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Scott Rintoul: Any Who Dat in These Cats?

by Scott Rintoul / Vancouver Canucks

Last year, many of the storied franchises in North American sports revisited their glory years.

The Pittsburgh Steelers won a record sixth Super Bowl, the cross town Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the third time, the LA Lakers snagged an NBA championship for the tenth time, and the New York Yankees celebrated an eye-popping 27th World Series.

But while 2009 was all about the repeat, perhaps 2010 will be kind to first-timers.

The New Orleans Saints had won just two playoff games in the club’s 42 year history prior to this year’s Super Bowl run, but Sunday’s victory gives hope to all of those organizations that have never laid claim to the ultimate prize in their respective sport.

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Canucks’ fans are well aware that their team falls into that category, and after four decades of frustration, Vancouverites feel they’ve waited long enough for their club to grasp the grail.

So if you’re looking for similarities between that superb Saints squad and the current Canucks, here are a few features the two have in common…

Second Class Superstars

Their play and statistics should put them among the upper crust in their respective sports, but the top guns on the Saints and Canucks have been late to be welcomed to the country club.

Despite leading the most touchdown passes in the NFL over the past four years, Drew Brees has long been overshadowed by the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre when the discussion of the NFL’s premier pivots arises.

Ditto for Henrik Sedin, who has always been a “yeah, but…” when hockey fans kick around the top centers in the game. Though the elder twin hasn’t shown off his goal scoring prowess until this season, only one player has more assists over the past four seasons than Hank. While some are touting Sedin as a Hart trophy candidate this season, it may take a run to the Cup to earn him the respect he deserves.

Brees climbed a couple of rungs on the quarterback ladder with an MVP performance in the Super Bowl, just like Henrik would assume his rightful place among the games top centers if he were to lead the Canucks to the promised land.

Hard Hat Heroes

Both clubs have players that have become fan favourites because of their unlikely paths to the spotlight. The Saints’ Pierre Thomas was a fairly good college player, but saw his stock fall when he was beat out for the starting running back job in his senior season at Illinois (by current Steeler Rashard Mendenhall). As a result, he was overlooked by everyone in the 2007 NFL draft and was signed in New Orleans as training camp fodder. But a funny thing happened along the way – Thomas outperformed 4th round draft pick Antonio Pittman and found his way onto the Saints roster. Fast forward three seasons and Thomas is the Saints’ starting running back, scoring the first Super Bowl touchdown in franchise history.

Vancouver’s version of that Cinderella story is, of course, Alex Burrows, who also went undrafted. His hard work in the ECHL led to an AHL tryout in Winnipeg, where he did enough to land a spot with the Moose. A couple of Canucks’ call ups earned him a legitimate look at training camp, where his abrasive, hustling style resulted in a two-way NHL contract. That in itself would have been a success story, but Burrows jump from third line agitator to first line sniper reads like something out of a Hollywood script.

Offense from Defense

Though New Orleans wasn’t ranked as one of the league’s top defenses in terms of preventing scores, the Saints led the NFL with eight defensive touchdowns this season.

Saints safety Darren Sharper was tops in the league with three scores of his own, leading a unit that was as much a threat to score as many of the offenses it lined up against.

The Canucks are no slouches in this department, ranking among the league leaders goals from the blue line. Christian Ehrhoff is tied for second among his defensive peers when it comes to goal scoring, tallying 11 times already this season.

Comparable Coaches

At first blush, the offensive minded Sean Payton doesn’t have much in common with Alain Vigneault, who has garnered a reputation as a defense-first coach. Look a little closer, and the Saints’ bench boss actually has a lot in common with the Canucks’ crew chief.

Born in the early 60’s, the pair is separated by just two years in age and each has been in charge of their current charges since 2006. Both were also named Coach of the Year in their first season at the helm and have led their teams to a pair of division titles during their tenure, although Vigneault is on pace to take the lead in that department this season.

Just like Vigneault has followed his gut with line combinations, Payton often plays hunches, as evidenced by his game-changing decision to begin the second-half with an onside kick in the Super Bowl.

They may not be mirror images of each other, but Vigneault would be more than happy to add another similarity to the list come early June.

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