Jason Kurylo: Let Luongo Play – The Time Is Now For A New Captain

Let me start off by saying that I’m a huge Roberto Luongo fan. When Dave Nonic first engineered the deal to bring Bobby Lou to Vancouver, I thought, “Holy Hannah, we’re going to win a Stanley Cup.” Sure, we had to blow up the West Coast Express to get him – but a post-Steve Moore Bertuzzi for Luongo? Brilliant. Especially considering the awful taste Dan “Beachball” Cloutier left in the mouths of devout Canucks fans, it was a red-letter day indeed. And wouldn’t you know it, since he arrived, the Canucks have been a legitimate threat to come out of the west in three out of four years.

This year, though, was different. The Canucks were tapped by many a pundit to go far in these playoffs, but with the asterisk, “in spite of the play of Roberto Luongo”. In spite of. When was the last time a club won in spite of their best player? As much as I love the guy, I have to admit: maybe the goalie-as-captain undertaking needs to come to an end.

Roberto Luongo could benefit by giving up the “C”.

With Vancouver facing elimination in game five this year, Luongo did several unthinkables. He shaved his playoff beard. He ditched the media scrum. He did what goalies are supposed to do: he concentrated on the game. Captains can’t do that. They’re supposed to bear the crush of pre-game media; they’re supposed to let the rest of the guys focus on their prep. Captains are supposed to carry the load while the bench loosens up. Sure, he stank the joint up in the second half of game six, but for four periods – game 5 in Chicago and the first period back at GM Place – he was Holy Hannah Luongo.

Do you think Jaroslav Halak would be stoning the Caps and Pens if he had to do a couple hours of daily pre-game media?  In fact, the opposite is true; the only reason we knew he was getting the game start over Carey Price was because he refuses to talk to media when he’s starting that night’s game.

Luongo as captain made sense in so many ways. He’s the most marketable player on a team in a hockey-mad market. His name is bandied about whenever “Best Goalie in the World” is the topic of conversation. He’s the top-paid player on the team. His are the top-selling jerseys at the Canucks Store. He’s an intense, passionate, win-at-all-cost kinda guy. He’s a gold-medal-winning goaltender, for crying out loud. But perhaps there’s a reason the NHL went 61 years between captains who played goal. This year’s stats are one easy way of seeing the cons to this little experiment.

Just one year ago, Luongo recorded seven shutouts in 54 games. This year, he threw just four doughnuts in 68 – his career-low as a number one goaltender. Last year, Alain Vigneault pulled the All-Star netminder from just one contest. Luongo was pulled from seven games this year – and one more in the playoffs – as he had his worst goals against average since he came from Florida. And his save percentage this season is the lowest he’s posted since his rookie year on Long Island. He lost his posts and composure with equal frequency, and fell apart at key times instead of making the big save the team needed more often than I care to count.

Some will argue these stats have more to do with the amount of play – it’s an Olympic year, they say – but Luongo has always been a workhorse. His best year for save percentage came in Florida in 2003-4, when he played 72 regular season games. Others will point to a weakened defensive core, and that point is valid. But when we see he scored seven shutouts with those same woeful, playoff-missing Panthers, when we see just how shaky he has looked all season, we have to wonder if Willie Mitchell’s absence has been the biggest problem Vancouver’s had between the pipes.

This doesn’t even touch the psychological effect a team must undergo when their captain is sitting on the bench. How massive a blow would it be to Detroit if Mike Babcock benched Nicklas Lidstrom? Could you imagine anything but injury forcing Sidney Crosby from his regular shift? To paraphrase Tom Larscheid, as Luongoes, so go the Canucks. If he’s sitting on the bench in shame, who shoulders the load?

With apologies to Richard Brodeur and Kirk McLean, Roberto Luongo is the best goaltender in Canucks history. And on Sunday, when he put aside all the extra-curricular activities that captaincy requires, he played like the best goaltender in Canucks history. He did the real job that Roberto Luongo is supposed to do: he stopped the puck. Coming back to GM Place on Tuesday, where expectations rest squarely on the back of the guy with the C on his jersey – sorry, the C on his mask – he gave up five goals for the third straight home start.

It’s not a matter of win or lose any more. The Canucks lost. In embarrassing fashion. For the second consecutive year. And sadly, they did not lose in spite of the play of Roberto Luongo.

The Canucks have to seriously look at putting the weight of that C on someone else’s shoulders.


The Loser Point: How Overtime Losses Helped Send the Washington Capitals Home

By Chris Withers: CanucksCorner.com

Alexander OvechkinThe first round of the NHL playoffs was arguably one of the best ever, and certainly one of the most unpredictable. But one of the most improbable upsets in league history, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals losing to the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens, would not have been possible except for a controversial decision, made some 10 years ago, that was designed to open up overtime. Where previously teams would get no points for a loss, now both teams would be guaranteed a single point for getting into overtime, and would compete for an additional point in the 5 minute extra frame. The decision, while arguably well-intentioned, has created a bewildering points system for the NHL. It is unlike the systems used by every other professional sports league on the planet, it is no longer relevant, it is costing teams playoff berths and it is past time for it to be changed.

First, a little history on the ‘loser point’. In the late 90’s, the NHL was beleaguered. The work stoppage of 94-95 was still fresh in people’s minds, ratings were slipping, the novelty had worn off for fans of the sun-belt expansion teams and the game had slowed to a crawl after the success of Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils and their stifling neutral zone trap. Some in the league office felt that the new American expansion markets would never fully accept a sport that embraced a tie. Like baseball, basketball and (usually) football, there must be a winner in hockey! The premise of the OTL rule was that teams would no longer have a reason to play ‘kitty bar the door’ hockey, since there was no penalty for a loss but an extra point for the win. The NHL also sought to make the OT period more fun to watch with an accompanying rule change that made all OT periods 4-on-4, thus opening up the ice and making the neutral zone trap more difficult to implement.

In practice, the rule changes worked. The amount of goals scored in overtime ballooned from 22 in 1998-99 to 114 in 1999-2000. That’s a better than 500% increase!

There were, however, consequences to the extra point. First, it made it significantly more difficult for teams to gain ground (or separation) in the standings. Teams were picking up points in more situations. A team could go on a 6 game winning streak, the team it’s chasing could win 1 out of 6 over the same stretch, and the difference could be as little as 5 points. Second, and most importantly, it allowed teams to quite literally lose their way into the playoffs. In the first year of OTLs, both the Anaheim Ducks and the Carolina Hurricanes were denied playoff berths because the teams in front of them had more ‘loser points’ than they did.

Fast forward a few years and another work stoppage, and the NHL introduced more rule changes. The game, start to finish, became more exciting. The tie was forever banished from professional hockey, replaced by the shootout (love it or hate it, you must admit it’s exciting!). The premise for the OTL point, namely spicing up the extra frame, seemed to have been taken away, yet the points system remained unchanged. In fact, the issues that OTLs present are now amplified. Rather than an extra point being awarded in approximately 44% of OT games (as had been the case from 1999-2004), 100% of OT games are now worth 3 points. This accounted for an average of about 150 extra points being distributed in the standings each and every year. As a direct result of this change, a total of 6 teams since the lockout have missed the playoffs; in one extreme case, the Carolina Hurricanes would have won their division under the old system. With the shootout, they missed the playoffs by 2 points.

Presently then, the NHL has a system for awarding points that only made sense in the context of the rules of the late 90’s. The shootout has obviated the need to make overtime more exciting, and simultaneously made a disproportionate number of games worth 3 points. A team is now penalized for losing a game in regulation, rather than in OT, without a corresponding penalty for teams that win in OT, instead of in regulation.

There are two solutions going forward. The simplest would be a straight Win/Loss system, but that is troublesome because of the shootout. Basketball and baseball are able to use that system effectively because the rules remain constant in those sports throughout extra time. The NHL breaks deadlocks with a skills competition that has little to do with the game itself. An outright loss for the team that loses the shootout would be unfair to those teams that build for 60 minutes of hockey instead of a penalty shot competition.

For an equitable solution, the NHL should look to international hockey. In round robin international play, all games are worth 3 points. Period. An outright win garners 3 points and a loss 0. Take it to overtime, and the points are split 2-1. It’s fair to everybody, understandable by all fans, and it properly benefits teams, like our beloved Canucks, that get their business done outright and don’t win 38% of their games in overtime, like the Phoenix Coyotes.

Colin Campbell was asked in 2007 about the league’s decision not to go to a 3 point system. He was quoted as saying “It’s time to establish continuity. You can’t keep making changes.” If the folks at NHL head office don’t think there’s a reason to change the system now, they may wish to take a poll of New York and Washington hockey fans; the Rangers would have been secure in a playoff spot this year even before that dramatic shootout with the Flyers to end the season. Who would have been on the outside looking in? The Cinderella, Cap-killing, Habs.


REPLAY: Canucks/Blackhawks Conference Semi Roundtable

Join us on Wednesday, April 28th at 8:00pm for a live roundtable discussion of the Western Conference Semi-Final series between the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Our guests will include:

From CanucksCorner.com: Phillip Yoe (@VanCitySports), CanucksHockeyBlog.com: JJ Guererro (@CanucksHockey), Richard Loat (@mozy19), Chris Golden (@lyteforce), CanucksArmy.com: Cam Davie (@campants) and from The Internet Trashcan: Trevor Presiloski (@nettrashcan)


Jason Kurylo: Against The Tide

A lot of folks in Vancouver are blowing the conspiracy horn this morning, after the NHL made a very questionable call in denying Daniel Sedin a third-period goal last night. The truth is, the Canucks haven’t done themselves any favours, and frankly didn’t deserve to win game three. The Kings were the better team for 50 minutes last night. The Canucks, on the other hand, put in five minutes in the first period, and a modest fight in parts of the third. In this series, in fact, the Nucks haven’t put together a complete game once in three tries. Their PK and PP have been disastrous – LA is seven for twelve on the man advantage, for goodness’ sake. Without special teams going at even half speed, we lose this series faster than Andrew Alberts can book the tee times from the penalty box.

Still, if Boston fans can still complain about Don Cherry putting six Bruins on the ice so Lafleur can blast a power play shot past Gerry Cheevers…

Just this year: Malkin concusses Mitchell. Head shot into the boards. No penalty, no suspension. Mitchell will be lucky if he’s ready for next season.

Burrows has a major public relations scandal erupt when he says a referee planned to call a penalty, tells him so, and then proceeds to make an awful third period call on him. The Canucks lose to Calgary, with whom they are fighting for the division lead at the time.

Kesler hits Derek Morris AFTER MORRIS SAW HIM COMING AND PUT HIMSELF IN A VULNERABLE POSITION. (Morris admits so after the game.) Five minute major and a game misconduct.

Henrik – league’s leading scorer, mind you – gets skewered by Kopitar’s stick in game one. The blade is stuck in his helmet as evidence. No call.

Bernier has his stick blatantly held for a good three or four seconds during an offensive chance in game three. No call. (Not that it would have mattered – the PP wouldn’t have scored anyway.)

An injured Canuck labours to the bench, and a legal line change results in 7 players for a millisecond WITHIN FIVE FEET OF THE BENCH. No oncoming player touches the puck or impedes the play – which is the rule. Canucks called for too many men. LA wins game two on their outrageously good power play.

Daniel’s skate blade redirects the puck into the goal in game three, and is called a good goal by the on-ice refs. LA doesn’t even complain about the play. OFF-ICE OFFICIALS IN TORONTO, without precedent, alter the interpretation of the rulebook to CONCLUSIVELY decide the puck was put in illegally, and OVERRULE the referees. Mike Murphy – an ex-King player and ex-Canuck assistant coach – explains his call on Hockey Night in Canada, and only Kelly Hrudey finds any logic in the explanation. Even Ron McLean, whom many Canucks fans think is anti-Vancouver, thinks the league botches this call. Abominable.

All of these things in a short period of time will of course bring back all other memories of officials and/or league execs screwing the franchise. There are those (myself included) who still wince when they think of the Flames’ Joel Otto kicking in a series-winning goal, in the crease, in 1989. The Flames went on to win the Cup that year.

Vancouver has never got the calls. Not once do I remember the Canucks being handed a major game or a series by a call that could have gone either way. Whether it’s minor things – the other guys get away with too many men several times, but we get called for it in OT – or huge screwups like Daniel’s no goal last night, Vancouver always seems to end up on the wrong side of the call.

When will Otto, Mitchell, Kesler, Daniel and Burrows pool their karma to get the Canucks a few game-winning breaks? Let’s hope games three and four. But as Dan Boyle and the rest of the San Jose Sharks can tell you, sometimes karma doesn’t play fair. The Sharks have been frontrunners for nearly a decade, and they’ve not made even the Conference Finals, let alone skated for the Cup. The Canucks can’t wait for karma to come home. They just have to play through it.

It’s time for the Orca to swim against the tide. Hit. Shoot. Save. Score. Stay out of the box. And don’t rely on the refs to play fair. It’s not a conspiracy, per se, but the only consistency we’ve seen over the years is consistently poor calls against us.


Jason Kurylo: Early Western Conference Playoff Predictions

In all, the Canucks regular season has been a damned good one. Despite a less-than stellar campaign from Roberto Luongo and long-term injuries to Daniel Sedin, Kevin Bieksa, Pavol Demitra, and Willie Mitchell, our boys have performed well. Henrk Sedin leads the scoring race, as just the fourth Canuck to crack the century mark. Mikael Samuelsson, Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kesler are all having career years, and Mason Raymond has chipped in for 20-plus goals for good measure.

So what do the playoffs hold? Why should we self-appointed pundits wait for the end of the season? I’m completely willing to stick my neck out there before the match-ups are even finalized.

Here are a few predictions on the Western Conference match-ups based on what we see right now, T-minus six games before the second season begins:

(1) San Jose Sharks vs (8) LA Kings

Joe Thorton by jillig, on FlickrYou heard it here first: the Kings will finish up as the eighth seed in the West. San Jose should walk through the upstart Kings, especially considering the Sharks recent winning streak. The Kings, on the other hand, have lost four straight and seven of their last ten games. Sure, LA has Ryan Smyth to stir up some emotion in the room, but this is just a too-young team that’s flagging after an impossibly fast start. San Jose, on the other hand, has woken up from their post-Olympic nap, and look dangerous. This is a healthy, hungry team that wants to ditch their rep as playoff chokers. Dont be surprised if Joe Thornton plays an angrier game after sitting out a couple to rest the shoulder he injured in this weekends win over the Canucks.

Preediction: Sharks in five.

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs (7) Colorado Avalanche

The Avs haven’t exactly been tearing it up themselves, but they wont stumble quite enough to let the sad-sack Flames catch them, and theyll take advantage of their five remaining home dates to skip past the Kings. Steve Duchene is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, and Paul Stastny is a scoring threat from anywhere, but these guys just wont be able to skate with Chicago. The Hawks cant be happy to be without Brian Campbell on the back end, but this is a team full of speed and swagger. Last years run to the conference final was considered a fluke these kids didn’t know what they were doing this years club has their eyes on Lord Stanley

Prediction: Chicago in five.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) Nashville Predators

Roberto LuongoThe Predators are putting together quite the late-season run in Smashville, and, interestingly this team looks a lot like the Canucks. Oh, they don’t have a 100-point man like we do in fact, not a single player is over 50 points. But this is a team that scores by committee, something we’ve been privy to here in Vancouver. They play well on the road. There is no dominant top line; everyone on this Preds squad chips in. The defence corps for Vancouver will have to keep their wits about them. Nashville has ten players with ten goals or more; we have nine. The lingering concussion symptoms for Willie Mitchell put the Canucks D under the spotlight, something that literally bit the teams back end in last years heartbreaking second-round loss to the Hawks. And goaltending? Since the Olympic break, Pekka Rinne leads Roberto Luongo in goals against average, save percentage and shutouts. To paraphrase Alain Vigneault, however, if Luongo is the Canucks biggest worry heading into the playoffs, they’ll be all right. Sure, Bobby Lou’s GAA hasn’t been what it should be. Yeah, he let in a few weak goals against Edmonton. But hey, this is Roberto Luongo here, and that was Edmonton; its not like were still being subjected to Dan Cloutier in the #1 position. If the Sedins score, great. If not, no worries, for the first time in a while, we’ve got other guys who will.

Prediction: Vancouver in six.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs (5) Detroit Red Wings

Hockey fans are shaking their heads over both of these teams. With the off-season legal circus over Jim Balsillie trying to move the Yotes to southern Ontario, was there even a single hockey expert who picked them to top 100 points? They’re played over their heads all season, and there’s no reason to think they wont continue to do so. Oh, wait there’s the small matter of that other team on the ice. Detroit, just three weeks ago, flirted with tenth spot in the West. Its taken a Herculean effort by coach Mike Babcock to shape this veteran Red Wing squad for another run at Lord Stanley. And goaltending? Ilya Bryzgalov has none other than Wayne Gretzky trumpeting his name for Hart Trophy consideration. Jimmy Howard just won a spectacular goaltending duel with Rinne in Nashville one where both goalies played shutout hockey for 65 minutes, and Detroit finally won it in the 11th round of the shootout. Detroit, like San Jose, is healthy and hungry. Detroit, unlike San Jose, has been a Cup finalist the past two years these guys know how to win.

Prediction: Detroit in four.