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Canucks, Hockey, Sports

The History of the Northwest Division (Part I)

by Tyler Rowe The indomitable Brian Beitz, formerly of SmugNation (kidding!) and now a pupil at UVic Law, which he tells me was created solely to save the environment, actually managed to see though the green haze his life has become to point out something interesting the other day: Northwest Division (1999-2013) championships:

Vancouver Canucks – 7

Colorado Avalanche -5

Calgary Flames – 1

Minnesota Wild – 1

Edmonton Oilers – 0

Read past the jump for a whole lot more. 

I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Know what I’m saying? Now, Divisional titles are a lot like beating your friends at Smash Bros. Do it once, and its really no big deal. Do it five times in a row (and seven times in nine chances) and people are going to start to notice that you’re good. Going 0/15 like the Oilers did, or 1/15 like the Flames and Wild did and people are going to notice that you’re not very good at all. Doing it five times in a row and then going 0/10 after that and people are going to wonder what happened to you.

Kirby’s Dream Course. Do not play Gagner for money.

To elaborate the metaphor, if star players are like fingers then the late-nineties/early-oughts Avalanche were a 12-digit freak, button mashing their way to victory like it wasn’t no thang, and are now smashing that same old Gamecube remote with two perfectly round stumps. Since 2004 the Canucks have pretty much been Kirby, devouring all that lies before them like a terrifying, pink singularity.The Oilers on the other hand have gotten pretty good at Kirby’s Dream Course, and I hear Sam Gagner is superb coming out of the sand trap.

In seriousness, winning any division seven out of the last nine seasons is a pretty stellar accomplishment. Since the Canucks started winning divisional championships in 2004, our tribal counterparts in DC the Washington Capitals have produced five titles in the Southleast, New Jersey has managed four Atlantic crowns, the Bruins have cheated their way to four Northeast wins, and San Jose has five Pacific triumphs with precious little else to show. The Detroit Red Wings have 10 notches in 15 years on their Central division bedpost, but only six since 2004 and are disqualified from praise anyway for getting stupid-lucky in the draft so many times (generational talent Pavel Datsyuk went 171st in the 1998 draft and generational b-lister Henrik Zetterberg was 210th in the 1999 draft. Top-five all-time defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was a late 2nd round pick in 1989 and missed only 28 games out of 1148 games from 1998-89 to 2011-12, when he retired at age 42).

Management

During the Northwest Division era, from Burke to Nonis to Gillis, the Vancouver Canucks have had mostly steady management. They’ve drafted somewhere between decently and well; 2000, ’02, ’06 and ’07 were turds, while the rest of the drafts have yeilded enviable NHL quality through trading picks as well as drafting them. In their respective drafts, Kevin Bieksa was a 5th round pick, Alex Edler and Mason Raymond were late 2nds, Ryan Kesler was had at 23rd overall, and Cory Schneider at 26th. Cody Hodgson at 10th eventually netted Vancouver a better positional fit in 13th overall pick Zack Kassian. Brendan Gaunce (1st), Nicklas Jensen (1st), Jordan Schroeder (1st) Frank Corrado (5th), and Joe Cannata (6th) all were taken in the past five years and look ready to contribute now or in the near future at the NHL level. 10th overall pick in the 2005 draft Luc Bourdon now rests in peace. He was going to be something special. The trade for 1st rounder Michael Grabner and the 2010 25th overall pick that turned out to be Quinton Howden looked good at the time (who knew Keith Ballard would kill Alain Vigneault’s dog and move into that same dog’s house), and sending 3rd round pick Kevin Connauton along with a 2013 2nd for a playoff run’s worth of Derek Roy certainly looks like good value right now. Useful NHL defender Andrew Alberts was had for a 3rd in 2010, which looks like good value. Steve Bernier was theirs for the low price of a 2nd (he’s still in the league, so it really wasn’t so bad), while guys like Ryan Shannon for a 3rd and Brian Smolinski for a 2nd don’t look quite as nice. Alex Burrows was saved from a life of ball hockey, and fellow undrafted regular Chris Tanev is working out pretty well too. Oh yeah, and Brian Burke pulled off the Monopoly move of the past 20 years, getting both Daniel and Henrik Sedin at 2nd and 3rd overall in 1999. They are Boardwalk and Park Place. Patrick Kane is “Go to Jail”.

Remember how excited you were when he was new and shiny?

Vancouver sold high on Todd Bertuzzi who, along with Alex Auld and Bryan Allen, returned Roberto Luongo, Lukas Krajicek and a 6th. They fleeced San Jose in the Ehrhoff trade of 2009 (for two nobodies) and then robbed them again with the Malhotra signing of 2010. The Marco Sturm signing was a disappointment until he was flipped along with Mikheal Sammuelsson for David Booth (now disappointing for a different reason). They turned Lukas “Useless” Krajicek into Shane “O’Bar Tab” O’Brien. Matt Pettinger was alchemized into Matt Cooke. Shipping R.J. Umberger for Martin Rucinsky turned out to be a big mistake, and the 2nd that they gave away for Johan Hedberg eventually became Alex Goligoski, but you can’t win ‘em all. The Canucks have built a top-echelon franchise known for superb facilities, player care and willingness to spend on system depth.

Coaching

The Coaching situation in Vancouver has been, by professional sports standards, pretty static. After Iron Mike Keenan’s contempt for his squad ran its course in 1999, the Canucks have had only two coaches. From 1999 until 2006, Marc “Squeaky Squawker” Crawford lead the team to a somewhat respectable 286-149-94 record with one Northwest division championship and one huge choke against the Minnesota Wild in the 2003 conference semi finals (no, not that “we choked” choke). Crawford and his soothing voice only missed the playoffs twice in his seven seasons as the Vancouver bench boss, but only made it out of the 1st round in ’03. This from a guy that took the relocated Avalanche to a four-game sweep in the cup finals against the Vancouver farm team in 1996. This from a guy who had the best line in hockey when Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison were at the top of their game with 272 regular season points between them in a single season, plus emerging Sedins, the greatest leader in Canucks history Trevor Linden, a good bottom six and a deep, tough blueline. Needless to say, Squeaky Squawker was a bit of a letdown.

“Can they hear me? Can I hear me?”

In the summer of 2006, Crow was replaced by Alain Vigneault, who has won six divisional championships in seven years, has made it to at least the 2nd round of the playoffs in all but two years, and has missed the playoffs (by a hair) only once. Vigneault also can boast being beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup champs an incredible four of the past six years. He has done a great job of crafting a superb stepping stone. He might consider a career in stone masonry should the Canucks fail to get past San Jose over the next couple weeks. Vigneault’s message might be getting lost at the end of his eighth year as head coach of the mighty orca, but not before a Jack Adams in 2007, a (so-far) winning playoff record of 33-31 (putting him in company with Pat Quinn and Roger Nielsen as the only Canuck head coaches to do so) and a 313-170-57 regular season record.

The quality of the Vancouver NHL franchise Francesco Aquilini first bought into in late 2004 has gone from middle-tier to the league’s zenith under this version of ownership, and has yielded more contract discounts than perhaps anywhere else in the league. Considering what they might have gotten on the open market, it is fair to say that the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows, Higgins, Hansen, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler and Garrison all signed for cheap. By my count, Vancouver has an extra six-million dollars per annum right now as a result of discount contracts accepted by the ten players listed above. And while Vancouver has feasted on cheap re-ups and free agency, the rest of the division has looked enviously on us from their dirty ground hovels.

Playoff Fate

This one I will keep short, because a lot of it has been covered.

1999-2000 – Transitional years, not pretty enough to dance.
2001-2002 – Whooped in the first round by teams that can no longer be that stacked in the salary cap era. First the Avalanche and then the Red Wings, both cup champions in their respective years. Just take a look at these Avs and Wings rosters. Seriously.
2003 – Could have, should have, would have. Probably would have lost to a very good Ducks team in the conference finals, but advancement to the 3rd round could have been just the confidence builder the Canucks needed in 2004, when the West was so wide-open. Were beaten by an inferior Minnesota Wild side they should have beat.
2004 – Lost in the first round to a gritty Calgary Flames team that went on to lose the cup finals in seven. I remember thinking at the time that the Canucks probably should have won that series, and that they might have gone deep. I also still hate Craig Conroy.
2005 – Big winners! Not many people know this, but during the lockout, the Canucks kept playing and won the Cup. They only lost three games in that playoff run because that’s how bad Dan Cloutier was.
2006 – Whoops. Alex Auld started 67 games that season and the team goaltending stats were 3.0 GAA, .900 SV%. Needless to say the Orca was not dancing that spring.
2007 – I’m not even mad about this one. That Anaheim Ducks team that the Canucks only managed one win against in the 2nd round was probably the best post-lockout team we’ve seen. Pronger, Niedermayer, Getzlaf, Perry, McDonald, Selanne, Kunitz and one of the finest playoff performances ever from J.S. Giguere. All that without mentioning one of the best bottom-sixes ever.
2008 – With Markus Naslund on the decline, Trevor Linden cresting 37 years of age, Taylor Pyatt being relied upon as a scorer and all kinds of untested youth coming up in the system, this was the last truly forgettable year on the west coast.
2009-2010 In 2009, after a sound thumping of a St. Louis Blues team that was just coming into it’s current composition, Vancouver ran into a Blackhawks team that would beat them handily in six games, despite Vancouver’s valiant efforts. It was here that Roberto Luongo first became known as a playoff dissapoinment, justly or not. The following year, Vancouver beat an incomplete Kings team en route to another six game loss to the extremely good Chicago Blackhawks in the year the ‘Hawks would take their first cup in 50 years . Remember how I said that teams couldn’t be as stacked as they were before the salary cap? Upon winning the cup, Chicago proceeded to lose key pieces Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, John Madden and Antii Niemi plus depth pieces Adam Burish, Cam Barker, Colin Fraser, and the unquantifiably wonderful Ben Eager. Other than Eager, Ladd, and Madden, all listed players were Blackhawk draft picks.
2011 – What more can I say about this playoff run but that Vancouver was better than they’ve ever been, better than many teams have ever been in a single season, and not quite healthy enough to overcome a tough, physical Boston Bruins side with the continent and the NHL referees behind them. This was the Apex of the Vancouver Canucks, and it fell short.
2012 – And sometimes, when greatness isn’t enough, teams die a little inside. Sometimes, Duncan Keith elbows your best player in the head right before the playoffs. Sometimes, you run into a destined Los Angeles Kings team that can do no wrong and gets career performances out of half their roster.
2013 – And then, all of a sudden, you’re no longer a great team. You’re just a very good team that has the same chances as everybody else, but worse chances than the great teams (this time, an almost-impossible-for-the-era Pittsburgh Penguins club and a playing-as-good-as-they-can Chicago Blackhawks side). But nothing is lost yet, save yesterdays game via an uninspired 3rd period versus the San Jose Sharks. The Canucks are good enough on paper to beat any team in the league in seven games. Whether they can find it in themselves to play to that level is still to be seen.

There is much more to say, and much has been missed. But all in all, there is an empty void in Van City that can only be filled by a Stanley Cup victory. Still, when we look back at the Northwest Division that was, it will always be the bought-and-paid-for property of the Vancouver Canucks.

I have another short novel half-finished, detailing the fortunes of the other Northwest competitors, but its such a big job, that you might have to wait a while for part two.

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About tylerdrowe

Broadcaster/Writer/Videographer/Vancouver Canucks fan since the late 80's. You can check out my personal/resume page at lowboy.webfactional.com.

Discussion

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