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Taking the Next Step

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
 I know, I know. The Canucks season ended on Saturday and the players packed up their things and scattered for the summer on Sunday.

It’s taken me a little while longer to clean out my mental locker about what happened down the stretch, where it all got away from this hockey team and why the Canucks won’t be there when the playoffs start on Wednesday night.

To their credit, no one in the organization used injuries as an excuse for the team’s late-season swoon. And at the same time, it is impossible to analyze the season as a whole and not acknowledge that the many injuries suffered throughout the year contributed to the club’s downfall. But injuries happen to all teams in hockey and while it’s true that they take their toll, they also provide opportunities for others. And at the end of the day – and the season – the Canucks didn’t get enough from those left to carry the load to get the job done.

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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As Alain Vigneault has pointed out on several occasions, it’s a credit to the team that it hung in as long as it did. And in many ways the coach is right. But as Dave Nonis also made crystal clear in his year-end meeting with the media on Monday at GM Place missing the playoffs in two of the past three years can never be accepted by the organization or its incredibly loyal fan base.

And it’s for that very reason that Nonis promised changes will be made. How drastic and wide-sweeping only the general manager knows for sure. But certainly from remarks made by Vigneault on Monday it sounds like the changes will begin with a slight reduction in Roberto Luongo’s workload. And for all involved, that would seem like the right thing to do.

As busy as the star netminder was down the stretch a year ago, people seem to forget that the Canucks won almost every game to close out the 2006-07 regular season. The mood was light and the pressure (although they were in a battle for the division title) wasn’t nearly as high as it was this year when the Canucks found themselves in a dog-fight just to stay in the playoff mix for the final two months of the season. Throw in Luongo’s off-ice family situation and it was clear – even if the ultra-competitive goalie wouldn’t have agreed – that he needed a few nights off instead of starting the team’s final 31 games during which the Canucks went just 13-13-5.

With a fresher Luongo and a healthier defence, the Canucks are bound to be better in their own end. So the changes on the back end should be minimal although the time has likely arrived for the Canucks to move some of that depth on defence in an attempt to bolster their offence.

When you look back now at the Northwest Nine (those final nine divisional games) that sealed the Canucks’ fate, there are many examples where this team needed just one more goal to make a difference. On March 21st, the Canucks fell 2-1 at home to Minnesota, on March 25th they lost 3-2 in Calgary and with their season hanging in the balance, the Canucks dropped a 2-1 decision to Edmonton that eliminated them from playoff contention. A goal here or a goal there in any of those games and the Vancouver Canucks could very well still be playing this season.

With Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Taylor Pyatt, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and Matt Pettinger under contract for next season, the Canucks have a number of building blocks in place up front. But through trade or free agency, the organization has to complement that group with a couple of scorers. Dave Nonis knows that and said as much on Monday and it would seem he has the resources to work with this off-season to make it happen.

The Canucks also have to figure out what they want from a fourth-line and whether they have the component parts in the organization in guys like Mike Brown, Rick Rypien and Jeff Cowan or whether they have to add a bigger, stronger, feared forward to their summer wish list as well.

With some money to spend along with the assets they’ve stockpiled on the farm, the Vancouver Canucks appear to be well-positioned to achieve their off-season remodeling goals. But like the games they play on the ice, the Canucks are bound to run into stiff competition in the free agent market, too. It’s not as simple as identifying potential players and lobbing money in their direction.

Free agents want to see leadership and direction and the will of an organization to win. They want to see what’s already in place and where they’ll fit in and how they’ll be used to help a new team succeed. To that end, the Canucks can promise anyone interested in coming this way the chance to step in and assume a high-profile role on one of the team’s top two lines.

This past season is over. There’s nothing the Canucks can do about it now. It was disappointing and it ended far sooner than anyone wanted it to. But there’s no sense in dwelling on it although that’s bound to occur because it always does in this city.

Everyone has their own opinion, but the only opinions that really matter belong to Dave Nonis and Alain Vigneault. It’s up to them to figure out what went wrong -- and why those things happened -- and then get on with the hard work of fixing the problems so that the Canucks are in the mix when the Stanley Cup playoffs roll around at this time next year.
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