A Peculiar Second Season
St. Louis, Los Angeles and Nashville are already there.
Florida and Phoenix are just a step away.
The way these Stanley Cup playoffs are going, its turning into a Great Eight gathering of misfit toys, franchises that have recently been wandering in the wilderness, owner-less or destitute, or all three. Philadelphia may have to play the role of the traditional hockey town in the second round, which it is, I guess, for anybody whose NHL memory doesn't precede the Original 21.
Canada? Only the Ottawa Senators are left after the Vancouver Canucks, the country's best team for at least two years now, fell by the wayside Sunday night against the Kings in a 2-1 overtime defeat, a team that has been doing this rebuild thing for an awfully long time and finally saw everything click into place.
Clubs that seemed so confident, so successful, just two weeks ago have now joined the 14 non-qualifiers on the sidelines and, in some way, look more troubled that some of those clubs that didn't make post-season play at all.
What lies in the future for Detroit, San Jose and Pittsburgh, three teams that have grown used to be major powers and now must grapple with difficult questions in this off-season after being ousted in the first round? Who would have thought that the Penguins, for example, had a goaltending problem on their hands?
Which brings us to the Canucks, the team that was supposed to have learned how to win by losing in the Cup final last spring but apparently learned more about how to lose. Since going up 2-0 against the Bruins in that joust for the Cup, Vancouver has now won only two of 10 playoff matches and watched its potent offence shrivel up into a shadow of what it once was.
Last spring, GM Mike Gillis chose to blame officiating and injuries for his team's defeat, and much of the club's fan base bought into those flimsy excuses. Gillis won't be able to sluff off losing to the Kings quite that easiiy, particularly since none of the moves he made to stiffen the Canucks lineup for another serious run paid any dividends whatsover. David Booth wasn't a top six forward, Sammy Pahlsson isn't anywhere close to the hardnosed combatant he was in 2007, while acquiring a possible future contributor in Zach Kassian for a player, Cody Hodgson, who clearly could have provided an offensive ingredient the Canucks needed will go down as one of the bigger miscalculations of the season.
Gillis tried to make the team better and succeeded in making it decidedly worse; the Canucks lost to a team whose GM, Dean Lombardi, did a better job improving his roster than Vancouver's hockey boss did.
We've been over the goaltending story. One will have to go now, and the Maple Leafs are one of the teams that will be sniffing around either Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider. The core of the team - the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Alex Burrows - is a talented group, but one that may have to be tinkered with in the off-season.
Perhaps the Canucks will become a bidder for Rick Nash as an antidote to their lack of offensive punch when it matters most. Perhaps it will be concluded that without a true wheelhorse defenceman like Drew Doughty, the Canucks just aren't going to be able to get to the top of the mountain top. Watching Dan Hamhuis awkwardly try to carry the puck out of the Vancouver zone before essentially falling down (an attempted dive, no surprise) under pressure from Trevor Lewis on the play that led to the winning goal Sunday night seemed symbolic, as Hamhuis was a defenceman who was supposed to make a measurable difference on the Vancouver defence and has not.
Its not hard to see Alain Vigneault getting the pink slip, fairly or unfairly, and if that happens, also not that hard to see Vigneault ending up in Montreal.
This is, anyway you cut it, a massive failure for the team that seemed to be a cut above the rest of the Canadian squads. The Canucks didn't whine and dive quite as much this spring - small mercies - but never once looked like the powerful team that last June was two wins away from the first Cup in franchise history.
We came close to seeing both of last year's Cup finalists eliminated, but in the end, the Bruins had one more desperation goal in them Sunday afternoon, while the Canucks did not Sunday night. In mid-winter, it seemed a rematch of the 2011 final was a very real possibility, but it won't happen.
Not so long ago, the Canucks were locking up the twins, signing Roberto Luongo to an absurdly long contract and getting Kesler to commit to a multi-year deal, all of which seemed strong signs that it was finally Vancouver's time, that after two previously unsuccessful trips to the Cup final in 1982 and 1994 it was inevitable that the Canucks would win it all, if not last year than this year.
But now its about next year, and some of those players who received huge contracts to deliver a winner to the Lower Mainload now look as though they may be a step, or two, past their prime. Burrows and the Sedins are all 31, Bieksa is 30, Luongo is 33. That said, Kesler is 27 while both Edler and Schneider are 26, so there's hardly reason for out-and-out panic.
The Canucks aren't old. The question is whether they're young enough to continue to win going forward.
This isn't a team that's going to be blown up. It'll be up to Gillis to make small moves that produce a big difference. He can't just return with the same group, yet its anything but obvious exactly what commodities will change the final result for the Canucks.
For two years this has been a team that seemed to have everything a team needed to win a championship.
Now, that title seems further away than it seemed only two weeks ago. The Canucks still have lots of good talent. They've just gone from being a team that was one win shy of a Cup to one only good enough to win a single game in the first round.
At least five other Canadians cities would love to have the Vancouver roster. But really, that's pretty light praise, wouldn't you say?