Farewell to the Fallen

Canucks Oilers

Part of us knew it already. But part of us didn’t want to admit it. Vancouver never had enough to make the playoffs, let alone win a round in it.

But who can blame fans for this false sense of hope?

I mean, if you thought the hot blonde babe with the mini-skirt at your school was a tease, well meet this year’s Vancouver Canucks. 

Thursday night, this low-hearted squad confirmed everyone’s deep speculations and lost a must-win game to the non-playoff bound Edmonton Oilers. All Vancouver had to do was to put together a two-game winning streak for the remaining couple games to continue playing hockey. Apparently, losing six games in the last seven was the preferred route to go.

Getting back to my original point, can you blame fans for having some hope in this somewhat-overachieved team?

Canucks diehards can make excuses all they want – injuries, schedule, blah blah – but there were more ups-and-downs in Vancouver’s play this season than a Paris Hilton sex tape, if you know what I mean. And there’s no better way to describe it then to look at the schedule starting from February 16.

It was the fight-filled good-ol’-days brouhaha matchup with the Oilers where the Canucks won 4-2, uniting the city and drawing praises from even the most passionate naysayers. Vancouver added mustard to that energy by putting together a four-game winning streak, and the reigning North West division champions were on top of the world.

But that was exactly what it was: a streak.

This high reached its climax, and Vancouver lost its next four contests (twice to Colorado, once to Columbus and Chicago). At that point, emergency rooms were overflowing from the number of injuries suffered from people falling off the bandwagon. Joining them was the Canucks’ defensive unit, seriously.

Linden

As quickly as the city reached the peak of their celebration, it dropped down to despair, desparation, and disgust. But much like that afore-mentioned hot blonde babe, the Canucks toyed with its admirer’s heart. Yes, Vancouver felt a gust of wind and jumped to a three-game winning streak, followed by, you guessed it, a back-to-back defeat.

Playoff lives were being questioned and it seemed that Vancouver answered the calls, winning another three in a row. But that was it for the uphill climb as the Canucks put the ‘reek’ in ‘streak’, and dropped it’s next four. All hope seemed lost, but wait, Vancouver wanted to give its fans a little boost by putting together a dominating performance against the Calgary Flames last Sunday.

“The dream is alive!” … for one day. It’s like losing $200 at Roulette before the ball finally lands on your number, unfortunately, you only put down $2 worth of chips, giving you a winning that’s all but a miniscule fraction of your orginial loss. You think luck is finally on your side, so you keep going, but the only outcome is defeat until finally you’re out of money.

And that wallet emptied last night, as Vancouver’s crawl to a playoff berth was cut short. There’s one more game left on Saturday but win or lose, the rollercoaster ride is already over. Fan’s hearts have been played with long enough and it’s finally time for a break in the relationship. 

It’s time to say farewell to the team for a while, and maybe a farewell forever to several members of this year’s squad. We can cry, we can bitch, we can call our friends and complain all we want, but every Vancouver fan knows one thing: We will be back next season to have our hearts played with once again.

We’re all suckers that way.

Dust Off After Deadline

Just days after the trade deadline, the dust is starting to settle. The hectic – yet sort of disappointing – Feb. 26 resulted in some big names being dealt, but more importantly, several rumoured players not moving.

Olli Jokinen, Michael Ryder, Bryan McCabe, were just a few stars among those staying with their original squads as several general managers could not pull the trigger. When all was said and done, there were winners and there were losers. The Sports Corner takes a look at these teams.

Deadline Winners:

Richards

The Western Conference – It’s a broad choice but this side of the NHL really stole some star talents from the East. San Jose made a major splash by picking up Brian Campbell from the Buffalo Sabres, while the Dallas Stars won the Brad Richards’ sweepstakes. Both of these playoff teams jacked up their squads for the playoffs. Also, the league’s best team, Detroit, made their back end scarier with the addition of Brad Stuart, just imagine what the blueline will look like after Lidstrom, Chelios, Rafalski and Kronwall come back from injuries. 

Whichever team comes out of the East will be up against a very challenging opponent in the Stanley Cup finals because every contender in the West right now looks poised to claim the top prize. Early to say, but this Conference will probably repeat as champions. 

Colorado Avalanche – The day before the deadline headlined the Avalanche’s biggest move by signing UFA Peter Forsberg, bringing him back to the team where he won two Stanley Cups. This acquisition bolsters a threatening offensive unit, which is already seeing the return of Sakic, Smyth and Statsny. Colorado also got a gift handed to them as Adam Foote demanded a trade from Columbus back to his old team. It pumps this team up for a strong playoff run, and making them a legit contender.

Colorado made the most noise in their division, as the North West failed to respond. The Avalanche are desperate to appear in the post-season after failing to gain a spot last year. The addition of Foote and Forsberg will surely make a big difference on the standings for this Western squad. 

Washington Capitals – The Capitals made a statement on Tuesday. They want to be in the playoffs. And considering their moves at the deadline, they backed up that claim. Washington started off the day with a stunning trade by picking up Cristobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens for a second rounder. Then they went out and got more offensive help by trading for Sergei Federov from Columbus and Matt Cooke from Vancouver. Washington is ready to get this team back into the playoffs, and getting support for Alex Ovechkin is a great start.

The Caps are not far out from claiming the division title and with help coming to their team after Tuesday, the possibility is high. The East should watch out for Washington, a team capable of making some loud noise when the time comes. 

Deadline Losers:

Huet

Canada – Out of the six Canadian squads, there were six moves resulting in only two players coming to the hockey nation. Vancouver got Matt Pettinger from Washington, while Ottawa got Martin Lapointe from Chicago. The Leafs made the most deals, trading away three players for draft picks. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames stayed quiet, while the Montreal Canadiens were probably the biggest losers out of this country. They gave away Huet for something less then his value, and could not complete a deal for Richards or Hossa, two players they were heavily rumoured to acquire.

Montreal disappointed their fans, and is putting a lot of pressure on rookie Carey Price to lead them through the playoffs. They also failed to add any offensive punch, and the same can be said about Vancouver. The Canadian teams just couldn’t match the rest of the NHL with additions needed to take them one step further to the Holy Grail. 

Tampa Bay Lightning – Although they got rid of big salary players, they did not get back what could have been demanded. A player like Richards would have landed someone like, let’s say, Huet, who is considerably better then Smith. Prospal on the other hand, only got them a weak defensive prospect, and a second rounder. The Lightnings did not handle the proposal to the best that they can, and therefore, did not get the best possible return. A quick look at Atlanta, who got a steal for Hossa, and Tampa Bay could have learned some lessons from them.

Sure, they unloaded huge salary, but Tampa Bay was not efficient enough in trading off their big stars, and could have probably garnered better deals from other teams. 

Columbus Blue Jackets – Washington in the East made a statement that they will push for a playoff appearance. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, basically gave up any hope. Even though they are in position to get an eighth place spot, they decided to once again prep for next year. After they failed to acquire Brad Richards, they decided to trade off a couple stars on their team in Federov and Foote, instead of trying to get more help for Rich Nash.

The chances of the Blue Jackets making it into the post-season dance is pretty slim to none, and even if they manage to squeak in, they won’t make it far. It’s another disappointing season for this city, as they are the only NHL team to have not seen any playoff action in their history.

Too bad that streak will continue. 

Two Big Names for Sale, for Sure

Mats Sundin

Okay, one is guaranteed NHL shopping material, while the other is rumoured to be heading out of town as well.

On Friday, Atlanta failed to come to terms with any sort of extension on Marian Hossa’s contract, therefore, letting the rest of the league know that they will try and get something in return before the superstar bolts elsewhere when free agency hits.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Toronto Maple Leafs had two players sit out morning practice because of a flu. Yeah, right.

Captain Mats Sundin and defencemen Bryan McCabe were not on the ice, and the rumour coming out of the general manager’s office is that Cliff Fletcher asked Sundin for a list of teams he’ll be willing to go to. This doesn’t mean that Sundin will be traded, but it does show that Fletcher is flirting with the idea.

The Swedish centre ultimately is in control of his own destiny, as he can refuse to waive his no-trade clause and stay in Toronto, and maybe sign somewhere else in the off-season. Hossa, however, won’t have much power in his fate and as absurd as it might sound, he will also have to wait for Sundin’s decision before possibly getting moved.

The reason behind this is simple: Teams, who are interested in acquiring Hossa, is also licking at the lips to get Sundin. Some people may not agree with this, but Sundin is a hotter commodity then the ex-Senator.

Buyers around the league are going to hold off until they know of Sundin’s true intent before making their move. Teams would rather aim to get Sundin, but if their bid fails, Hossa is not a bad fall back option.

Marian Hossa

Although these two have been rumoured to be traded for quite a while, it’s not until five days before the deadline that the possibility of a blockbuster is heating up. This has to be credited to the fact that Hossa cannot come to terms on a new contract, and the attempts by Toronto to convince Sundin to waive his no-trade clause.

With all the recent hype, it would be a disappointment for the fans and the teams to not be able in unloading these two superstars at the deadline, and losing them for nothing in the free agent market.

It’s better for these two teams to use this weekend to shop their two superstars, and hear as many offers as they can, in order to prevent committing the same mistake the Edmonton Oilers did last year with Ryan Smyth.

Many teams are hungry for these two big names, and Atlanta and Toronto should take full advantage of it. 

NHL Still Waiting For Blockbuster

Cory Stillman

There is ten more days until the NHL trading deadline.

And the biggest deal so far is an Ottawa-Senators-Carolina-Hurricane swap that wasn’t all too thrilling. 

The lack of trades so far this year is astonishing, and disappointing, for fans who follow the game. When the biggest deal made, before the previously mentioned one, was a Doug Weight for Andy McDonald trade-off, then a light should go on within the NHL’s head.

Why are there so little trades?

The answer is simple. When you have 26 buyers in the entire league, there are very little opportunities out there for the general managers to complete any transactions.  

Every team is basically in the playoff run, excluding several bottom feeders, which means that they are looking to improve their team for this year, and not for the years after. In other words, they are looking for rentals, for lasting players, for star power, and for the final ingredient to complete their team. All we’ve seen so far are prospects, no-namers, and draft picks. Definitely nothing to text message all your hockey friends for, that’s for sure.

There is a shortage of squads in the NHL right now who are willing to give up a vital aspect of their team for prospects and picks because they are hanging onto the fact that they can still compete to win it all this year.

Cammalleri

Take L.A. for example, they know that they have no chance of winning,, that’s why names like Rob Blake, Ladislav Nagy, Mike Cammalleri, etc., are mentioned in trade rumours.

A large factor into this lack of sellers is the salary cap. Since the league is now on an “even playing field“, they are all competitive, which I’m not complaining about, but they also have to watch their spending limit. Some deals can not be made simply because the team cannot afford the player financially.

Last season saw some major deals sprung at the deadline, but the difference was that the standings were more divided, as opposed to the tightness of this year’s rankings. Even though names like Olli Jokinen are involved in hearsays, the Florida Panthers have a great chance at claiming a playoff spot, and they are more reluctant to give up the heart and soul of their team. Same can be said about a player like Marian Hossa, minus the contract negotiations and all.

There is no negative aspect in making the NHL more competitive in the standings, but it does deprive fans of being blown away by mind-boggling, team altering trades. In a way, it takes away from a fan’s experience.

The opportunity for diehard and arm-chair GMs to dissect and analyze a deal is now a rarity, unless of course a J.D Forrest for future considerations swap really entices you.

Rumours are only fun when some become reality. And so far, it hasn’t happened.

There is ten more days, and hopefully NHL fans can start getting excited about a new star on their team.

Shoot ‘Em Like Detroit

Henrik Zetterberg

Besides having the best defencemen in the league and some dynamic young forwards, there is one glaring reason as to why the Red Wings are the best NHL team.

They shoot the puck.

It might sound too simple but there’s no other possible explanation.

Heading into tonight’s schedule, the Red Wings average 34.6 shots on goal a night, ranking them first in the league. In comparison, Vancouver stands 25th in that same category with 26.2 shots average. 

More shots means more opportunities to record a goal; it’s the basic tactic which players learn at a young age. Detroit is second behind Ottawa with 172 tallies so far this season and to add to that impressive stat, the Red Wings are first in lowest shots against with a 23.8 average.

The Red Wings shoot from anywhere, and sometimes the most obscure shots finds its way through the opposing goalie’s equipment. Leading the pack for them is Henrik Zetterberg, who has 232 shots, putting him second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin. Vancouver just needs to watch some of Detroit’s games to understand their success.

How often do you hear a fan yell “shoot the puck!“? It’s like a broken record at GM Place.

The most obvious non-shooter for Vancouver would probably have to be Sami Salo. Even though he has considerably one of the hardest slappers in the league, he always hesitates to wind up. With 64 blasts on net so far, he only has one measly goal, and six assists. And how many times has he missed the net?

Sami Salo

Markus Naslund is also a target for criticism, especially since he used to lead the league in that department. The star forward might find results if he only plays more selfish by sniping the puck, instead of passing it off. 

Vancouver’s top shot getter is Daniel Sedin, who records a total of 144. Imagine how many more goals he would have on his stats sheet if he brought the puck in front of the net instead of cycling with his brother.

It’s like Gretzky’s old quote, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

In order for the Canucks to start piling up the numbers offensively, they have to start piling up the numbers on the shots-for column. The constant passing and the need to make the “perfect” play won’t do the team any good if they can’t put the puck on the opposing net.

A slap shot from the point can magically pinball it’s way into the net, but it seems like Vancouver’s pointmen don’t understand that concept. The forwards need to test the goaltender as much as they can, whether from awkward angles or from anywhere in the offensive zone. It’s pretty frustrating to watch a team control the play in the opposing area and not manage a shot on goal, and that frustration is always re-occuring with the Vancouver team.

It’s a fundamental skill, and a simple solution. Detroit has managed to stick with their system and game plan of bombarding the other goaltender with pucks, and look where they sit in the standings. Alain Vigneault needs to instill that ideology into his squad.

It’s like a secret recipe for Detroit that no one else seems to figure into their strategy. 

Think shot, think simple. It’s Red Wings’ hockey 101, and definitely a lesson this Vancouver team can learn. 

European Power Nowhere to be Found

Loob Farjestad

On the ice, the Europeans have broken the barrier many years ago. But off the ice, it’s a different story.

Players not from North America make up about 30 per cent of the league, not bad considering that number is constantly rising. However, how many of those Europeans end up working in a management position in the NHL?

The answer is three. Yes, out of the 249 possible hockey management jobs in the NHL, up until a month ago, three of them are held by an European. That’s a measly 1.2 per cent.

The trio – Jarmo Kekalainen, the assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues; Ulf Dahlen, the assistant coach in Dallas; and Ulf Samuelsson, the assistant coach in Phoenix – make up the microscopic contingent of non-North American blood.

Not only is this a shocking number, but the possibility that an European GM might take over the helm soon is highly unlikely. The only two ever European coaches failed miserably. Remember Alpo Suhonen and Ivan Hlinka?

Once Europeans finish their careers in the NHL, they tend to head back to their native country and stay there. But the question is, is the NHL losing potentially great management talent by not pursuing these Europeans?

According to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, he believes that it’s difficult for them to get into the North American network, with a large part having to do with the European stereotypes we’re oh so common with. The Europeans are not the ones to campaign for themselves or promote themselves, and fight for a GM job. 

However, there are a few names or candidates that would make a more worthy manager then some who holds that title right now. Campbell points out that the first name, which comes to mind, would have to be Hakan Loob.

The former Calgary Flames star is currently the GM of Farjestad in Sweden. This is the same team that has won four championships in the past eleven years, and in North America, we would call that a dynasty. But no NHL job has been offered to Loob yet.

Stastny

How about Peter Stastny, who’s currently in politics, or Igor Larionov? Mats Naslund and Jari Kurri is successful in running the hockey programs at both their respectable countries, while Euro scouts Thommie Bergman of the Leafs and Dan Labraaten of the Devils are well known for their ability at finding talent.

Have any of these men been approached?

Loob has a strong logic as to why Europeans aren’t holding NHL positions, which are dominated by North Americans.

“It you want to get something, you have to be more aggressive and tell people you’re capable and stand up for yourself a bit. I think maybe we don’t have the mental toughness to say those things. We have the mental toughness to do a good job, but not maybe to present ourselves as capable as we are. You hope without saying anything, somebody is going to ask you and it’s not that easy.” 

North Americans don’t find the time to understand the European culture or get to know how they would run a team. Everyone is too scared to be the first to put the control panel of their squad in the hands of someone not from these two countries. But until someone actually does, no one can say whether or not an European can get the job done.

Let’s say a Russian GM might be able to produce more undiscovered Russians on their team, and probably have more strings to pull overseas. Same goes for a Swedish GM or a Finn.  

They are capable of competing on the ice, and looking at international events, they are also capable of putting a team together and beating USA or Canada. Why can’t they do that in the NHL? or better yet, why aren’t they given the opportunity to do that in the NHL?

Sooner or later, there will be a first for an European GM. For now, the influence Europeans have on the NHL is at a bare minimum, and that’s not helping this game grow at all. 

No Life in Leader Markus Naslund

Markus Naslund

It’s on every fan’s list of how to improve the Canucks, and there’s no denying it.

Markus Naslund, the captain and the leader of this team, needs to start playing as such. I might be a couple years too late to point this fact out but I kept suppressing hope that Naslund would pop out of his long, long slump.

It still hasn’t happened yet, and last night was a prime example of that.

He did score a goal, but besides that 10 seconds of fame he was unnoticed throughout the entire game. He only registered one shot on net and he played on more lines then Kris Beech did teams in the past month.

Markus Naslund is the head honcho in the locker room. That means players look up to him, and when he has no emotion and energy, neither does his teammates. He honestly had more excitement in his lame jumbotron speech to the fans at yesterday’s game then he did with his play, and that’s not saying anything. Naslund was energetically-dead.

The city is getting sick of his lack of back-checking, his resistance of using the body, and his sloppy skating.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not like all the other Naslund bashers. I’ve supported this talented hockey player for years, and he’s always been my favourite NHLer. I’ve always had faith in him that he would return to his old self and dominate the ice, and find his most-feared wristshot. But that’s why it hurts even more for me.

Naslund himself knows that he’s not at his best. He’s not even close to his best.

His post-game speeches are ridiculous and cliched, his comments are not heart-felt, and his actions on the ice is as bland as Greg Millen’s quips. It’s like Naslund doesn’t even care.

Naslund

The numbers this Swedish native puts up is decent, but not appropriate at his calibre. The money he’s getting paid is not comparable to the product he’s showcasing. It’s apparent he’s struggling, and it’s not helping with the constant changing of linemates, but when did excuses factor into performance? 

It’s probably wrong of me to still assume that Naslund can lead this team to a Stanley Cup, but if something, or someone, lights a fire under him, this man still has the ability to humiliate the opponent. All the talk shows are calling for Naslund’s head, but I’m still waiting for him to shut all his critics up. But it just doesn’t seem likely with what we’re seeing lately.

How do you fix Naslund? How to you instill life into an emotionally-dead hockey player? How to you help the captain regain his old form and lead his team night-in and night-out?

The respect for this forward is slowly diminishing from the faithfuls at G.M. Place. Or at least it’s much less then that he recieved as he came out on crutches prior to an L.A. Kings game seven years ago with the whole arena giving him a long, thunderous ovation. That was the Naslund we loved. Not this ineffective, invisible, non-scoring buzz kill. 

It’s time for Naslund to step it up, and hopefully he can regain the ol’ Nazzy form in time to lead us to the promised land.  

Please Naslund, just start playing with some heart. Is that too much to ask?