How the injury bug took a bite out of the Canucks Stanley Cup hopes
Anytime a good team loses in the playoffs, they’re hesitant to use the “I” word – injuries. The traditional hockey media has permanently associated the word “injury” with another term – “excuse”. The implication is that even when a team incurs a series of costly injuries, they’re not allowed to “use injuries as an excuse”. And I don’t fully understand why. Firstly, the only reason one would use an ‘excuse’ is when there’s some kind of positive consequence to be derived, i.e “my dog ate my homework” is supposed to keep you out of the detention you could receive for not doing your homework. When a coach, GM, or player admits that their team were suffering through some injuries, it doesn’t make any difference – they’ve already lost, and there isn’t very much to gain from making such a statement.
That’s why in this case I’d prefer to use the term explanation. Is there a good explanation for why the President’s Trophy winning team, who was dominant all season long in the league’s toughest conference, was outscored 21-4 in the last five games of the Stanley Cup Final?
#1 – Defence
Hurt: Hamhuis (Game 1 vs. Boston)
Playing hurt: Ehrhoff (injured shoulder – game 3 SJ)
All year, the strength of this team was their defence, but by game 25, that was no longer the case. Hamhuis in particular was a huge loss, as he was playing on the shut-down tandem with Kevin Bieksa. And playing a team that rolls 4 lines like the Bruins, it makes a huge difference when your 3rd pairing goes from Salo-Rome to Alberts-Tanev. Not only is the 3rd pairing itself unacceptable, but it means other players – namely Sami Salo – are forced to play higher in the lineup. At nearly 37, Salo’s body has suffered tremendous wear and tear; he’s missed a staggering 148 games since the lockout (with injuries to his knee, groin, achilles, ribs, wrist, eye, nose, shoulder, back, finger, foot, and ankle – just to name a few). Even Edler and Alberts were playing hurt by the time game 7 came around (Edler played game 7 with two broken fingers).
Perhaps the Canucks could have overcome all these injuries if Keith Ballard were in his old form. Ballard posted 149 points his first 5 NHL seasons, and was a top-4 d-man his entire career prior to joining the Canucks. At the very least, he should have provided solid depth for the playoff run. It’s hard to know whether injuries were to blame for his drop in play (he did miss time this year with a concussion), or whether other factors were involved, but it’s safe to say that Canucks GM Mike Gillis didn’t anticipate that Ballard would be passed on the depth chart by all of Salo, Rome, Alberts, and Tanev when he acquired him last year for Grabner, Bernier, and a 1st rounder.
#2 – Forward
Playing hurt: Kesler (since game 5 against San Jose)
Hurt: Samuelsson (missed last 2 rounds), Raymond (missed game 6+7)
It was apparent to all that Ryan Kesler hurt his groin in game 5 of the San Jose series. He didn’t miss a game, but he also produced just 1 assist in 7 games and lacked the jump that he displayed in the first 3 rounds. In a series where the Sedins were unable to find the back of the net (despite creating a lot of chances), the Canucks lack of secondary scoring ruined any chance they had of winning their first Stanley Cup. The second line was exposed with the second round injury to Mikael Samuelsson, and while Chris Higgins filled in admirably, he really has no business being in the top-6 of a contending team. (I think he had about 4 breakaways – Thomas stopped them all). The lack of offensive depth was further compound by the loss of Mason Raymond in game 6. The third line played well, but none of Torres, Lapierre, and Hansen have enough skill to score with any consistency. Last year the Canucks were condemned for being too soft up front, with skill players like Grabner, Wellwood, and Demitra drawing the flak. How they could have used some of that skill in the last round.
#3 – Goaltending
It’s easy to blame Roberto Luongo. He was down early on the opening goal of game 6, then let a weak one through his legs, then guessed wrong on a screened point shot before being relieved by Cory Schneider. He was unable to shut the door in game 7, and dashed all hopes of a comeback when he let Patrice Bergeron’s body (along with the puck) coast by for the 3rd goal. That being said, the Canucks scored 8 goals in 7 games – and they scored one goal or less in five of those games. Even Tim Thomas himself would have had trouble with that kind of support. Some people forget that in the Canucks three wins, Luongo let in only 2 goals on 97 shots, with his team winning all three contests by one goal. Yes, he was bad in the four losses, but his margin of error was miniscule. He may not be a franchise goaltender as many once thought, but he certainly isn’t the problem.
Road to the final of unequal length
Consider the Canucks three opponents and then contrast that with the Bruins three opponents and you’ll have a pretty good idea why the Canucks were more worn down. The Bruins played against the likes of Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec and co., or ‘les petits gens’ for 7 physically relaxing games. Don’t think any Bruins got too beat up there. Then they swept the normally tough but injury-ravaged Flyers in four games. Finally, they played the Lightning, whose most aggressive player (Steve Downie) is about 5’10, 190. Many of them had decent size, but Lecavalier, Stamkos, St. Louis and the rest are gentle, finesse players.
And then there’s the west. The Canucks played a long, hard-fought series against the Blackhawks, which really ramped up in physicality after the Raffi Torres demolition of Brent Seabrook. Then they played 6 physical games against Nashville, taking punishing blows from Weber, Suter, Tootoo, and co. on a shift-by-shift basis. Finally, they played 5 tough games against a big, physical San Jose team, with Doug Murray playing the role of wrecking ball for 23 minutes a game.
Implications for future Stanley Cup predictions
With so few great teams in the league today, it’s tempting to make predictions based on which group is the healthiest. Looking back, that should have disqualified last year’s cup finalists, Chicago and Philadelphia – both of whom dealt (understandably) with injuries to key players. This should also disqualify Detroit, as many extended cup runs followed by short summers have taken a toll on the oldest group in the NHL.
Last summer I predicted a Detroit-Philadelphia final, with Philly taking the cup. Then in April, I picked a Vancouver-Philadelphia final, again with the latter as the victor. Fail on both counts. To get a very small piece of redemption, I’ve compiled a few bits from past articles that show that I have some idea of what I’m saying…
(March 17) “David Krejci is one of the most underrated players in the league, and young players like Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand are having break-out years. Bergeron, Horton, Ryder, and the ageless Mark Recchi have been good all year long, and the additions of Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley added even more depth, character, and versatility to a solid group.”
(March 20) “Vancouver and Boston – perhaps the two most complete teams, judging by their combination of size, skill, and elite-level goaltending… “
(April 11) “…Boston does have a small resemblance to the ’07 Ducks, albeit a poor man’s version (ANA: Giguere, Pronger, Niedermayer, lots of size and skill up front, defensive minded coach; BOS: Thomas, Chara, Kaberle, lots of size and skill up front, defensive minded coach).”
League Leaders in regular-season goal differential:
#1 – Vancouver (+77)
#2 – Boston (+51)
(April 12) – Rankings
Boston – F: Very good; D: Very good; G: Elite
Vancouver – F: Elite; D: Very good; G: Very good
““In a game where teams are split into three positions – forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders – you need to be elite or near elite in at least 2 of the three.”
-Vancouver and Boston were the only two teams I rated as at least “very good” in every single category. When these rankings were weighted and totalled, Boston and Vancouver were the two highest rated teams. Probably should have listened to myself when making that cup final prediction…