The Vancouver Canucks finished atop the Western Conference with the NHL’s best overall record, but find themselves fighting for their playoff lives, down 3-1 in their opening round series with the LA Kings.
Few experts expected the Canucks would be in such a predicament so early in the playoffs, but the seeds for their demise were sown during the regular season.
Observers noted the Canucks were being outplayed down the stretch, winning games despite having bad habits and undisciplined play, while their once-vaunted offense sputtered.
The absence of top goal-scorer Daniel Sedin (concussion) down the stretch and in the first three games of their first round series was a crippling blow, especially to the power play, which was fourth-best in the regular season, but is currently among the post-season’s worst.
Left winger David Booth and oft-injured blueliner Keith Ballard, both on long-term contracts earning more than $4.2 million per season, have not played up to expectations.
Left winger Mason Raymond returned near mid-season from a serious back injury suffered during the 2011 Stanley Cup final, but couldn’t regain his offensive touch, a problem that dogged him prior to his injury.
Their struggles against the Kings led one pundit to call for coach Alain Vigneault to be replaced.
If the Canucks are eliminated by the Kings, GM Mike Gillis will face some difficult roster decisions in the off-season.
The Canucks currently have more than $55 million invested in 17 players for 2012-13. Raymond, goaltender Cory Schneider and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani are restricted free agents, while defensemen Sami Salo and Aaron Rome, along with center Samuel Pahlsson and rugged winger Byron Bitz, are unrestricted free agents.
Addressing the goaltending will be Gillis’ biggest decision.
Consensus around the league had Gillis trading Schneider because veteran Roberto Luongo, carrying an expensive, long-term contract with a full no-trade clause, was entrenched in the starter’s role.
Over the course of this season, however, some Vancouver pundits, bloggers and fans suggested the Canucks would be better off retaining Schneider and shopping Luongo.
Prior to their 3-1 victory in Game 4, the only good news for the Canucks was Luongo wasn’t the scapegoat as he’d been in recent playoff series losses. He played well in Games 1 and 2 and even his sharpest critics agreed he couldn’t be blamed for those defeats.
Vigneault, however, turned to Schneider in Game 3 and while the Canucks lost that game, Schneider was outstanding, leading Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province to wonder if the Luongo era was coming to an end.
Moving Luongo’s $5.3-million cap hit would certainly free up space to not only re-sign Schneider to a healthy raise over the $900,000 he earned this season, but also add either another scoring winger or a defenseman.
Trading the 33-year-old veteran, however, is easier said than done.
Though Luongo’s still considered among the league’s elite goalies, he’s garnered a reputation for failing in post-season clutch time. He also has 10 years remaining on that expensive contract, which will adversely affect his trade value.
Finally, there’s his no-trade clause, which gives him full control over where he goes, provided he’s willing to move.
Canucks fans would likely prefer if Gillis also dealt Booth and Ballard, but their respective performances, injury histories and salaries make them tough sells on the trade market.
Raymond could also become trade bait, though given the two-year slide in his offensive production, there might not be much interest in his services.
The roles of agitating forwards Alex Burrows and Maxim Lapierre, who each have a year left on their contracts, will also come under review. Of the pair, Burrows’ offensive skill makes him the most marketable.
Gillis might also have to find a replacement for Salo who, at 37, could opt for retirement.
If the Canucks fall short of expectations, their roster will face changes this summer. It’s anyone’s guess at this point if Gillis will merely tweak the lineup or make a bold move or two to shake things up.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.