Few people expected much from this year’s edition of the Vancouver Canucks. As strong as the Northwest Division appeared to be at the start of the season, many expected the Canucks to struggle to make the playoffs. No one knew what to expect from new general manager Mike Gillis, although it didn’t appear that he had addressed the main problem: a lack of offense. Sure, Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier had been added, but Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison were now gone. The other additions — checker Ryan Johnson, feisty Darcy Hordichuk, defencemen Shaun O’Brien and Rob Davison, and the talented but enigmatic (and out-of-shape) Kyle Wellwood — were hardly confidence-inspiring. And of course, coach Alain Vigneault, whose coaching philosophy had always been far more concerned with keeping goals out than scoring them, was retained by Gillis.
True, the Canucks still had all-world goalie Roberto Luongo — whose leadership role was cemented by the peculiar (to some) decision to name him team captain — but with the 2007-08 Canucks only scoring about 2.5 goals per game, he would have to be at the top of his game to give the team a shot at the playoffs. And even then, he might have to win a lot of games 1-0.
The big splash everyone expected from Gillis and the Canucks was the signing of free agent Swede Mats Sundin. The Canucks appeared to be the frontrunners to put Sundin’s name on a contract. But as summer ended, and training camp came and went, Sundin played coy, refusing to even say whether he was going to play this year, yet alone when. Still, Gillis remained patient.
The Canucks went 6-5 in October, but 8-3-2 in November, raising fans’ hopes. Wellwood in particular surprised many with his scoring touch. But when a groin injury November 24 sidelined Luongo, the team’s fortunes predictably took a turn for the worse. The combination of backup Curtis Sanford and promising AHL call-up Cory Schneider backstopped the team to a 6-7-1 record in December. Eventually, Schneider was returned to the farm and the team acquired veteran Jason LaBarbera from the L.A. Kings December 30.
The swoon continued in January, despite Luongo returning January 15 and Sundin finally signing December 18 (and playing his first game for the Canucks January 7) . Their 2-5-5 record that month, which included an 8-game losing streak (3 of those in overtime) caused many to call for Vigneault’s head. Mental lapses were resulting in numerous turnovers and defensive coverage breakdowns. Luongo did not look fully healed, and Sundin looked like a player who had taken too many months off from hockey.
But Gillis again remained patient, keeping Vigneault behind the bench. Vigneault, for his part, tried something new, breaking up his vaunted checking duo of Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows. He placed Burrows on a line with the Sedins, who were still searching for a consistent linemate. Meanwhile, Kesler was put on the second line to provide Sundin and Demitra with a speedy, physical winger.
As if a switch had been flipped, February relit the Canucks’ once flickering playoff hopes. From February to April, the Canucks went 23-7-2, taking 48 of a possible 64 points — the hottest team since the All-Star break. Both Burrows and Kesler have emerged as offensive threats. Burrows has been the Sedins’ most consistent linemate since at least the days of Anson Carter. Luongo has found his form again, and the defense has remained consistent. All of this has combined to result in a Northwest Division title win and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Mats Sundin has been inconsistent in his time as a Canuck. At times he has looked like the Sundin of old, using his size and skill to great effect. On the other hand, he has continued to look slow and a little behind the play at times. Sundin’s greatest value to the team at this point is that he is still a player that opponents must pay significant attention to, allowing his linemates time and space. He scored 9-19-28 in his 41 games.
Meanwhile, the other big name on the team, Luongo has had an excellent season, winning 33 games (9th in the league), with a 2.34 GAA (5th) and .920 save percentage (also 5th). His 9 shutouts were second only to rookie sensation Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets. His stats were all the more impressive given the added responsibility he bore as team captain.
Several other Canucks deserve recognition for their performances this year. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, despite being somewhat overshadowed by the Burrows-Kesler duo, provided their usual level of scoring, both totalling 82 points (33 goals for Daniel, 22 for Henrik). Willie Mitchell was steady throughout the year, finishing 9th in the league in plus-minus (+29). Kevin Bieksa returned from last year’s severe leg injury to total 43 points (11g, 32a), while Alex Edler had an excellent sophomore season with 37 points (10g, 27a). Steve Bernier, Kyle Wellwood, and Mason Raymond (or Taylor Pyatt, at times) formed an interesting third line that provided a little bit of everything — speed (Raymond), crash and bang (Bernier, Pyatt), and offensive spark (Wellwood). Shaun O’Brien emerged as a steady, gritty defenseman who can move the puck and who even showed brief flashes of offensive creativity. Darcy Hordichuk provided the physical presence that previous Canuck teams may have lacked.
Yet perhaps the greatest factor in the run-up to the playoffs has been the lack of injuries. Injuries, particularly to defensemen, were instrumental in the Canucks missing the playoffs a year ago. This year, the Canucks carry a full healthy lineup into the first round against the St. Louis Blues.
Persevering through the Luongo injury and the difficult January, coupled with the fortunate lack of injuries, has bought a ticket to the playoffs for the Canucks.
And Roberto Luongo didn’t even have to win every game 1-0 — although in the final two regular season games, he did just that.