Time's running out for the Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks were a game away from claiming their first Stanley Cup in 2011. (REUTERS)
As each season passes, Daniel and Henrik Sedin clearly understand their time to win it all is running out. They hear the clock ticking. They feel the pressure mounting.
As the second- and third-oldest players on the Vancouver Canucks, the superstar pair aren't naive to the fact that their proverbial window of opportunity is closing. After all, at 32-years-old, and with their contracts expiring at the end of next season, the twins are in the latter half of two illustrious careers — although ones that have yet to be adorned with the National Hockey League's ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
Surrounded by a Canucks team capable of making another long playoff run this year, there's no tip-toeing past the importance of each and every post-season appearance from now until they hang up their skates. Because it's anyone's guess as to what the group will look like this time around next season, or even a couple years down the line.
"We had good teams for a number of years now and you never know how it's going to go next year," Daniel said. "It's one thing everyone was talking about when we first came into the league but you didn't realize that back then. Time is going to fly by … and there's not so many chances left. You just have to enjoy it and try to win."
Two years ago, when the Canucks made their run to the Cup final losing to Boston in seven games, fans around the league witnessed the most talented squad this franchise had ever assembled. But as they get set for their fifth-straight playoff appearance Tuesday, Vancouver can at least boast a lineup with many of those same players who were one win away from hockey supremacy.
"In Vancouver, people still look at us as having a shot at it," said Canucks captain Henrik. "The core group that's been here, we are better prepared. We have a great team, we're confident in our group. But having said that, there are seven other teams feeling the same way.
"Our first couple years, you went into the playoffs and everything was fun, it was a great experience and you learned from it. But you never thought about it being your last time around and your last chance. Now you do."
With a squad as talented, if not just more experienced, than the 2010-11 unit, the mindset of "this is our year" is clearly entrenched within the Canucks.
"If you don't believe that you can win it all, I don't think you have a chance to win it all," said goalie Roberto Luongo, the eldest on the Canucks at 34. "You have to have confidence in your team that if we all play together and stay healthy and get a bit of luck, then it could be our year. That doesn't change from year to year."
It certainly hasn't since Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2008. From that point on, they have earned their place as one of the league's elite teams.
They have won back-to-back Presidents' Trophies, picked up the most points overall in the last five years, and boast a pair of Art Ross Trophy winners in the Sedins, and a Selke Trophy winner in Ryan Kesler. But through it all, the Holy Grail has eluded their grasp.
While the Canucks enter another post-season with a very favourable shot at the Cup — even after last year's surprising first-round exit to eventual champions, the Los Angeles Kings — that nagging question still remains: How long will the window stay open?
The core group is only two years removed from the final — ending in heartbreak on the ice and rioting in the Vancouver streets.
The key offensive players are in tact with the Sedins still dominant, Kesler heating up after missing a big chunk of the season to injuries, and Alex Burrows remaining a goal-scoring threat.
With a healthy lineup up front now — along with the acquisition of Derek Roy — many of the team's earlier problems are becoming resolved.
Their top four defencemen are all signed through at least the 2015-16 season, while the younger-yet-injured Chris Tanev has earned a regular spot. There's also goalie Cory Schneider, who signed a three-year deal last summer and is just getting started when it comes to making his mark on the league.
So far this season, the Massachusetts native has proven he belongs. If he falters, the league's best backup in Luongo is there.
"We know what to expect, we've been there," Burrows said. "We know it takes a lot of work. But we need some bounces going our way and we need 20 guys to step up and do the things that make us successful."
If not, another good opportunity is wasted. It doesn't help that the Sedins are getting older, and who knows what they'll decide to do after next season — go back to Sweden or stay in the NHL.
Burrows, too, is 32, while Kesler, 28, isn't as indestructible as his playing style indicates. Blueline injuries never seems to cease on this team and the new division re-alignment isn't going to make things easier.
Most importantly, the salary cap will go down drastically next season, making it harder to keep younger talents such as Jannik Hansen and soon-to-be restricted free agent Tanev in the fold. Mason Raymond and Maxim Lapierre — both pending UFAs — and the oft-injured David Booth also seems destined to depart.
Then, there's their up-and-coming players, which isn't much to write home about.
Ranked 26th on Hockey's Future team list heading into the campaign, the Canucks' top prospects feature forwards Jordan Schroeder, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and goalie Eddie Lack, along with recently called-up blueliner Frank Corrado. The potential is there but by comparison, it's far from the stronger contingents around the league.
"You can't judge it," Luongo said of the team's ability to remain competitive. "There's always turnover player-wise and this is an organization that wants to win. So whether some players are getting older they are always to going to bring in newer ones and making sure they give this team and this city a chance to win the Cup. There is no normal timeline."
When a window is typically opened, a nice draft fills the room. But in the NHL, when it shuts, teams are forced to rely on a whole different draft.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are good examples of organizations using the NHL Entry Draft in recent years to form powerhouse squads. The Canucks, too, have benefited from former first-round picks after faltering in the standings for quite some time.
But when it comes down to it, the template is the Detroit Red Wings — a team that has won four titles over the past two decades. They've also stayed among the league's elite year-after-year by drafting and developing players well. In fact, the Wings have not missed the playoffs since 1990, although this season — without longtime defenceman Niklas Lidstrom — they were left fighting for a berth into the final week.
"You create your own windows," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "They've been saying we've been too old, too old, too old for the last six years and we still had a good team.
"It's the same for Vancouver, some guys move on and then you get new guys. You just have to find the right mix for your team."
At the moment, the Canucks certainly have the perfect mix to finally take home the franchise's first title. They just might not be able to say that for long.
"I wouldn't be worried about that," Daniel Sedin said. "At the same time, I do think we have a great team right now and you don't want to go back 10 years from now and say, what if? You want to make it happen right now."
A look at the five longest current contracts on the Canucks:
- Signed until 2022
- Barring a crazy turn of events, the Canucks can't afford to keep this goalie next season. For now, though, his 12-year deal remains longest on the squad, and mainly a reason he's still around.
- Signed until 2019
- As one of the team's top blueliners, his six-year contract doesn't kick in until next season. So far this year, though, the Swede has had trouble finding consistency — especially in his own end.
- Signed until 2018
- The Vancouver native joined his hometown team as a free agent last July. After a slow start, he's finally found the scoring touch he was brought in for.
- Signed until 2017
- Since his breakout campaign about six years ago, the Montreal native hasn't shown any signs of slowing down on the Canucks.
- Signed until 2017
- The former journeyman agreed to an extension this season, giving Vancouver a versatile forward for the foreseeable future.