The Canucks finished November with a 8-4-1 record, but there was one game everyone had their eye on: Saturday, November 20, a nationally-televised matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks. While Chicago may have lost several pieces to Atlanta and other teams, they were still the team that had eliminated the Canucks two years in a row from postseason play. The Canucks were overcoming two straight losses, a tough 4-3 OTL in Buffalo, extending their winless streak at HSBC Arena to seven-plus years, and a 3-1 loss to the Penguins, which was supposed to be a preview of two potential Cup finalists. The Hawks were coming off a 7-2 loss to Calgary the night before. It certainly was a 'measuring stick' game, a test of resiliency between two very good teams. The result? A 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Chicago, an absolute shellacking in which Roberto Luongo was chased yet again, though at times through no fault of his own. The performance, if you could call it that, raised questions of whether this Canucks squad was truly ready for the same challenges that await them in the playoffs. To answer these questions, my friend Matt Sze (pronounced 'zee'), a fellow blogger who runs SzeSpeak: The Thinking Man's Blog has kindly joined me for this discussion.
JC: The Hawks showed great resiliency by bouncing back from a terrible loss in the second night of a back to back. The Canucks followed up that effort with another loss against a hot Phoenix team. Resiliency is a key component of any good hockey team and in both games the Canucks just didn't seem to have any legs. Attitude reflects leadership, so the age-old question is, was Henrik the right choice as captain? It's no secret that for most North American kids, the ultimate dream is winning the Cup. For many Europeans, it's winning Olympic gold.
MS: There was no other choice. Kesler's too young and plays an emotional game, something that can work against him. I'm not so sure Daniel was a good pick to wear the 'A' but Bieksa was a great choice. He has had a long tenure with the Canucks and provides some much-needed fire from the back end. And in regards to that Cup vs. Olympic gold argument, I don't buy it. All athletes are wired the same way - it doesn't matter what the prize is, athletes play to win. As former NFL coach Herm Edwards said, "you play to win the game." Getting to the pinnacle of any sport requires hard work, so to criticize the Sedins or anybody for lacking the desire to win is unfair.
JC: I'm going to have to disagree, because I still think it makes a difference... Maybe I'm just a traditionalist and perhaps Lidstrom was just an anomaly... But what about Alexandre Daigle? The guy famously said he played hockey purely for the money.
MS: Well, he didn't become a number one overall pick on talent alone, but he made some bad life decisions that eventually led to an unspectacular career.
JC: The Canucks have been eliminated two consecutive years by the Hawks. Because Luongo and the Sedins are the best players, they have taken the brunt of the criticism, and a lot of it isn't unfounded. It seemed as though fortunes would be reversed in last year's playoffs, but the Sedins then vanished for stretches. Can our top players elevate their play?
<img src="http://cache2.asset-cache.net/xc/73882764.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=77BFBA49EF8789215ABF3343C02EA54831A838CD875A9477EF75E5B296482BCE804B3618D4BA3975"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">MS: I don't think Luongo has ever demonstrated that he could elevate his game, except in that 2007 series against Dallas, his first ever playoff appearance. He may never elevate his game to that level again, but most times it's the other guys, the supporting players, that step up their games. Patrick Kane is a key player for Chicago, but prior to that Finals against Philadelphia it had mostly been Jonathan Toews, and Kane ended up with the series winner. When Pittsburgh won the Cup, it was Max Talbot who scored the game-winner. Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and Talbot all raised their games.
JC: So what's the difference between those players who can elevate their games and those who can't? Is it emotion? Attitude? I think one of the reasons Henrik was so successful last year was because of his swagger. He had that "yeah, I'm the best player in the league" attitude. When Daniel came back, it seemed to have disappeared.
MS: Right now - emotion, attitude, swagger - Henrik doesn't have it. But in the regular season I don't think there's any need for it. It's going to build up. The only guy that does show some swagger is Bieksa. The Sedins are quiet players. I think Henrik giving Bieksa the 'A' is a challenge for him to get back to his former level. Those 42, 43 point seasons may be an anomaly but he's still an effective player when his head's on straight.
JC: So who's the X factor for the Canucks in the playoffs?
MS: Well, obviously it's Luongo. For me, it's two players: Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen. We know that Raymond's got great speed and can put the puck in the net, but but he hasn't elevated his game in the playoffs yet. (In 22 playoff games he has only 7 points.) The other is Hansen, because he has the feistiness needed to make things happen in the postseason. I remember back in that Dallas series, Stars fans were going, "who is this guy?"
JC: Gillis made an honest attempt to make this team better this offseason. If there's anything I noticed this year, it's that this team is so much faster. Speed kills, but we don't know how that will translate to playoff hockey.
MS: We are faster and bigger, but I don't think we're grittier than we were last year. Torres isn't really an upgrade hitting-wise over Steve Bernier. Malhotra's an upgrade over Wellwood but he's not the sort of guy who'll just lay guys out. We really won't know the playoffs. The playoffs are tighter defensively but the Sedins are good playoff players because they won't necessarily create the room, but they can certainly find the open areas. They make space with their playmaking, not their physicality. They're 30 years old - still relatively young - and are still learning how to play better with each passing playoff series.
JC: Alright, the real questions. Do the Hawks have our number? Vigneault hasn't announced who is starting Friday vs. Chicago, but I think you can't not start Luongo. Starting Schneider is a clear white towel message.
MS: Ohhhh. Not right now, but certainly last year. We've been blown out only once this season. If the Canucks put up a good fight, what else do you want? Maybe the Hawks will be better in the season but come playoff time their lack of depth will hurt. Vancouver was vastly overrated last year. We were the underdogs in that series - the four best teams were Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, then Vancouver. The thing about the West is, any team can beat any team. The level of parity is so high, if you're off your game one night it can result in a disaster. If there is a mental edge, it's what they've done in the past. The Canucks have to continue to ride Luongo but also depends on how he losses the game. The team collapsed as a whole. Losses means the team has to look at itself as a whole, not just the goalie, unless there were some flagrantly bad goals. The Canucks have one of the best sports psychologists on staff. Chicago's lower in the standings. The Canucks should be better.
JC: What about the Wings? We usually play moderately well against them.
MS: No, they don't have our number either. We play the Wings tough, all the time. The Canucks just recently won 6-4 against them. That being said, the Wings are still the best team in the West, and in a 7-game series I'd still take the Wings because their best players can elevate their game. So far, the Canucks' players haven't. Guys like Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, and Johan Franzen are good in the regular season, but great in the playoffs. Kesler, Burrows, and Raymond weren't so good last year. Let's not let the Sedins off the hook - they should elevate their game too, but I do think they were better than Naslund and Bertuzzi. Depth is key.
JC: If you look at some of the league's best playoff performers - Crosby, Mike Richards, Datsyuk, Zetterberg - these are guys who play in all situations of the game. The Sedins don't kill penalties. Part of the reason is because they don't have to, and also by blocking shots you're risking injury, but the upside is that when your team can't find their rhythm, you can get your best players more involved in the play. If I were to build a team, I'd like to have a franchise player I can play in every situation.
MS: The Sedins not playing PK doesn't hurt them. If they're not on the ice because the team's constantly killing penalties then the team has to be more disciplined. The Canucks aren't built around 2 players, and that gives the Sedins the opportunity to really focus on one thing (scoring). The Sedins are great talents, but the Canucks don't have a standout talent like Ovechkin or Crosby. There is no shining star. The Canucks are built like a football team - you need everyone to perform their specific role for them to succeed. If special teams can't produce then you hope the depth can hold up.
<img src="http://cache1.asset-cache.net/xc/86020661.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=77BFBA49EF8789215ABF3343C02EA54809ADCC78F7DA45A9E4E03DA6F564D905B4F7DACE93165AFCE30A760B0D811297"class="imageFloatRightFramed">JC: One thing I really noticed that year was the lack of net presence. Chicago had Byfuglien, Ladd, and Eager in Luongo's face the entire time. The Canucks have trouble against the Blues because David Backes is cemented in front of the net.
MS: I agree, and that's my only bone to pick. It certainly adds yet another dimension to our potent attack. We lack that physical element. We're bigger, in fact, we always have been, but I don't think we're grittier than before. Torres can be a perimeter player sometimes too. We are missing a David Backes type. It's demoralizing for teams to have someone in front of the net you can't move. The Canucks defense was torn about by Byfuglien. Edler wasn't strong enough, Bieksa had the strength but not the frame. I think that's why Alberts could surprisingly play a big role on this team when it comes to clearing the crease. Look what Andy Sutton was able to do in Ottawa. He put players flat on their butts all the time.
JC: It almost feels like this team is built for the regular season than the playoffs. If you look at how the Flyers were built last year, them going deep shouldn't be all that surprising. They had great veteran leadership and a great mix of size, talent, and grit. I picked the Flyers to upset that year because I knew they could go far.
MS: I'm gonna play the devil's advocate and say it depends on who they play. Against almost all the teams they're good. The Canucks have trouble with Chicago, and I know that contradicts with what I said previously, but you just don't know how this team will fare against this version of the Hawks in the playoffs. Last year, Quenneville totally outcoached Vigneault. I think, line for line, other than that top line with Zetterberg and Datsyuk, we have the advantage in regards to the other 9 forwards, so I like how we match up against the Wings.
JC: Let's talk Luongo, since he's the biggest X factor. I don't like his contract, and there are people who are already saying Luongo's overpaid, but he's still one of the better goalies in the West. What do you think?
MS: Luongo's play has slipped but I think Kiprusoff's play has slipped more. A quarter of the way through the season, my top 5 West goalies are: Bryzgalov, Hiller, Backstrom, Quick, and Halak. But in the playoffs everything changes. I don't like the Luongo extension either - it's pro-rated, but I think if we could get him just a shade cheaper at around $5 million we might be able to afford to keep Bieksa. He brings an element no other defenseman on our team does and maybe he does need a change of scenery but we need players like him in the playoffs.
JC: Vigneault says the window for this team to win is between now and 1 or 2 years down the road. I tend to agree with him. Canucks in 5 years - how many Cups? 1? 2? None?
MS: I have to disagree with Vigneault. I think the window longer than that. Edler and Raymond are still young. The Moose is well-stocked. Granted, Luc Bourdon's untimely death set this franchise back a little, but it's more like a ten-year plan. Ideally, our top players will be ready to make a significant impact in 5 years. Look at the Red Wings. From 1980 to their Cup win in 1997 (their first in ages), they were eliminated from the playoffs 11 times, and only 4 times did they at least reach the Conference Finals. When you're building a team you're going to fail a lot in the beginning, because that's the feeling you have to know to succeed later on. Vancouver has no tradition of winning and that works against them. Vigneault is no Scotty Bowman, but at least the consistency is there. Would you rather be successful long-term or be a potential one-hit wonder like the Hawks with their cap issues? They still have yet to sign Seabrook and could only afford Marty Turco. Don't get me wrong, Chicago could still end up being competitive but it will be difficult. Maybe it's because I haven't lived through 40 years of disappointment, but we have to be patient. As long as we draft well, we'll stay competitive. It wasn't too long ago people were labelling Hodgson as a bust, but history has shown that the World Jrs. MVP, and it should've been Hodgson, no doubt, go on to have good NHL careers. (Past winners include Eberle, Malkin, Ovechkin, Parise, Cammalleri, and Iginla).
The Canucks and Blackhawks face-off Friday night. We'll have to see what kind of team we really have.