Captain Bertuzzi or Captain Naslund?

DEFINITELY the biggest concern surrounding the Vancouver Canucks this off-season concerns the status of Andrew Cassels, one of the National Hockey League’s most gifted passers and an unrestricted free agent this off-season. However, a new concern has been brought up that is equally as important, and that is the role of team captain.Now, ostensibly, it is not an issue. The Canucks are the NHL’s fastest-rising team, going from perrenial doormats to Stanley Cup contenders in just three years under the guidance of General Manager Brian Burke. In the last two of those years, Markus Naslund, arguably the team’s best player, was the official captain and was the effective captain during the first. He is an important part of the Canucks’ offence, with a blend of strength, skill and speed that is easily among the NHL’s elite. Though he finished second in NHL scoring, some have even argued that Naslund was the NHL’s best player this season, overshadowing the achievements of the real scoring winner, Calgary Flame Jarome Iginla. Of course, Naslund had help and Iginla didn’t, but that is a different debate.

However, through Naslund’s skills, it is becoming appearant that he is still not able to lead a team just yet. Though he does get important goals at times and sometimes lifts the Canucks to victories, he still isn’t able to shoulder a load all by himself if need be, and isn’t able to keep the Canucks a consistent performer. For the past three years, Vancouver has had a prolonged slump somewhere in their season that scuttled valuable play-off positioning, and, while Naslund wasn’t in the lineup for the slump in 2000-01 (injured March 16 against the Buffalo Sabres), he was for 2001-02. Furthermore, during the Canucks’ first round series loss to the Detroit Red Wings, he was nowhere to be found, scoring just a measly assist in the final four games, watching helplessly as the Canucks collapsed right in front of him. This was after the Canucks took a 2-0 lead with shocking ease and looked poised for a sweep with the next two games in Vancouver and the Canucks full of confidence. Instead, the Wings received a flukey goal by Niklas Lidstrom from 90 feet out in Game 3, and, predictably, Canucks goaltender Dan Cloutier couldn’t get over the shock of allowing the bad goal after stopping so many good shots. Soon enough all of the team felt the same way, including Naslund, who should have been there to tell his mates “Hey, that was a bad goal. Get over it since we’re still up in the series.”

However, through the problems, there was one player who did stick out and was the Canucks’ central force throughout most of the season. His name is Todd Bertuzzi, a 27-year-old native of Sudbury, Ont., who finally enjoyed his breakout season. Repeatedly during the season, Bertuzzi took charge, leading the Canucks through games they should have lost and leading the Canucks past their early season slump. The perfect example was Bertuzzi’s four-point night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a 6-1 victory by Vancouver on January 24, that lifted the Canucks to .500 for the first time this season. Bertuzzi was an effective net crahser, but he was also an excellent set-up man and was a constant nuiscance for the opposition. He did have a questionable suspension for leaping the bench back in October to join a fight with Colorado Avalanche fighter Scott Parker, and, although Bertuzzi deserved the suspension, he didn’t deserve the length (ten games) since the instigator- Parker- received far less (three games).

In the play-offs, Bertuzzi was the only Canuck who played consistently throughout the series, playing with the same reckless abandon he exhibited throughout the season. It was him who was crashing the net, setting up plays, scoring and trying to get the Canucks back into the series, filling the void that Naslund obviously wasn’t filling. It was him who would have scored in Game 3 to pull the Canucks within one, but a blown call by the referee (who ruled it a penalty shot despite the fact the puck went in the net) kept the 3-1 Detroit win intact. Even after the Canucks lost Game 6, Bertuzzi was right there, continuing his leadership, telling reporters (recorded on Canucks.com), “I want to remember this feeling so I don’t have to feel it again”, referring to the deflated Canucks dressing room. It may be a cliché, but the fact he did say it means that Bertuzzi plans on making sure he doesn’t feel that way again, bringing the Canucks up with him.

Still, while Bertuzzi has proven himself the better leader, it is still too early to tell if he can, in fact, lead. He’s had only one great year, and next year the opposition won’t treat him as lightly as they might have this year. He might not also adjust well to his new leadership role, but, considering how he’s still relatively young, he does have room to improve. As for Naslund, though he hasn’t shown the abilities to truly take charge, he too is relatively young and has room for improvement, plus he’s had only one bad year. He can more than make up for his mistakes of 2001-02 by leading the Canucks through a consistent season, making the team a true Stanley Cup contender. However, if the Canucks do slump again next season, don’t be surprised if, in 2003-04, Naslund and head coach Marc Crawford are put under the microscope for failing to take the club to the next level. No matter what, it is up to Naslund to determine the Canucks’ future, and, suffice to say, if the Canucks can’t get to the next level, don’t be surprised if a new captain- like Bertuzzi emerges.

-Daniel Grasso


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