<
>

Canucks fell short of expectations, now expect change

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- After four seasons of early
playoff exits, this was supposed to be the year that the Vancouver
Canucks finally took another step.

They did, but in the wrong direction.

Done in by midseason indifference, late-season ineffectiveness,
and an all-season injury bug, the Canucks missed the playoffs for
the first time since 2000, prematurely ending a campaign that
started seven months earlier with Stanley Cup aspirations.

The next step might be breaking up a core group that has only
won one playoff series in seven years together.

"We all expect some changes to be made," captain Markus
Naslund said as players gathered Sunday to collect equipment and
have year-end meetings with the coaches and management. "It's sad,
especially for this group. We've been together such a long time
that you create a deep bond and friendship with the guys in here."

That familiarity was just one reason the Canucks were picked to
succeed coming out of the NHL's lockout. Add in new rules designed
to promote offense and the run-and-gun Canucks were considered Cup
contenders.

"You couldn't have painted a better picture for us heading into
this season," top-line center Brendan Morrison said. "With the
rule changes and the type of offensive players we have, the team
speed, the way we moved the puck, nobody envisioned this
happening."

Heading into the season, Calgary coach Darryl Sutter was telling
anyone that would listen the Canucks were the best team in the
Western Conference, and they backed it up by winning eight of their
first 10. Vancouver was 13-1-0 at home after an early December
victory over Ottawa that many heralded as a possible Stanley Cup
preview.

By the time the Flames visited in early April, however,
Vancouver s post-Olympic slide had the Canucks fighting for their
playoff lives. Sutter amended his comments, calling the Canucks the
best team "on paper.

That potential never played out on the ice, where the Canucks
struggled to stay out of the penalty box -- only seven other teams
were short-handed more -- and compounded it with a 17th-place
penalty kill.

"For whatever reason early in the year we felt we could get
away with not playing a complete game and there were nights we got
out competed and we made a lot of mistakes," veteran Trevor Linden
said.

Losing No. 1 goalie Dan Cloutier to season-ending knee surgery
in November didn't help, even though Alex Auld filled in admirably,
going 33-26-6 while playing 56 of the next 60 games in his first
full NHL season.

The Canucks also lost top defenseman Ed Jovanovski for 38 games
because of a groin injury that later required hernia surgery, then
watched as defenders Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund were both injured
in the Olympics. Ohlund only missed four games, but labored at
times while recovering from the bruised ribs. Salo (shoulder) never
returned.

Naslund, Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi also struggled to find the
form that made them one of the league's best lines before the
lockout. The trio combined for a respectable 76 goals and 206
points. But Naslund and Betuzzi were a combined minus-36, and were
split up for most of the Canucks' ill-fated stretch drive, which
saw them win just two of their final eight games.

Any hopes of a playoff push ended officially with back-to-back
losses to San Jose last week -- with the Canucks blowing late leads
in both.

"As a team we just weren't good enough defensively and our
deficiencies came to the forefront when it mattered most,"
Morrison said.