After losing the Stanley Cup to the Bruins in 2011, questions immediately began to arise about the toughness and size of the Canucks. At some point, those same questions got to management, and the ‘stay the course’ attitude that had been preached, swiftly made way for a series of moves that has left the team grasping for an identity and on the outside of a window for success that is quickly slamming shut.
A recent history of bad moves
Over the past two years, the Canucks have made a number of reactionary moves in an attempt to get bigger, tougher, and better equipped to play ‘playoff hockey’.
Christian Ehrhoff was allowed to leave via free-agency; budding scorer Cody Hodgson was hurriedly traded for big, bruising Zack Kassian; and the overall direction of the third line has been changed numerous times. As the one responsible for the personnel, GM Mike Gillis has to shoulder much of the blame for the recent failings of the team.
One of Gillis’ major missteps has been his inability to provide working linemates for Ryan Kesler, who has been flanked by a revolving door of players that either do not belong as full time second liners (Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen immediately spring to mind), or players that simply do not compliment his game – most notably, David Booth.
Gillis has also failed to properly solidify what should be a position of strength on the team: the third line. With the Canucks able to deploy Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins as third line wingers, the line should be one that can be relied upon, however, since trading away Hodgson the third line has gone through a number of centers (Samuel Pahlsson, Derek Roy), none of which have worked. Mike Santorelli and Brad Richardson look to be useful signings, and Jordan Schroeder seems to be developing nicely, but it remains to be seen if the never-ending rotation at third line center ends with any of them.
So what does it all mean for the current team?
The Canucks need to re-establish an identity – any identity. This is where the litmus test for new coach John Tortorella lies. Tortorella will need to squeeze something new out of the players Gillis has kept confidence in. The past two seasons under AV saw a team struggling to recapture what it once was. Under Tortorella, that focus must change. The Canucks must forge a new identity, one based around hard work and aggression. You can see the groundwork being laid, and it seems as if the team is buying in, but there will be bumps in the road, and when those bumps come the players must continue to trust Tortorella’s system instead of falling back on old habits.
So far? So good. The team is winning and everything looks good. But what if things go south? The team will need something to draw upon.
The addition of Tortorella alone may be enough to fill some of the holes the Canucks have had. A player like Mike Santorelli will get a much better crack at making an impact on a team with a new coach where opportunity abounds for anyone willing to step forward and take it. There are no pets that are handed ice time based on what they’ve done in the past; there is no doghouse yet (unless you’re David Booth). This is where Gillis’ biggest hope lies – that on a suddenly level playing field any form of comfort that had crept into the team’s game is suddenly wiped away. Work ethic has been a major question surrounding the team over the past couple seasons, and if Tortorella is successful in instilling the team with more of a ‘lunch pail’ attitude, the results should follow, maybe not in the form of more regular season points, but in a team much better positioned to endure the grind of the playoffs.
But will it work?
A fresh start in a system like Tortorella’s is exactly what the current core needed. The scoring issues that have plagued the Canucks over the past couple of seasons should be improved due to Tortorella’s insistence the team plays in the dirty areas. Offensively gifted players like the Twins and Kesler will find a system where they’re encouraged to continue to attack instead of protecting a lead a breath of fresh air, and Torts history of giving his top players a ton of ice time should help cover a lack of depth the Canucks currently have up front.
There are, however, lingering questions surrounding the roster of the team. What was recently a strength of the organization, the depth the team had been so fortunate to have during its recent run of success has been chopped away at by the lowered salary cap and the youth the team has assembled isn’t yet ready to make an impact. It remains to be seen if enough of these questions are answered during the season to see the Canucks contend for the Stanley Cup again. If not, Gillis will need to find a way to improve the team through trade, which looks to be a daunting task given the Canucks current cap position, and would likely mean trading away draft picks or prospects – something the team should be loathe to do given the recent performance of its aging roster. If Tortorella isn’t enough to right the ship, and Gillis is unable to find solutions to the team’s longstanding problems, it will be his head on the chopping block and a new GM will control the rebuild another lost season would surely set in motion.
Follow Tyler Wilde on Twitter: @WildeCanucks