The finest evening of every playoff season is that moment when Satan's Team has to hang its collective head and go through the handshake line, congratulating the superior team that has just ended the Vancouver Canucks' season.
We reached that moment quickly this year, as the 'Nucks went down in five games to the Los Angeles Kings, and took the walk of shame back to their locker room Sunday evening. What's even more encouraging than simply seeing them lose again is the possibility that we may be seeing this franchise turning a corner and heading down the road towards mediocrity.
In pro sports, we often talk about a franchise's "window of opportunity," a period of time when various factors combine to present the chance to win a championship. It often takes just the right combination of factors - veteran talent peaking, young players contributing more than expected, a couple of injury-free seasons, etc. - to create optimal conditions. Eventually, most teams succumb to the flip side of those factors: The team's core gets old, young talent never achieves its potential, veterans demand more money or leave via free agency and the window can snap shut rather quickly. (See: Minnesota Vikings, 2001 and 2010.)
Normally I hate to kick someone when they're down, but in the case of this franchise and its fans, I'm willing to make an exception. Some of the problems facing the Canucks:
- With an average age of 27.96, they are among the oldest teams in the NHL. The Sedins will turn 32 before the next season begins, Luongo just turned 33 and Bieksa will be 31 in a few weeks. There are very few examples of teams getting better when their core players move into their 30s.
- Salary cap issues. The Canucks spent right to the salary cap this year and have the league's fourth-highest payroll at about $68 million. They have four forwards (the Sedins, David Booth, Ryan Kesler), three defensemen (Bieksa, Hamuis, Ballard) and a goalie (Luongo) who take up $44.6 million, and all of them are signed through 2015 except for the Sedins, who are signed through 2014. That's not a lot of cap flexibility, and if the CBA negotiations this summer actually LOWER the cap, the 'Nucks are in a world of hurt.
- Goaltending. They are committed to paying Luongo $6.7 million a year for the next three seasons, yet they have had to pull him in each of their last two playoff series. The conventional wisdom in Vancouver is that they'll try to trade him this summer, but how many teams are willing to take on a $20.1 million commitment for a 33-year-old goalie with barely a .500 career record (32-29) in the post-season? And how much would those teams be willing to give up? Meanwhile, Luongo's backup, Cory Schneider, is a restricted free agent after making $900,000 this year. It would seem that they will need to give him a big raise and a long-term deal or else risk having him leave after next season.
Their general manager is in the last year of his contract, their owner is a hot-headed, foul-mouthed jerk and, well, they are the Vancouver Canucks. If there's any justice in this world, the franchise has passed its peak without a Stanley Cup to show for it, and their fans can look forward to another 40 years of unhappy handshake lines.