The Canucks aren’t ready to roll over and die in the West. They believe they can reload and win with the Sedins. It’s time for the twins to prove them right.
If Ornskoldsvik wasn’t real, some hacky hockey scribe would have invented it anyway. The tiny Swedish town is a picturesque burgh of fewer than 30,000 people, situated on the water and home to some of the greatest hockey players the nation has ever produced, from Peter Forsberg to Markus Naslund. It’s also where two of the best current players in the NHL hail from in Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Every summer they go back to their hometown and decompress near the sea, where the boating is excellent and fellow NHLers such as Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman live nearby. But the first two weeks of this off-season’s vacation time were awful, as the clouds that followed the Sedins around during 2013-14 seemed to jump across from North America. Only in July did the skies clear in Ornskoldsvik. Now the twins are hoping their future in hockey will once again be beautiful as well.
The Canucks experienced a jarring 2014. For most of last season, Vancouver was a playoff team in the homicidal Western Conference. But injuries, controversies and finally exhaustion hobbled the B.C. boys, dropping them out of the post-season picture altogether. GM Mike Gillis was fired after the season was over. Coach John Tortorella followed him to the guillotine a month later, after just one year behind the bench.
“It was disappointing for sure,” said Daniel Sedin. “Up until Christmas, we played pretty well. After New Year’s, something happened. We couldn’t really turn it around, and that’s up to the leaders on the team. It’s not something you can pin on one guy.”
Gillis and Tortorella didn’t help matters by botching the team’s relationship with stars Roberto Luongo and Ryan Kesler, both of whom were eventually moved. The Luongo deal was particularly galling since Gillis had already dealt rising star goalie Cory Schneider at the 2013 draft. So instead of having two No. 1 goalies, the Canucks were left with inexperienced Swedes Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom – essentially, two backups.
Some in Vancouver believed the team played too slowly under the defense-minded Tortorella, though none of the Canucks were looking to make the former coach a scapegoat. “I don’t think we were too slow, but we weren’t scoring as much as we usually do, and that hurt us,” said defenseman Chris Tanev. “We were playing a little more defensive. We’ll see what happens with the new coach and GM.”
Enter the new cabal. Trevor Linden is now president while former Buffalo and Boston exec Jim Benning is GM, splitting the portfolio Gillis held. And Willie Desjardins was brought in for his first NHL head coaching gig, a move universally applauded by the hockey world. They’ve been tasked with turning the Canucks around, and when Benning signed 2010 Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller as a free agent, it became abundantly clear Vancouver was reloading, not rebuilding. Last season could be fixed. “From the outside, it seemed as if they didn’t have the same energy at the end as they did in the first three-quarters of the season,” Benning said. “They’ve always been a skill team that has used speed to score and wear teams down. We want to do what we’re best at: taking pucks to the net and playing a skill game.”
Whatever success Vancouver has this season will go through the Sedins. Not long ago, they were, accolade-wise, the best players in the NHL. Henrik won the Art Ross and the Hart trophies in 2009-10, while Daniel followed the next year with the Art Ross and Ted Lindsay – the MVP as decided by the players. The twins also piloted the Canucks to within one game of a Stanley Cup, dropping Game 7 of the final at home to Boston.
Now, they’re tasked with rebounding from their worst season since their early NHL days. The easy answer is to blame Tortorella. The coach had the Sedins killing penalties at a much higher clip than in previous seasons under Alain Vigneault, but Daniel poured water on the notion shorthanded duties weighed on them. Under Vigneault, the Sedins were blessed with generous offensive zone starts. In 2011-12, for instance, the pair started a gobsmacking 79 percent of their shifts in enemy territory, while linemate Alexandre Burrows finished third in the NHL at 74 percent. Only Tampa Bay offensive defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron (who played just 47 games) came close at 71 percent. But to assume the Sedins were sheltered would be wrong. Based on the usage charts compiled by hockey researcher Rob Vollman, the Sedins were tasked with facing the toughest competition of any Vancouver players in recent years, along with defenseman Dan Hamhuis and the now-departed Ryan Kesler. So while the Sedins don’t bring to mind burly two-way pivots such as Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, San Jose’s Joe Thornton or L.A.’s Anze Kopitar, Daniel doesn’t believe there’s any stylistic reason why Vancouver can’t beat the West Coast titans. Residing in the Pacific Division, the Canucks will have to go through one or two California teams if they want to even get to the conference final. In 2013-14, the Canucks went 2-9-3 against those division rivals.
“You look at those teams, you look at the Rangers, Chicago, Boston, even Montreal – they all have a deep lineup,” Daniel said. “They have four lines that can score and do the little things right. They have good defensemen from No. 1 to No. 8. That’s what we need to get back to. When we went to the Stanley Cup final, we had the deepest team in the NHL. If you have depth, you can play anyway you want to.”
That notion of depth played a big role in Benning’s summer and the new GM even roped geography into the equation, something that has been a passion of the Canucks organization for years now. “We have tough travel in Vancouver,” he said. “We need to be a four-line team. Every player is going to be important.”
So while netminder Miller was the biggest name to sign in free agency, Benning was also happy to acquire Derek Dorsett from the Rangers at the draft, as the former Blueshirt brings energy to the bottom six. Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, two of the assets exchanged by Anaheim for Kesler, have contributed right away, while Radim Vrbata was brought in to play on the top line. “He’s a give-and-go player,” Benning said at the time. “We feel he’ll work well with the Sedins.”
This naturally brings up the inelegant question of what to do with Burrows. As a pesky goal-scorer, he’s long been the favored running mate of the twins, but he suffered through a wretched campaign that included two major injuries (foot, then jaw) and an incredible run of bad luck that kept him out of the goal column until March 12. In fact, Burrows scored all five of his goals during a one-week span, and then went cold again for the remaining 10 games, missing one more contest due to a hand injury. For him, this is just another challenge to overcome in a pro career that began with him going undrafted and busing around the ECHL before gritting his way to the Sedins’ wing.
“Satisfaction is the beginning of regression,” he said. “Never be satisfied. Keep working hard. I had a tough year with injuries and broken bones, but it’s a new year, a new chapter. A lot of us weren’t too happy with the season we had, and it’s a fresh start for a bunch of us.”
And Burrows isn’t fazed by the new guy vying for his job. “Funny story,” he said. “I used to play junior with Radim in Shawinigan. He was a first-liner, I was a fourth-liner, but I got to play with him for a few games back then. During the past decade, I’ve always talked to him during warmups. We’ve gotten along. If he’s with the twins, great, or if I’m with them – at the end of the day, winning is more important than personal stats. That’s how I’m looking at it.”
And that’s how the Canucks as a whole are looking at it. By replacing the failed Gillis/Tortorella brain trust with Linden, Benning and Desjardins, Vancouver has given itself a blank slate.
“It’s all really positive,” said center Shawn Matthias. “It’s going to be a great culture and everyone is really excited to get started, buying in already to the new regime.”
Desjardins was a canny hire. He’s never had an NHL team to call his own, but he has plenty of experience at many levels and was coveted in the off-season. His most recent masterpiece was in the American League, where he led the Texas Stars to a Calder Cup. He also has two Western League championships thanks to his eight years in Medicine Hat, where the Tigers never missed the playoffs and only failed to escape the first round once. “His teams play a fast game,” Benning said. “They move the puck fast, they support each other and they work hard. Even in Medicine Hat his teams had discipline and structure.”
Having Linden at the top is a big help, too. The most popular Canuck in history has been drawn back to the city time and again, only now he’ll wear a suit full time. He has the support of the Sedins and that stretches all the way back to 2001-02, when he returned for his second stint as a player in Vancouver.
“Me and Henrik have a lot of respect for him,” Daniel said. “Our first four years in Vancouver were tough, and he was a great supporter. He gets a lot of respect from the fans, and he’s a very smart hockey guy.”
Burrows also championed Linden, and he believes the hirings made by the new president will help the Canucks get back on track. Now the question is whether Vancouver can regain their position among the upper echelon of teams in the West and compete for a Stanley Cup. Miller is a proven commodity in net who had an unfortunate short-term stay in St. Louis but loved his Olympic experience in Vancouver and is excited about playing in the city. Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa will anchor the blueline, while Alexander Edler can only go up after a disastrous season under Tortorella. And up front, there’s the Sedin-based attack that has been so effective for so long now. That’s assuming 2013-14 was an aberration, which is what the franchise and the twins themselves are counting on. “We need to produce,” Daniel said. “That’s the bottom line.”
They’ve gotten to the apex of the NHL before, but in an impatient league, the Sedins will once again have to prove they can hang with the big boys. But at least they’re not alone. Benning has surrounded them with talent because he has already seen their commitment. He saw them in the weight room in late May, a month and half after the season was over, before they headed back to Sweden. “They’re elite players in the league and world-class athletes,” he said. “I don’t worry about them. They’re going to come back. As a group, the players are going to come back hungry.”
But will hunger be enough? Los Angeles, Anaheim and Chicago are proven winners, while San Jose, St. Louis and Dallas want a piece of the Western crown as well. Just getting to the post-season will be a challenge for the Canucks, who can no longer count on playing in hockey’s worst division (the old Northwest). That’s the challenge that has unfolded in Vancouver, but it’s one the Sedins accept. “We don’t want to be anywhere else,” Daniel said. “And we don’t want to win anywhere else, either. People are excited about hockey here. They love it when you’re winning and they hate it when you’re losing. That’s what you want as a player.”
This is an edited version a feature that originally appeared in the September 15, 2014 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.