Can the Canucks return from disaster?

Updated: August 16, 2004, 1:34 PM ET
By Thomas Wheatley | Special to ESPN.com

Dave Nonis
Nonis

Everything was rolling along nicely last season in Vancouver.

GM Brian Burke showed that a small-market Canadian team could grow into a powerhouse without a major injection of free-agent dollars.

The Canucks were pushing confidently toward a Northwest Division title until March 8. That's when Todd Bertuzzi, the team's 240-pound All-Star winger, put some horrifying "pow" into the term "power forward."

His retaliation mugging -- from behind -- of defenseless Steve Moore produced a concussion and broken neck for the Avalanche ruffian, an indefinite suspension and criminal charges for Bertuzzi and another black eye for hockey.

The assault and its aftermath stunned Vancouver -- both the team and the town. The Canucks (43-24-10-5) managed to post 101 points, hanging on to unseat perennial Northwest champ Colorado by a point. But the Canucks straggled to the regular-season finish line without their most dominant player, whose indefinite suspension carried through the playoffs and beyond.

Burke added some reinforcements down the stretch, notably veteran wingers Geoff Sanderson and Martin Rucinsky. But coach Marc Crawford, captain Markus Naslund and their veteran crew fell just short in the first round against upstart Calgary, the team nobody in the Western Conference wanted to play.

Rumors of a fatal rift between Burke and upper management then proved true. The team, without elaboration, did not renew the contract of its outspoken architect.

Sticking with Burke's philosophy, the Canucks stayed inside the family and promoted his long-time protégé, director of hockey ops Dave Nonis, who had been a finalist a year ago for the San Jose GM job.

Nonis, 38, is in his eighth year with the Canucks after four years in the NHL office. He continued to stay the course this offseason and set about locking up the team's restricted free agents.

With No.1 goalie Dan Cloutier and No. 1 center Brendan Morrison filing for arbitration, Nonis threatened to walk away from a budget-busting award to either player. Both settled well before their hearing dates.

Challenges remain for the rookie GM. Along with the league-wide uncertainty about the collective bargaining agreement, Nonis also inherits lingering questions about Bertuzzi's status and the team's playoff mettle, issues he addressed with ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley.


ESPN.com: Can you briefly assess last season for us, please?
"We had another strong regular season. Except for a couple ups and downs, we were fairly consistent. The postseason was a little disappointing. We had the events late in the season, having to make some changes with Todd being out, but we added some pretty good players at the end.

"I thought we had a pretty good team that could have moved on in the playoffs. When you don't meet these expectations, it's pretty disappointing."


ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides?
"I don't know if we had any single player who had a breakout year. We had fairly consistent performers. Markus Naslund was outstanding again. Brendan Morrison had a strong year, and [defenseman] Mattias Ohlund had a strong year.

"We didn't have a team that had many rookies in the lineup. As I said, we had a consistent year from our top players. But [defenseman] Bryan Allen was one young player who kept inching up our depth chart."


ESPN.com: Which players need to take the next big step or to bounce back?
"I wouldn't put it to one player. I'd put it to the whole group. We have to play better in the post-season. There's no question we should be a fairly good team again this year. But we have to have a better performance in the playoffs."


ESPN.com: Who in the system is ready for the NHL?
"I think [goalie] Alex Auld is close to becoming an NHL player. He's obviously shown some signs that he's ready to play. Circumstances forced him into the lineup. And [rookie centers] Ryan Kesler [16 points in 28 games] and Jason King [21 points in 47 games] both are very young but have long futures ahead of them."


ESPN.com: What's the organization's top priority?
"We've been a little different from other teams. We've tried to return all our players, and we've already signed almost all those players whose contracts were up. The improvement we're looking for comes from within, so we retained our assets. But I wouldn't rule out a free-agent signing."


ESPN.com: How does Bertuzzi's suspension affect your planning?
"We're hopeful that once we start playing again that Todd will be in our lineup. If he's not, we're confident we'll have enough depth to handle the situation. We feel that we'll be competitive until the point that he is able to join us."


ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment last season?
"Probably the most satisfying moment was to capture the division title with the adversity we were facing. That showed a lot of character with the players we had, and the coaching staff did a great job getting the team ready the last eight or nine games."


ESPN.com: And your least favorite moment?
"That would have to be losing Game 7 at home in the first round against Calgary, especially after tying it with a couple seconds left on the clock."


ESPN.com: I thought you might say the whole Bertuzzi incident.
"Todd's [situation] was disappointing, too. But as a team we have to look back and say we had a good enough team to move on -- not to take anything away from Calgary."


ESPN.com: What activity or destination will take you furthest away from hockey this summer?
"Fishing, back in July. A group of us go up to Queen Charlotte Islands, the northernmost island chain in British Columbia, up near the panhandle of Alaska. Brian Burke and [Dallas Stars GM] Doug Armstrong are in the group, and we have a great time."


ESPN.com: So, "Army" is a fisherman?
[Laughs] "We're getting him into it."

Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.

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