VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks have shown the talent and skill to become one of the elite teams during the NHL’s regular season.
What general manager Mike Gillis thinks the team needs now is players with playoff experience who can push the Canucks to the next level and challenge for a Stanley Cup.
“We are at the point where we have shown we can win the division two years in a row,” Gillis said Friday. “We’ve had a huge up tick in performance during the regular season by a number of players.
“We know they can perform at the highest levels. Now we need to get them the support they need to perform in the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Gillis spoke to the media for the first time since Tuesday’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks that eliminated Vancouver from the Western Conference semifinal in six games. It was the third time in four years the Canucks had won the Northwest Division but failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
The loss to the Hawks exposed Vancouver’s need for a shutdown defenceman plus more speed and size on the forward lines. Instead of saying who he’d like to get, Gillis talked about the kind of player he wants.
“Experience is a major factor,” he said. “We have very few guys that have gone far into the playoffs.
“You need experienced players who have been there, who don’t deviate from the game plan when the pressure is on, and who continue to be patient and play.”
Gillis was at a loss to explain why a team that had 103 points during the regular season, and was second in the league in goal scoring, became so unravelled against Chicago.
“We clearly didn’t compete the same way during the playoffs as we did in the regular season,” said the former player agent who became the Canucks’ 10th GM in April 2008. ‘We have to take some time and evaluate why that happened.
“It’s a little too close to it, I think, to start assessing what went wrong. We had players that had career regular seasons and we didn’t get the same performance in the playoffs. We have to figure out why.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said the Canucks need to get bigger and stronger.
“In the Chicago series, they won the battle in front of both nets,” Vigneault said. “Those are issues we are going to analyze in the next couple of weeks.”
Vancouver has proven talent.
Henrik Sedin became the first Canuck to win the NHL scoring race with 112 points and has been nominated as a league MVP. Goaltender Roberto Luongo helped Canada win a gold medal at the Olympics. Forward Ryan Kesler is a Selke Trophy finalist for the second consecutive year.
Overall, seven Canucks had career seasons.
But in the playoffs Vancouver lost to Chicago for the second consecutive season, and looked bad doing it.
Gillis said the series turned when the Hawks scored a short-handed goal late in Game 2. Chicago went on to win that game and never looked back.
“We didn’t match their emotional level,” said Gillis. “I can’t sit here today and say we were the better team.
“Our team lost its focus, lost its discipline. We have to get to the bottom of why those things occurred. We need to definitely improve in certain areas with the personnel.”
Vancouver’s core, players like Luongo, Kesler, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows are all signed, mostly to long-term deals.
Looking to next year, Vancouver has US$46 million committed to 15 players. If the NHL salary cap is $57 million, that leaves Gillis with around $11 million.
Gillis can either add players through free agency or trades.
“If we have an opportunity to improve on July 1, we are absolutely going to take it,” said Gillis. “If that opportunity isn’t there, we are going to have to develop it.”
Gillis also stressed the need for the young players in the Canucks organization to start reaching their potential.
“We need to have young players step up here and push to make this hockey team, play games for us and contribute,” he said.
Gillis refused to apologize for is not making a major deal at the trade deadline when the team knew defenceman Willie Mitchell was done for the season due to a concussion.
Gillis said he received “the most preposterous” offers, mostly asking him to give away young talent for players that would become free agents this summer.
“I wasn’t trading our good young players,” he said.
One thing Gillis would like to see next year is a reduction in the games Luongo plays. The Canucks goaltender played 68 regular season games, plus at the Olympics.
“If playing less games is the answer, so Roberto is the freshest he can possibly be for the playoffs, of course we are going to look at it,” he said. “That’s the logical thing to do.”
That mean’s Cory Schneider could get the job as Luongo’s backup.
On whether Luongo will remain the team captain, Gillis said it’s an issue that will be discussed over the summer.
“We will see how he feels about it and tell him how we feel about it,” Gillis said.