The Canucks: Asleep Behind The Wheel

FOR the past three years, the Vancouver Canucks have been one of hockey’s fastest rising teams, going from cellar dwellers to Stanley Cup contenders in the process. Built patiently by General Manager Brian Burke, the Canucks have become a formidable opponent in the National Hockey League and should be formidable for many more years to come. However, of all the successes that Burke has achieved over the years, there is one area that his patient style has failed in, and that is the world of free agents. Where other teams have dived right in and fixed their teams instantly- or at least thought so- the Canucks sat back patiently, watching all of their targets get snapped up by more aggressive clubs. Fortunately for them, none of those free agents has ever been theirs- until now.Going into the free agent season, Scott Lachance, Andrew Cassels and Jason Strudwick all needed new contracts or else they’d walk as free agents. Given the fact all three were signed/drafted by the club, there was almost no reason why Vancouver wouldn’t be able to keep all three. However, due to their dilly-dallying, Lachance is already gone- taking $3.5 million over three years from the Columbus Blue Jackets ($500,000 more than the Canucks’ offer)- with Cassels and Strudwick about to be signed at any moment. Amidst all this, Canuck fans are seething with anger and some have even started to call for Burke’s head, wondering why Burke is just sitting there waiting for the players to come to him. Through his waiting, Burke is about to lose his biggest free agent acquisition to date- Cassels- and may subsequently see his club take a minor tumble next season since the replacements- if one can call Jeff Farkas that- are not exactly very adequate.

Through all this, one cannot shake the unmistakable perception that, even though the Canucks have a plan for winning the Stanley Cup, the Canucks cannot seem able to work it out properly. It’s like the Canucks are travelling down a straight road, driving along knowing that they’ll reach the destination they crave, but at the same time are asleep behind the wheel, completely oblivious to whatever obstacles that may stand in their path. For the most part, those obstacles have been rather minor, but now the obstacles have the potential to knock the Canucks badly off course, costing the Canucks some- or even all- of the work they’ve accomplished over the past few years. It is deeply troubling yet the Canucks seem unable to realize exactly what is unfolding right before their eyes.

It is undisputed that Cassels will be a major part of any success that Vancouver incurs. He’s one of the NHL’s best passers and, though he’s been bumped from the first line by Brendan Morrison, his talents haven’t taken a beating and his important role hasn’t decreased at all. The loss of Lachance may not seem big, but the defenceman was reborn in Vancouver, becoming a dependable and solid defender in the process, providing a nice bridge in the Canucks’ depth charts. As for Strudwick, all the defenceman can do well is fight, though he does have (rare) flashes of brilliance. Yet Burke is just sitting there, waiting for other clubs to take them, almost willing to let some of his best players just walk. Maybe he does know what he’s doing- everyone was just about to ask for his head after the Pavel Bure trade yet the club benefited more from the deal than the Florida Panthers, who received Bure. This year was also arguably the Canucks’ best since 1994, so there may be method to all this madness.

However, just look at what the Canucks have left on their roster, sans Cassels, Lachance and Strudwick. They have a clear No. 1 line (Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Morrison), a solid checking unit (Matt Cooke, Jarkko Ruutu and Trevor Linden), one of the NHL’s best goalie tandems (Dan Cloutier and Peter Skudra), two excellent defenders (Mattias Ohlund and Ed Jovanovski), a barely satisfactory second line (Henrik and Daniel Sedin and one of Artem Chubarov or Peter Schaefer) with minor leaguers filling up the rest. That is not a rosy picture by any standards and though it’s head over heels better than many other clubs in the NHL, that simply won’t do in the ultra competitive Western Conference, where the Stanley Cup is really decided. Until the Canucks realize that in winning there has to be a sense of urgency, they’ll always fall flat just before their goal gets in sight. Sleeping behind the wheel has always been dangerous, and one can only hope the Canucks realize this before it is too late.

-Daniel Grasso