Saturday, December 11, 2010

Maybe the Blackhawks Were Just Better Than Us

I've said before that Vancouver fans and media often suffer unfortunate bouts of tunnel vision when it comes to the Canucks. A Canucks' win is followed by praise, and a Canucks' loss is followed by blame, but nothing is ever attributed to the opponent. How did they play? Who plays for them? Is anybody on their team talented? Apart from gushing over Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or tonight, Steven Stamkos, we often assume the guys who play for other teams have about as much volition as the targets in Hogan's Alley.

Recall an instance earlier this season when Alain Vigneault stood up for his defensemen following a game-winning Kings goal: "It was a simple 2-on-2 and two of their good players beat our two good defencemen and that's going to happen." It's incredible to me Vigneault needed to remind people that the Kings have players who can score, even on guys who are supposed to stop them from scoring.

Guys like Roberto Luongo, who takes blame for any goal, regardless of the circumstances. Did you know that a large part of an NHL players' livelihood is scoring on superstar goalies? They can do that.

With this in mind, it's typical that Vancouver's two consecutive oustings at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks have been painted as little more than collapses, disappointments, or failures on the part of the Canucks. It seems nobody's been willing to consider the opponent, or perhaps even utter the anathematic truth that, even at the Canucks best, the Blackhawks were just better.

The Kurtenblog pointed some of this out a month ago, but let's return to the argument. Consider the offseason turnover in Chicago: up against the cap, the Blackhawks were forced to jettison Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, Adam Burish, and John Madden. Among others. Effectively, they lost their entire bottom-six and the brunt of their defensive depth.

How is the former Blackhawks' bottom-six doing for their new teams? Incredibly. Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd are one and two in Thrashers scoring. More impressive, Ladd has been named Atlanta's captain, and Byfuglien is doing that scoring from the back-end. Brent Sopel leads Atlanta in blocked shots by a wide margin (20 more than the next closest skater), and Ben Eager is tops in PIM and hits. In Toronto, Kris Versteeg is averaging just over 20 minutes a night. He's 5th in goals and points, 3rd in shots on goal, and 1st in takeaways. But the most incredible thing about lost members of the Blackhawks playoff roster is this: they're all still in the NHL, and only Colin Fraser averages less than 10 minutes a night (at 9:56).

Canucks fans celebrated the somewhat sad dismantling of one of the deepest NHL rosters we've seen in decades, while ignoring the fact that their team actually underwent a similar turnover. Our bottom-six is effectively gone too, as the Canucks willfully said goodbye to Kyle Wellwood, Pavol Demitra, Ryan Johnson, Shane O'Brien, Michael Grabner, Steve Bernier, and Matt Pettinger. Demitra, Johnson, Wellwood and Pettinger are no longer playing in the NHL, and Grabner nearly suffered a similar fate after the Florida Panthers, who acquired him in a trade, placed him on waivers at the end of training camp. Steve Bernier has been playing on the fourth line. And Shane O'Brien has the third-worst plus-minus on the Nashville Predators.

I'm cherry-picking stats a little to make my point, but still: one year removed from a playoff series Vancourites label as a Canucks collapse, former Chicago Blackhawks are making names for themselves in the NHL. Meanwhile, former Vancouver Canucks are adding umlauts to their jerseys in Europe.

Do you think this had something to do with the outcome last May? I know we might hate to admit it, but it's possible the Blackhawks were simply icing a better team. In fact, it's more than possible. It's likely. In fact, it's more than likely. It's just true. Yes, we had a Selke candidate; so did they. We had a gold-medal winner; they had three. We had an Art Ross and a Hart. They had a Norris, and a Calder, and a Conn Smythe. And, behind these guys, they had an NHL roster.

It's hard for Canuck fans to see past their own team. We know our guys; we know their shortcomings and their potential, and we expect them to step it up. But, more often than not, we're just fooling ourselves and hoping for an upset. The Chicago Blackhawks team was so good that their bottom-six could be the top-six on other teams. The proof is in the pudding. Vancouver's bottom-six, on the other hand, was so questionable that, six months later, they're the bottom six for teams in Europe. I know it's tough to admit, what with the grudges we hold, but the Blackhawks were an incredible team. The Canucks played them well, but when they lost, we shouldn't have blamed them.

We should have blamed the Blackhawks.


  1. Has anyone argued that the Canucks were better than the Blackhawks? There's no way any person with common sense would believe something that stupid. Their bottom six was the reason the Canucks lost. The Sedins had nothing on them.

  2. That's fair, but at the same time, the guys the Canucks parted with that left the NHL, had the potential to be better, and weren't. Consider that the third line of Bernier, Wellwood and Demitra was made up of guys who had all played on the second or first line that season (or for Demitra, the season before, because the top two lines were set once he came back from injury).

    Wellwood, for a while, led the team in goals. I remember vividly how hard he played during the stretch after his first call-up, and how he'd cut into the net and get close with that short stick of his and just wow the hell out of me, and the rest of the fans. Before he secured his spot, there was a beautiful time when we all thought maybe we'd secured the top six catalyst we needed for free.

    Of course, then he started to slow down, and I've always felt he knew that the Canucks wouldn't risk putting him on waivers. AV put him in a third line checking role and he adapted, but it's like once he was there, his attitude was, "scoring's not my job anymore, you guys do it."

    Bernier was a big body who had shown crazy offensive talent on occasions, but he just refused to live up to potential, ever. He was like Kovalev, only instead of putting everything together when he felt like it, he just never would. With the Sedins, he had empty net tap-in after empty net tap-in that he didn't bury, but no one deluded himself into believing he couldn't.

    Demitra was just awful after his injury. I don't have much to say on this. He wasn't going to be a healthy scratch, but he couldn't play with the big boys effectively anymore.

    Ryan Johnson never got a fair shake, I've always believed. Of all the guys no longer in the NHL, he's the one who still deserves a spot the most.

    Shane O'Brien was doomed after games 3 and 4 of the Blackhawks series. The Canucks just got frustrated, got angry, got undisciplined, and the poster boy for that rage was O'Brien. It's a bit unfair when even Daniel Sedin blew up a little, but O'Brien was also sort of a prima donna as I mentioned in another comment, so I don't mind.

    All this is my way of saying, that the Blackhawks had a better team was the fault of a few people on the Canucks. Wellwood, Demitra and Bernier were all Gillis's signings. Still, we can't blame him completely, because they were expected to gel together and play as a shutdown line. Worst, though, is that the Canucks went into the playoffs advertised as a team that had real scoring depth, three lines that were a threat on any given night, and the third line didn't perform anywhere near their potential. That falls on Bernier, Wellwood and Demitra. That, and the lack of emotional discipline, really hurt the team.

    The Canucks just went against a team that could easily capitalize on their troubles.

  3. Canucks-only disease (disregarding the free will of the other team) is running rampant on Canuck message boards, to the point that -- based on yesterday's game against Edmonton -- there are now complaints even if the Canucks dominate for 55 minutes! There's a guy who's not even complaining about "excuses" for a loss, but actual analytical reasons! Like there shouldn't be any!

    I don't understand where the expectations that the Canucks are comfortably the best team in NHL history come from...


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