When Todd Bertuzzi came to the Vancouver Canucks in 1997-98, he was a first round draft pick on the verge of being dubbed a bust. One of his new teammates, Markus Naslund, was a season in with the Canucks and he too was a first rounder flirting with the b-word.
Naturally, it only made sense to try them on a line together.
That came to fruition in 2001-02 and the result was downright frightening, but still, something was missing.
Enter Brendan Morrison.
Line-juggling from coach Marc Crawford had Vancouver’s top two trios mish-mashed midway through the 2001-02 season and, for reasons unknown, on January 9, 2002, Crow shifted Trent Klatt to the second line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin and bumped Morrison up for his first appearance alongside Naslund and Bertuzzi.
Despite the Canucks losing 5-4 to the Detroit Red Wings, it was clear Vancouver had struck gold with Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi on a line as they scored twice - in the first period alone.
The move helped Naslund and Bertuzzi continue to terrorize the NHL to the tune of a combined 76 goals and 99 assists for 175 points to finished second and third in league scoring behind Jarome Iginla; Naslund improved from 33rd in scoring a year prior to 2nd overall, while Bertuzzi jumped 78 spots from 81st to 3rd.
The Canucks had never had two players in the Top 20 in NHL scoring, let alone two in the top three.
The departure of Andrew Cassels from the Canucks the following summer and more line shuffling left a void in between Naslund and Bertuzzi; enter Morrison, again. He was permanently moved up to the big line.
Through that promotion, the West Coast Express was officially born.
Nicknamed after a fleet of trains and highway coaches that provides commuter service along a 65-kilometer route between Mission and Vancouver, the West Coast Express, aka, Naslund, Morrison, Bertuzzi, took on a life of its own.
Like a trio of superheroes each with their own distinct power, Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi all brought something unique to the West Coast Express.
Naslund: Skill. Morrison: Speed. Bertuzzi: Size.
Unlike the molasses slow start for the Miami Heat’s three superstars of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in the NBA, Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi had chemistry out of the gates, producing right from Game 1.
In a 3-0 season opening win over the Calgary Flames, the West Coast Express combined for four points with Morrison scoring the game-winner.
Three games later against the Boston Bruins, Vancouver’s top line came together for a goal for the first time with Bertuzzi scoring his first of the year from Naslund and Morrison.
Opposing defence were child’s play for the West Coast Express from that point on.
During Vancouver’s franchise-high 104-point season, Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi finished with an astounding 119 goals and 153 assists for 272 points as all three players set career-bests in goals, assists and points, marks that none came remotely close to touching the rest of their careers.
From the blueline, Kevin Bieksa had as good a view as anyone when the West Coast Express steamrolled opponents.
“All three of them had different skill sets,” said Bieksa, “obviously Todd was the big bruiser who went into the corners and protected the puck well and had good touch around the net, Markus was the shooter and the guy that would carry the puck the most and Brendan was just the perfect compliment to them, he could give the puck off to both guys, he was opportunistic.”
“They left me a lot of two-on-ones,” laughed Bieksa. “They did some special things out there and there were nights when they’d be on and they’d dominate and you couldn’t get the puck off them. Those were fun nights to watch.”
Two of those nights were back-to-back home games in late February 2003 when Vancouver torched Columbus 7-2 and Atlanta 8-0 a night later with Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi accounting for six goals that the entire trio was in on and 26 points all together.
Crazy as it sounds, for how much the West Coast Express wrecked havoc throughout the 2002-03 season, the big three only came together for 28 goals where one scored and the other two assisted – an even balance of 11 goals for Naslund, nine for Morrison and eight for Bertuzzi.
If the mark of a great player is making others around them better, than the same criteria applies to a great line and there’s no doubt the West Coast Express did that.
Of the Canucks who played at least 60 games that season, five set career-highs in points, including Matt Cooke with 42 points (15-27-42), Henrik Sedin with 39 (8-31-39), Brent Sopel with 37 (7-30-37), Sami Salo with 30 (9-21-30) and Artem Chubarov with 20 (7-13-20).
Vancouver’s widespread scoring helped it finish second in goals in 2002-03 with 264 (an average of 3.22 per game), yet the NHL didn’t overlook the West Coast Express as the main bulk of scoring.
Mikael Samuelsson split that year between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins and although he only faced the Canucks once, Morrison scored twice and Bertuzzi added another in a 3-1 Vancouver win over New York.
“They were good,” said Samuelsson. “Bertuzzi, Morrison and Naslund… I was never on the ice when those guys were together early in my career, but I watched him from the bench and they were good, especially Naslund, he scored some really nice goals.
“That line was top notch in the NHL back then, if you could stop them, great, but they were going to have a couple of chances each game for sure.”
Stopping the West Coast Express wasn’t an option, slowing it down barely was, and if regrettable circumstances hadn’t gotten in the way of its production and chemistry, 2002-03 would have just been the tip of the iceberg.