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Canucks hit their peak in January, Gillis says

Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis pauses as he speaks to reporters in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday April 24, 2012. The Canucks, who finished in first place overall in the NHL this past season, were defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in their first round NHL hockey playoff series four games to one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Darryl Dyck/CP

It was a startling revelation and came in the very first answer of Mike Gillis's postmortem of what went wrong with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team peaked in January – almost six months early.

On Jan. 7, playing on the road against the Bruins, the Canucks delivered a stirring 4-3 matinee win in Boston, where Vancouver suffered three brutal losses last June in the Stanley Cup final.

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The Saturday afternoon in January was a moment of elation for the Canucks. However, few would have guessed it was as amped up as the hockey team would be during the 2011-12 campaign.

"It was almost like playing a Stanley Cup final in the middle of the season," the Canucks president and general manager said in Vancouver on Tuesday, two days after the team collapsed in first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings.

"From that point on, I don't think our team ever collectively got their emotions together," Gillis said.

Gillis, in fact, said the team was "somewhat indifferent" toward the end of the season. It was indeed a weird final stretch before the playoffs, during which the Canucks booked a lot of one-goal wins, against weak teams, to claim their second successive Presidents' Trophy.

The assessment seemed like an indictment of the team, top to bottom.

But in the very same half-hour news conference, Gillis said he has "every bit of confidence" in head coach Alain Vigneault (who remained unseen on Tuesday), and described the character of the team as "relentless."

"I don't question the character of this team," Gillis said.

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Gillis plans changes – but not big ones. His biggest challenge is goaltending. Long-time starter Roberto Luongo is ready to waive his no-trade clause, after talking to Gillis on Tuesday morning. Cory Schneider, a restricted free agent, said he wants to be a starter, somewhere, playing 60 to 70 games.

While Gillis probably would like to keep Luongo and the ascendant Schneider, that seems doubtful, with Luongo likely the one to depart. Luongo, for his part, spoke decisively in the past tense on Tuesday.

"They've got a guy [Schneider]here that is going to be a superstar in this league for the next 10, 12, 15 years," Luongo said. "It is a business and that's the way it goes. I loved being here the last six years."

Amid all the arm-chair chatter, Gillis spoke about sticking with a long-term plan that is well-established over the four years of his tenure, which fits with the patient business style of the club owners, the Aquilini family. (Though, it must be said, Vigneault's absence makes people wonder if there will indeed be a coaching change, despite Gillis's praise of Vigneault.)

Gillis said he was committed to an offensive team, rather than one with a hard defensive shell, the type that is moving ahead this spring in the playoffs. He wants to add some more size, and some youth.

What is more intriguing is an unusual idea, a project already two years in the making, what Gillis called a "human-performance plan." Gillis is known for such seemingly odd ideas. When he first arrived, he took on the problem of fatigue, given the Canucks' brutal travel schedule – and the team's road record benefited greatly.

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It's all to find a "competitive edge," and Gillis hopes to have the new performance plan in place for the fall – specifically to deal with highs and lows, such as the high in Boston in January, a peak Vancouver could never regain, certainly not against the Kings when it mattered.

"We need to find a better way to deal with that, and we need to find it quickly, and that's what we're trying to do," Gillis said.

Daniel Sedin said he had "no answer" for the Canucks' severe lack of scoring, a drought that dates to February.

And, yet, the Canucks don't feel much farther away from a Stanley Cup than they were a year ago, when they fell 60 minutes short.

"We're not far away," Sedin said. "We have the guys in this room to do it."

The loss on Sunday to L.A. is still very raw in Vancouver. The pain percolated on Tuesday. Alex Edler, the defenceman who played a poor series, still seemed in a state of shock, eyes downcast. It was revealed Ryan Kesler – who hadn't scored since March 14 – played the last two months of the season with a hurt shoulder, and may need surgery.

In a room packed with reporters, Gillis expressed some frustration, too, half wondering if the questions lobbed at him seemed better suited to a squad that had a terrible season.

"I feel like we're Columbus sitting here right now," Gillis said. "We just had 111 points. Even though people like to think it was by accident, it wasn't. It's still a good hockey team."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

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