Sunday, December 15th, 2002
"The Vancouver Canucks: the best team in hockey."
Most who are just "average" hockey fans would laugh at you for saying that.
After all, the Canucks exited the 2002 playoffs with their tails between
their legs after losing games three through six in the Western Conference
Quarterfinals to the eventual champion Detroit Red Wings.
If you haven't been playing close attention to hockey over the last 365 days,
the list of the best teams in the NHL over the past year may surprise you.
With a .638 winning percentage, the L.A. Kings are fifth. At fourth,
with a 38-19-5-3 record, are the New Jersey Devils. Third, with two
less losses, are the Boston Bruins. Second are the Detroit Red Wings,
who have recorded a .672 winning percentage. First on that list are the Vancouver
Canucks with a 41-14-7-3 record and the only team to have a winning percentage
over .700, at .702.
The 'Nucks are the real deal.
Team leader Markus Naslund finished second in the point scoring race
last year. Linemate Todd Bertuzzi missed 10 games due to suspension
last season and got a reputation as being the league's most feared power
forward (just ask Chris Chelios) while still managing to finish a
close third in league in the 2001-2002 campaign.
The Vancouver Canucks are the team that no one wants. No one wants to go
all the way to the coast to play them in cold, cloudy, rainy weather (it's
a costly flight to go all the way out there just to lose). Who would want
to play in an arena nicknamed the "garage?" What's more, is that no one wanted
this group of players that is now tearing up the league.
No one wanted defenseman Ed Jovanoski when General Manager Brian
Burke traded away superstar and 50-goal scorer Pavel Bure for
him in 1998. Four years later, he is a Norris candidate, an Olympic gold
medallist, and the heart of a solid Canuck defense unit.
The Islanders didn't want anything to do with Todd Bertuzzi. "Mad"
Mike Milbury traded him to Vancouver for a "proven" Felix Potvin.
Boy, Mike is kicking himself now. Four years later, Todd Bertuzzi has proved
to the league that he is the most brutal power forward and was the hardest
of anyone to contain that Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios faced during last
year's playoffs, giving him more than a few bruises.
Most of all, no one wanted sure all-star Dan Cloutier. "He's too small,
too inconsistent, too slow; too much of a temper." How about, "too darn good?"
Cloutier has worked hard at his game and now leads the league this season
in wins with 17, including one shutout.
There aren't many teams where Brendan Morrison is even a number two
or three centerman. He wasn't good enough for the New Jersey Devils. But
in Vancouver, he got the chance and is now playing on the number one line
with Naslund and Bertuzzi.
The only person that wanted coach Marc Crawford was Burke. After the
Avalanche canned Crawford for a few dismal seasons after winning the
1996 Stanley Cup, Burke hired Crawford to take all of these "no-goods" to
the top of the league.
In a recent interview with TheScore, a Canadian cable sports network,
Burke said that the biggest move over his past five-year tenure has been
hiring coach Marc Crawford to gel the team together. I'm not going to argue
with Burke, but he's made some other genius moves, as well.
The Canucks weren't built through high-priced free agents. In fact, on their
current 23-man roster, only three have come to Vancouver via free agency.
Eight others are players acquired through the draft, and the remaining 12
were obtained through trades.
However, perhaps even greater than all the trades, was what he did exactly
one year ago. On December 27, 2001, the Canucks were 12-21-4-0 and near the
bottom of the Western Conference standings. Burke wasn't about to go through
another rebuilding phrase and sat down with his club before the game, saying,
"We're going to stick it out with this team. There's not going to be any
moves. No coaches are going anywhere. No players are being traded. So it's
up to (you)."
The Canucks won that night, went 30-9-3-3 over the rest of the season, and
are winning the Northwest division as we speak. This year on December 27th,
the Canucks will walk into SkyReach Center in Edmonton in a much different
standing than they were one year ago.
Last year, they were in the basement and just looking for some light. This
time, the sky is the limit.