Only three years after nearly winning the Stanley Cup, the Vancouver Canucks have spiralled into a state of seeming chaos.
The team traded goaltender Roberto Luongo, kept forward Ryan Kesler and cannot score goals – and amid the swirl, a cold fact remains: The franchise is on a trajectory to miss the NHL playoffs for the first time in six years.
The Luongo trade on Tuesday marked the end of an era in Vancouver, one in which the Canucks, for several years, ranked among the very best in the league.
Wednesday’s expected trade of Kesler was the possible beginning of a new era, where the Canucks wrest themselves out of their sudden quagmire and spring back to the status of contenders.
It didn’t happen. And after the trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. (EST), an avalanche of recriminations piled up.
Kesler said he was still happy to be a Canuck, but his basic frustration – dim prospects of team success – remains unanswered. He wants to play for a winner and the Canucks will have to somehow sate that ambition or his desire to get out will not change.
Numerous proposals for Kesler were put forth and considered. They were viewed by some people outside the organization as solid, if not generous, but the final arbiter, the Canucks, did not see anything adequate by their measure.
“None of the possibilities fit with our expectations today,” team president and general manager Mike Gillis said.
Through it all, there was the behind-the-scenes voice of team owner Francesco Aquilini, who has always been deeply involved in the business of his hockey team, even if he leaves the real work up to Gillis.
Some critics say the hands-on touch has made a mess. That is far too simple a view. The mud the Canucks are enmeshed in is not the doing of a single individual, but a collective failing.
The disaster began to unfold the year after the near-Cup run, when the Canucks had won another Presidents’ Trophy but were down two games to none to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Luongo was benched for backup Cory Schneider in Game 3, and it was, in hindsight, the demarcation point of decline.
A Luongo trade was botched, which led to Schneider being sent away instead. Along the road, the team’s potency and performance on the ice disintegrated, exemplified by the incredible decline of Daniel Sedin, who is now injured and likely out for the season.
It was this downward spiral that led to Kesler’s upset, and like the Luongo saga, the Canucks could not, or would not – and in any case, did not – pull the trigger on a trade Wednesday.
Head coach John Tortorella did nothing to help the situation, and has worsened it – in particular his explosion in Calgary in January, which was “dangerous and an embarrassment to the league,” in the words of the NHL as it suspended him for a half-month.
The rupture exacerbated every problem and, today, with less than six weeks left in the regular season, little promise remains – for now.
The hope for Vancouver is Aquilini’s money can buy some sort of quick fix this summer, with Luongo gone and the salary cap shooting higher and other factors equalling something like $15-million (U.S.) with which to work.
“We feel confident,” Gillis said about this summer, deals at the draft and into free agency. “We’re going to be in a good position.”