, the powerplay was more dangerous when Daniel Sedin returned to the lineup, but by then it was too late. And while missing Sedin for the first three games didn’t help Vancouver’s chances, it’s far to simple to say the Canucks would have beat the Kings if Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith hadn’t knocked Daniel out of the last eight games of the regular season and the first three games of the playoffs with a vicious elbow on March 21.

The Canucks’ problems run much deeper and are going to require some soul-searching this summer on the part of GM Mike Gillis and the rest of the organization. For the entirety of Gillis’ tenure he had focused on building a team based on offensive firepower. He said in his end of the year press conference on Tuesday that he still believed this was the template for success in the NHL. “I believe in offense, always have. I still believe offense is a critical part of the National Hockey League… I’m not going to change from that.”

Although he was loath it admit it, Gillis tinkered slightly with his vision this season. A small tweak, a delicate change of course intended to make the team more playoff ready, but the result seems to have been a significant loss of identity. The team went from three scoring lines and a defence keen to jump into the attack, to more balance and grit. They were a team in limbo. A team that looked unsure of the blueprint for success. They talked at great length, and repetition, about sticking to the process and trusting the system, but this year they looked lost as too what that vision was supposed to look like.

“We have been changing it and we will continue to change it to become a better, balanced team, you can’t simply change in midstream,” Gillis said when asked if his team was equipped to thrive in an apparently changing NHL.

So why did they try to do it?

The answer seems to be the Boston series. It isn’t surprising that losing to a team in the 7th game of the Stanley Cup final would leave a lasting mark on a team, but it seems that the loss has come to define this team. “Offense didn’t become an issue until we ran into the Boston Bruins last year during the final,” Gillis said.

Surely there were lessons to be learned from the series with the big, bad Bruins, but all the changes seem to have been focused on making sure they were prepared to play Boston in the unlikely event they met again in the final. The players and Gillis admitted that the game against the Bruins on January 7 was their biggest and most emotional of the season. But, who cares about a win in January? They needed that effort in games six or seven last year when it would have won them the Cup. Significantly tinkering with a 117-point team, and abandoning your identity just to become more like your foe doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Jettisoning Cody Hodgson to Buffalo was, of course, the most glaring example of the change in game plan, but I’m ok with sending the clearly disgruntled youngster packing. I liked the addition of Zach Kassian at the time, and I still like it now. The more pressing question is why didn’t the Canucks look to also add offense at the deadline? I understand the Sammy Pahlsson addition, it made sense to add some playoff experience and a defensive presence to the third line, but it meant they need to bolster the top six, add some offense to play with Ryan Kesler, especially since the Selke Trophy winner was still labouring with his groin injury.

So where do the Canucks go from here?

Mike Gillis made it clear that he still believes in offense-first hockey when he spoke with the TEAM1040 radio on Thursday. “I think people here want to see an up-tempo offensive style of game.” So they have to find away to match teams physically without sacrificing their offensive raison d’être.

The biggest problem is their second line. Mason Raymond is no longer a top six forward, and neither Kesler nor Booth pass the puck well enough to play together unless they have a play-maker on the other wing. They need to find someone with a bit of size, enough speed to keep up with Kesler and Booth, but with better hands and vision.

Since the Canucks were ousted a week ago there has been lots of talk by the local sports media and fans about trading Kesler. Gillis dismissed this idea as kneejerk and short sighted in the TEAM1040 interview. “It is somewhat remarkable that someone stubbles a little bit and suddenly ‘get rid of him’ is the response. Good players are very hard to get.”

There are a few main talking points going forward. What happens to Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider? What happens to Coach V? How does Mike Gillis bolster the offense? And what changes will he make to the defence corp.

Now that we have had a week to let emotions cool, we’ll try and answer some of these questions.

Tomorrow: To deal or not to deal, Roberto Luongo.

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