On Tuesday, Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis identified an emotional rematch in Boston as the turning point in a season that ended surprisingly early with a five-game loss to Los Angeles in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Vancouver won the hard-fought game with the Bruins 4-3 back on Jan. 7, but was never quite the same after that.
"I really felt the game in Boston for some reason was such an emotional and challenging game, it was almost like playing a Stanley Cup Final game in the middle of the season, and from that point on I don't think our team really ever collectively got their emotions together," Gillis told a packed press conference two days after being eliminated.
"It's a bad time to peak, if it's true," defenseman Kevin Bieksa said.
Goalie Cory Schneider, who won that game in his hometown, said it's tough to link one game in January to the end of the season, but added "guys were sore for a week after."
"I don't think people realize the emotion, the intensity … the physicality." Schneider said of renewing a bitter Bruins rivalry. "I don't know if that was the defining moment or not. You'd think winning that game would allow us to get to that level more easily."
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But the Canucks never reached that level again.
Gillis said his team looked "somewhat indifferent," even winning eight of nine to end the season with a second straight Presidents' Trophy -- despite missing concussed leading scorer Daniel Sedin -- and didn't snap out of it until falling behind 2-0 to the Kings. But he didn't sound like he was blaming the letdown on coach Alain Vigneault, whose job security has been questioned by many despite six seasons of unparalleled success.
"It gets exasperating sometimes," Gillis said. "This guy is the winningest coach in team history. We just won two Presidents' Trophies, lost in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final. Is that when you decide you are going to start getting rid of people?"
A better question -- what they'll do with deposed No. 1 goalie Roberto Luongo and the decade left on his 12-year, $64-million contract after Schneider started the last three playoff games ahead of him -- got a little easier when Luongo said later Tuesday he was willing to waive his no-trade clause.
But Luongo's future is not the only question facing Gillis.
A bigger issue may be how his Canucks fit into a shifting NHL, especially a Western Conference where big, defensively-focused teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, Phoenix and, to a lesser extent, Nashville all advanced in the playoffs, while skill-based squads Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit and Chicago were eliminated early in the first round.
"I don't think it's coincidence four teams left in the West don't have a player that averaged a point a game," Gillis said. "They all have outstanding goaltenders, they surround the guy, block tons of shots, limit scoring opportunities, and the teams that play more our style are out. You can't change mid-stream. I believe in offense. I always have. I believe the League believes in offense. If not we should change the name of the game to goalie."
After scoring just eight goals in the seven-game Cup Final loss to Boston, the Canucks only managed eight while being knocked out by the Kings. They can point to the absence of Sedin, who led the NHL in scoring last season, for the first three games of the series, but even with him they scored one even-strength goal in two games, with three others coming on the power play, an aspect of their game that also struggled since January.
Gillis, though, pledged not to change the team's direction or style.
"I believe in offense and I'm not going to change," he said. "Success goes in cycles and perhaps we were on the wrong side of the cycle this year, but it isn't reserved to just us."
As for charges he didn't maintain that pledge and altered the team's identity by acquiring checking center Samuel Pahlsson at the trade deadline and swapping rookie scoring center Cody Hodgson for power forward Zack Kassian, Gillis said it was more about moving Hodgson.
"There clearly were issues that were ongoing," Gillis said of Hodgson, who was the first pick of Gillis' tenure, selected No. 10 in the 2008 NHL Draft. "I spent more time on Cody's issues than every other player combined on our team the last three years. We made a determination he didn't want to be here and built him into something we could move."
Gillis said they purposely put Hodgson in offensive situations, limited his defensive exposure to improve his value, and made a list of six young players he wanted as part of any trade. At the deadline, said Gillis, only one became available: Kassian, a rookie power forward who didn't even dress with the Canucks facing elimination in Game 5.
Despite that, Gillis said he'd do the deal again, citing Kassian and David Booth, who was acquired from Florida in an early season deal but only scored one goal the final 16 regular-season games and none in his first playoffs, as keys to finding more offense in the evolving League.
"I don't regret that trade," Gillis said. "Zack is a commodity that is impossible to get if we develop him and make him into the player we think he can be. We're going to continue to try to get younger, bigger and stronger in the context of having an offensive team."
That increased size appears to be the key to breaking through the big, collapsing defenses that kept them from the front of the net the past two playoff rounds, according to Gillis.
Staying healthy would help too.
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa wouldn't get into specifics, but "has something planned" -- perhaps surgery or just a cast -- to deal with an injury that kept him out of four games late in the season. And center Ryan Kesler, who scored 41 goals last season but none in the final 17 games this year, might need surgery for a shoulder injury that he said has plagued him since February.
"I'm not going to make excuses," Kesler said. "I wasn't good enough down the stretch."
Outside of the goalies, not enough Canucks were -- maybe not since January.