- George Johnson, NHL
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What's happening out in Vancouver is difficult to believe, if not explain.
Enough, in fact, to make Marc Crawford's hair stand on end (oh, wait, it already was, by design).
A team that, only a few short months ago, many still stubbornly believed was only a front-line goaltender away from Stanley Cup contention woke up Wednesday morning in a seventh-place tie with Anaheim in the Western Conference, just a point ahead of both Edmonton and L.A., and an uneasy two in front of the surging San Jose Sharks, who hold three games in hand.
Their former general manager, Brian Burke, and his Anaheim Mighty Ducks have put the pressure on them. Their arch-nemesis, Calgary, is four points in front with two games in hand, leading the Northwest Division. And suddenly, three crucial fixtures on the trot against the Oilers loom large in Vancouver's very playoff survival (the Canucks took "Game 1" of the matchups).
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Naturally, when things go terribly wrong, there is much dissection and psychoanalysis. Depending on who you listen to, the major problem at GM Place is that:
• The Canucks are stale.
• The Canucks are rudderless in the dressing room.
• The Canucks are now paying for a maddening nonchalance earlier in the season, when they foolishly, arrogantly, lacked any urgency and believed their talent would, in the end, see them through.
Quite likely, all these factors have conspired to undermine the season. What cannot be argued, however, is that the Canucks find themselves in deep doo-doo.
Crawford's No. 1 line of Brendan Morrison, Todd Bertuzzi and captain Markus Naslund has badly underperformed, leaving the Sedin twins and Anson Carter to carry the load. And they, it must be said, have responded wonderfully. Carter leads the group in game-winning goals with six, while Henrik Sedin leads in points with 67.
(There are whispers, becoming louder and louder as the prospects worsen, that being so aligned to his buddy Bertuzzi, Naslund has distanced himself from the rest of the group. Never a positive situation.)
Ironic that how, for so many years, the absence of a productive second line was a consistent problem for Vancouver. Well, now the second line is humming along nicely, and the big dogs aren't pulling their weight. Figures.
In his first season as GM, taking over from Burke, Dave Nonis was in a tough spot. The second-guessing would've been shrill and unending had he tinkered with the core of Burke's team and executed a pratfall. So he and Crawford stayed the course, trusted the players, and have been cruelly let down.
If the Canucks somehow don't get their act together in the next three weeks, though, Nonis will undoubtedly receive the OK to haul out the TNT and blow the whole thing up.
Surprisingly, what hasn't been a major issue is goaltending. In relief of the injured Dan Cloutier, Alex Auld certainly hasn't been a downgrade. He may not be Kiprusoff- or Hasek-like, but he certainly hasn't been the Achilles' heel many believed.
Bertuzzi, meanwhile, has been major disappointment. A hulking, sulking, multi-million-dollar bust. Now, 57 points in 67 games doesn't sound like abject failure, but this is a monster playing like a mouse, someone who's proven in the past that he can dominate games. Now, too often, he looks spiritless. Bertuzzi has one season remaining on the four-year, $27.8 million deal he signed in the summer of 2003.
One morning, the old Cannoli Truck rolled out of bed and came to the grim realization that it might be a good idea to actually try for a few weeks, just put out enough to con Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Lowe and the rest of the Canadian Olympic brain trust into believing he was back on track. What a shameless tease! Predictably, he rolled back over and started to snooze once he reached Torino, and has stayed deep in hibernation ever since.
Even big Bert's most ardent supporters way out West, those who shamelessly persist in portraying the big lug as the victim in the Steve Moore affair, are having a hell of a time defending him now.
And even despite all of this, the Canucks still have time.
It's not as if they're facing mathematical elimination right now. But those who watch them on a regular basis wonder how they can suddenly, dramatically, begin playing with a sense of urgency this late in the game. Even factoring in the injuries, there's certainly more than enough ability on board to string something together and salvage a playoff spot, but they found themselves facing the same unpleasant dilemma a few nights ago, and responded by being dismantled 7-3 by Detroit on home ice.
For many, that damning effort pretty much summed up the postseason hopes.
And if the unthinkable happens? If the Canucks actually do miss out?
Well, Bertuzzi will be shipped out, for starters. Naslund's, Morrison's and Crawford's situations will be examined. Jovanovski's an unrestricted free agent come summer, although his value has probably even risen as the team flounders in his absence. Cloutier will in all likelihood be dealt.
And the promise, that bright, dynamic future predicted by so many not so very long ago, will have ended, ingloriously, without the anticipated payoff.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.