VANCOUVER – His words were barely audible, but the pain and disappointment etched across Ryan Kesler’s face spoke loudly.
Many of Kesler’s Vancouver Canuck teammates spent Thursday offering explanations and theories on why their team was knocked out of the NHL Western Conference semifinal by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kesler didn’t make excuses. He took ownership of what happened.
“I’ve been having a lot of sleepless nights,” sighed the gritty centre. “I wasn’t there for my team when they needed it.
“I’d like to think I’ve become a big part of this team. When I’m not playing on top of my game, it’s going to hurt the team’s success.”
While Kesler may have been alone in his honesty, what he said applied to many of the Canucks.
A team that won its division by collecting a 103 points during the regular season, and set a franchise record with 30 wins at home, lost in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in four years. After beating the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, Vancouver was eliminated by the Hawks for the second consecutive season.
Kesler played against Chicago with a sore shoulder, but maintained it was self-inflicted wounds that killed Vancouver’s hope of winning the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.
“They didn’t beat us,” said the Selke Trophy finalist. “We beat ourselves.
“You have to give them credit. They capitalized on our mistakes in Games 3 and 4 and that was basically the turning point of the series. We have to learn from that. We have to learn once you have a game plan you have to stick to it. We always have to put the team ahead of ourselves.”
Forward Alex Burrows led Vancouver with 35 goals during the regular season. He managed just three in the playoffs, and two of those went into an empty net.
Burrows wasn’t ready to throw himself on his sword like Kesler.
“We could have gotten a few more breaks,” said Burrows, who denied having any serious injuries. “It would have been nice.
“Our special teams and discipline kind of cost us. We have to be better next year.”
Henrik Sedin won the NHL scoring title with 112 points and has been nominated as a league MVP. He couldn’t explain why a Canuck team with talent and playoff experience crumbled under pressure.
Vancouver gave up two short-handed goals against Chicago, took too many undisciplined penalties, and lost three games at GM Place while being outscored 17-7. The penalty kill and power play were also erratic.
“We have the team in here, we should have made it further,” said Sedin. “We are a better team than losing in the second round.”
Veteran defenceman Sami Salo said the Canucks have enough playoff experience not to keep making the same mistakes year after year.
“I thought last year was a good learning experience,” said Salo. “We should have known what we did wrong and how to move on.
“This year we kept doing the same things over and over. Right now is the time to really discuss and address those things.”
The Canuck core will remain intact for the next several seasons. Goaltender Roberto Luongo begins a 12-year, US$64-million contract next season. Kesler, the Sedin twins and Burrows are also signed for the foreseeable future.
Vancouver has roughly US$46 million tied up in salary to 15 players next season. If the NHL salary cap is US$57 million, that gives general manager Mike Gillis about US$11 million to work with.
The Canucks need a big, strong defenceman that can move people out from in front of the net. They also could use some size and strength on the forward lines.
Luongo agreed an upgrade in talent won’t solve the mental breakdowns Vancouver suffered.
“The main reason (the Canucks lost) is we didn’t get the job done at home,” said the Canuck captain. “We lost our composure a few games.
“Why those things happen (is) not something I know the reasons. It’s something we need to look at and address.”
Luongo was great some nights during the playoffs but looked average or worse on too many others.
He denied fatigue was a factor, even though he helped Canada win a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics.
“Right after (the Games) it was pretty tough to get back up emotionally, the first week or two,” Luongo said. “But down the stretch and into the playoffs, I was fine. I felt energetic, I felt good, I felt strong. I don’t think that was an issue.”
Some people believe being the captain puts extra pressure on Luongo, something a goaltender doesn’t need.
Luongo diverted speculation he may give up the C next year.
“I love being captain,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t have any problems with it.
“That being said, right now is not the time, after an emotional loss, to be thinking about decisions like that.”