Thursday, April 22, 2004

Cleaning out the Locker

The two teams that many hockey fans thought would be playing well into June are instead cleaning out their lockers this week. It was a sudden and disappointing end to a season that was supposed to lead to a championship.

Ottawa and Vancouver, young and fast, both with a solid line up of veterans and rookies. Teams that have raised the expectations of their fans the last three years, only to crash them to the ground by the time the playoffs arrive.

And as this season ends much like the last one, and the one before it. Questions are being asked and changes are being demanded. Both teams have been held up as the renaissance of how hockey should be played, a mix of European and North American hockey styles, smart teams that could load up the net as well as deliver the punishing body checks. They provided exciting, offensive oriented hockey, the antidote to the evil trap system that had taken over the game. Yet, when it came time to lift up the Stanley Cup, both teams were long gone from the chase.

Interestingly enough both teams have problems in some similar areas. Goaltending let both teams down during the regular season and at key moments in the playoffs. Will there be changes in the net. Ottawa most likely will have to look for a new goaltender, Patrick Lalime’s confidence seemingly shot in one period in game seven in Toronto. Vancouver’s situation is a little different, Dan Cloutier’s injury didn’t allow him to prove once and for all that he was the guy to lead them out of the wilderness. Entering a year where he can demand a much larger salary through arbitration if he wishes, the Canucks will have to decide whether he showed enough during the regular season to warrant an investment. Alex Auld most likely has confirmed his reservations with the Canucks for whenever the next season begins, Johan Hedberg is as gone as gone can be. The Canuck Management seems to have lost any confidence in his ability to get the job done.

The late season additions for the Canucks did not work out at all; Geoff Sanderson and Martin Rucinsky never quite seemed to fit into the mix that the Canucks were putting together. Their playoff performance negligible, it’s not expected that they’ll be in a Canuck uniform come the next training camp. And questions remain about how long the Sedin experiment should go on, the twins showing flashes of brilliance interrupted by long stretches of nothing. Vancouver fans are split on the twins, some feel they’re coming along fine, others figure they’ll never amount to anything of value. Markus Naslund watched as his seson turned sour at the end, never the same on the ice after the Steve Moore hit on him in Colorado, Naslund seemed to be distant through the stretch and playoffs. A point that Brian Burke highlighted in his end of season address to the media.

Of late Naslund has given the impression that he wouldn't be terribly disappointed if there were no hockey next year, effectively ending his time as an NHLer. He's said if the league were to suspend operations due to a labour dispute he might not return from Sweden in two years, instead keeping his family there and finishing his time in hockey out in the Swedish league. Perhaps it's just the diappointment of what could have been, but he looked like someone who was mentally tired of the pressure of hockey in Vancouver.

Over in Ottawa Peter Bondra didn’t have a stellar playoff, but his talent warrants a second look for a full season. Radenk Bonk the enigmatic centre will most likely be gone, disappearing completely in the playoffs he is far too hot and cold to be considered a dependable asset. His poor performance in the playoffs dragged down his talented line mates with him, to get the best out of Hossa and Varada you need to have somebody willing to feed them the puck. Scratch Bonk from your Sens depth charts.

The final question was answered Thursday morning in Ottawa. Jacques Martin had many chances to get the Sens to that next level of success. Excellent regular seasons wasted by a poor playoff performance. It seemed at times that Martin and GM John Muckler were working for two different teams; such was the feeling surrounding the handling of the talent on the ice and the motivational strategies off of it. With the Senators firing Martin they have started the sweeping motion, it will be interesting to see who else gets pushed out the door.

Marc Crawford Vancouver’s’ coach doesn’t have to worry about unemployment, Crawford having signed a multi year deal earlier in the season. And even though it appeared at times that the players had stopped listening, or were not prepared for the task at hand, his contract status and paycheck should buy him a little piece of mind.

His boss however may find that his parking space is given away shortly. The Brian Burke years have been a massive success off the ice, taking a team that was averaging 8,000-9,000 a game when he arrived and taking it to the point of every game being a sell out at GM Place. A completely dysfunctional squad in those years, reaching the lowest point with the reign of terror from Mike Keenan, has been transformed into a team that has been considered the next big wave. Burke should be allowed to rebuild this team to take it to the next level, his work thus far has made the team a success off the ice, he should be allowed to finish the job on it.

Yet today, Burke sits twisting in the wind, as John McCaw and Stan McCammon take stock of the situation. Burke insisted on contracts for Crawford and Todd Bertuzzi, at a monetary value that the bean counters may not have agreed on. With Bertuzzi having a rather dismal year on the ice by his standards and getting himself suspended with team on the hook for a large fine for his attack on Steve Moore, the Canucks may wish to hold Burke accountable. Add into the mix Burke’s combative nature with the Vancouver media and he’s got to be feeling a little unsure of his status.

The distraction of his contract status must have had some kind of effect on his team in the stretch; the team’s slump coincided with the daily reports of their GM on the verge of being fired. He stood up and refused to break up his core group of players, the loyalty not returned to him in the playoffs. He’ll have to move some of them now, salaries and non performance dictate change, the biggest decision for the Canucks is whether he will be the one to make those changes or whether he’ll be the biggest change made.

Two teams with similar styles and similar problems, the Senators have begun the road to new ideas and a new approach. The Canucks are still pondering their options; decisions could have an impact on them for years to come.

No comments: