Brad Richardson’s tying goal, with four Canucks and Cory Schneider within an arm’s reach, should never have happened. That a fourth-liner like Richardson can outwork Henrik Sedin, Alex Edler, Keith Ballard, and David Booth is, well, astounding. This is the second time in the past two playoffs that an eighth seed has knocked off a one seed (Habs in 2010), but this has already been an unpredictable playoffs (even for hockey standards). What’s worrying is that the Kings have dispatched the two-time Presidents’ Trophy champs so quickly, and that the series wasn’t won by talent, but by sheer focus and work ethic.
Ryan Kesler vs. Mike Richards
Mike Richards struggled all year in his new surroundings and tossed up a 44-point regular season effort, his worst total in five years. But when the puck dropped in Game 1, you could tell that something clicked, that Richards was in familiar territory. And that was the truth – in his breakout 75-point season in 2008, Richards drew first blood by scoring on a penalty shot against Cristobal Huet before ousting the third-seeded Capitals. In 2010, as captain of the Flyers, Richards led his squad to an upset over second-seeded New Jersey in five games en route to the Finals. Being the underdog is familiar territory for Richards, and the bump-and-grind, rough-and-tumble playoff-type hockey is perfectly suited for his gritty two-way game. Darryl Sutter was the perfect coach to bring out the best in Richards too, a demanding coach who didn’t have the luxury of such a quality centre during his days in Calgary, and in case you missed it, Richards was the first guy Sutter bumped fists with after Stoll’s OT winner.
The key debate heading into the series was goaltending, with the Kings unable to find their offensive mojo all season and the Canucks rolling with a healthy lineup and confident with either Luongo or Schneider in net. But head-to-head it was Kesler vs. Richards, two players of similar ilk who provided their teams with immeasurable flexibility and depth, and there was no doubt who won in that matchup. Kesler reverted back to his diving ways, forgetting that this aspect of his game was non-existent last year when he scored 41 goals and won the Selke. He was constantly frustrated by the much more even-keeled Richards and fortunate the referees didn’t call a single diving penalty on him. The player that single-handedly eliminated Nashville last year was nowhere to be found at any point in the season. The argument is that perhaps Kesler just never found his groove, missing training camp and a large chunk of the season, but I don’t buy that argument. I don’t think the deciding factor between Kesler and Richards was based on talent or conditioning, but simply attitude.
Kesler shouldn’t be singled out, although he does deserve a lot of the blame. The Canucks never looked like the best team in the league at any point this season, unlike last year when it felt like facing Henrik-Kesler was climbing Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank. The team was largely unchanged from last year’s Finals squad, and the Canucks could’ve done nothing at the deadline and escaped with minimal criticism, and even though Cody Hodgson would’ve undoubtedly made a much bigger impact than Zack Kassian (4 GP, 4:51 TOI) in the series, Hodgson alone wouldn’t have swayed the outcome. (I also highly disagreed with the way Vigneault used Hodgson. Sure, he was protecting him, but I think that only slows Hodgson’s development. Young players make mistakes and they need to learn from them. Keeping them away from situations where they’re prone to mistakes means they don’t really learn anything, and for young offensive players, you live with their mistakes knowing that you can recoup the losses years down the road.)
Having so many centres gives Vigneault tons of flexibility, but he never used that to his advantage. Max Lapierre lessened the pressure on Malhotra and Kesler by winning 51 per cent of his faceoffs. But after acquiring Pahlsson, Lapierre was essentially banned to the wing where he was used as a band-aid, temporarily plugging holes and doing anything from scoring (with surprising effectiveness with Henrik) to simply being Malhotra or Pahlsson’s wingman. Even when Henrik (39.5%) and Pahlsson (47.5%) were struggling in the circle, and knowing that Malhotra has very limited uses, Vigneault still refused to play Lapierre in the dot, who ended up taking a grand total of seven faceoffs all series.
There just weren’t too many looks the Canucks could throw out there to keep teams on their toes. It was understood that the Canucks’ undisputed top line was the Sedins and whoever managed to win the lottery that night. Kesler was the second line, Pahlsson on the third, and Malhotra was used only in specific situations. The Kings was similar in that Kopitar and Brown played together most of the time, but again, the key was Richards, who was used all over the lineup, from the opening puck drop with Kopitar and Brown to a makeshift checking line with Richardson/Lewis and King or a scoring line with Carter or Williams. The Canucks either didn’t have that kind of flexibility with Kesler or Henrik or just never bothered to really try.
After the game, Alain Vigneault declined to comment on his job status, but right now, he’s certainly on the hot seat. He got out-coached in the Finals last year and again in the first round this year. The Canucks have won just one out of their past nine playoff games, and some of the losses were just ugly. If that’s not stagnation, or simply just a huge step backwards, I don’t know what is. Bob McKenzie doesn’t think Vigneault lost the room, and I don’t think so either, but the old saying in pro sports is that you’re hired to be fired, and perhaps a new voice in the room would help.
Mason Raymond is a favourite whipping boy of the Canucks fanbase, yet I sympathize because sometimes I wonder if his struggles stem from the fact that Vigneault doesn’t really know when or how to use him. In Daniel’s absence, Raymond played 1:25 on the powerplay in Game 1 and then 2:58 in Game 2 (by far his best game with 7 SOG) but didn’t score in either game. His lack of finish is both perplexing and frustrating, and his particular skill set still makes him an offensive player, but by Game 3 he had somehow been transformed into a penalty killer, logging 2:08 on the PK. In Games 4 and 5, Raymond didn’t log a single minute on special teams, and played just nine minutes in Game 5 even though he came close to giving the Canucks the lead on a wraparound attempt. Logic dictates he’s gone at the end of the season and I wouldn’t be surprised if he scores 20-25 goals elsewhere.
Vigneault also shouldn’t have relied on Edler when he clearly wasn’t on his game and constantly making breakout passes to the wrong team, or shuttling just Booth and Burrows between the first and second line, or taking Kesler off Richards. His stubbornness is well-known, and I just don’t think he’s a particularly good motivator, or at the very least, not nearly as good as Claude Julien or Darryl Sutter.
But let’s give credit where credit’s due – Vigneault is a good coach. A Finals appearance and two regular season titles are proof that he can produce results. He’s also well-versed in advanced statistics, but I’m more of the Brian Burke school of thought in that I think numbers can only support, not illuminate, and Vigneault seems constantly flummoxed when his players don’t play like they’re supposed to, and the only way he can handle those situations is to repeatedly hit his head against the wall (figuratively).
Is change necessary? I’m inclined to believe that Vigneault won’t be fired this season (which means no Montreal), because you have to give a coach who led your team to the Finals a longer leash than that, but if the Canucks are off to a slow start in October, the axe is going to fall. It has to. You can’t help but feel that the Canucks’ window for winning the Cup is rapidly coming to a close, and that firing Vigneault may be the drastic move that wakes up this Canucks team, with the alternative being a complete overhaul of the entire roster.