Major changes loom for Canucks

Major changes loom after the Vancouver Canucks, who came within a victory of winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, bowed out early for the second consecutive spring.

Management is trying to figure out what went wrong in the playoffs for a team that viewed itself as a strong contender, but never approached its target. Instead, the Canucks were swept by San Jose in the opening round.

General manager Mike Gillis decided not to make any major moves following last year’s five-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Gillis thought the club was close to returning to the Stanley Cup finals, but the humiliating sweep by the Sharks likely means that, as players have acknowledged, the window of opportunity is closing quickly and bold moves are inevitable.

The Canucks have lost 10 of their last 11 playoff games dating to the 2010-11 finals.

”It’s frustrating,” goaltender Cory Schneider said in San Jose following Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss. ”This seems like a lost year. You don’t get that many opportunities to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and to miss one or two, it’s pretty frustrating.”

There is no guarantee Gillis will get the chance to do a redesign. His future and those of coach Alain Vigneault, Vancouver’s veteran core and, as usual, goaltender Roberto Luongo, are all in question. The Canucks hope to avoid a freefall with NHL realignment, tougher divisional opponents, and a reduced salary cap looming.

Vigneault, the franchise leader in wins, could be a scapegoat. The Canucks were not able to counteract San Jose’s potent power play in the playoffs, and he failed at getting secondary offensive players who were inconsistent at best in the regular season to start generating goals at the most pressure-packed time of the year.

San Jose outscored Vancouver 15-8 in the series, and the Sharks converted on seven of 24 power plays. The Canucks produced two power-play goals on 10 opportunities.

The lack of offense has coincided with the team’s inability to develop new scoring talent in an era when young stars are emerging throughout the NHL. In five seasons at the helm, only one Gillis draft pick – Cody Hodgson, since traded – has become an NHL regular.

Jordan Schroeder, Vancouver’s first choice (22nd overall in 2009), split this season between the NHL and the minors after spending his first two pro campaigns exclusively in the AHL. He was not used in the playoffs and has yet to prove he can become a Vancouver regular let alone a top producer.

Zack Kassian, the player acquired from Buffalo for Hodgson, has struggled to live up to his billing as a prototypical power forward who can score.

The Canucks must ensure that more of their draft picks figure prominently on the roster. The NHL salary cap drops to $64.3 million next season, and chances to sign a high-end free agent will become more difficult.

One way to enable more home-grown prospects to reach the NHL is to stockpile draft choices through trades, and the Canucks have a number of veteran assets that could attract a decent price on the market. Vancouver showed a need for more size and grit, as well as offensive skill, among its top nine forwards after losing many one-on-one battles, allowing the Sharks to move the puck out of their end with relative ease.

Except for Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows, no forward appears likely to be spared consideration for a new hockey home. But the Sedins’ future with the team will also be in question, because they are slated to enter the final year of their contracts in 2013-14.

With the Canucks at the top of the old salary cap and a new one pending, changes also appear inevitable for financial reasons. Luongo, slated for a $5.3 million salary cap hit next season, is an obvious candidate to leave, via trade or buyout – a year later than planned. But the Canucks could also consider moving one of their top-four defensemen, who will all earn $4 million to $5 million next season.

But before commencing with changes, management and players will have to get over the sting of being swept for the first time in 12 years.

”This is the most frustrating team I’ve been a part of,” said Daniel Sedin. ”We have a good team and what cost us? Little mistakes, taking penalties. We have ourselves to blame.”

His controversial boarding penalty on Tommy Wingels in overtime led to Patrick Marleau’s winning goal in Game 4.

”This year, this is not the way we wanted to end,” said Henrik Sedin. ”It was almost like we were a first-time playoff team going to the box too many times.”

The Canucks captain lamented another lost opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, realizing that the club’s core is nearing the end of its days together.

”A lot of guys have been together for a long time,” he said. ”It’s very disappointing, because you only have so many chances.”