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Canucks' conundrum

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The look on Dave Nonis' face said it all. There, from his perch high above the ice surface at GM Place, the Vancouver Canucks' general manager looked dismayed, disappointed, befuddled, frustrated and angry all at the same time.

Instead of quickly scurrying out of the box to head downstairs as is the norm after games, Nonis continued to stand there at the ledge.

We're assuming he was not contemplating a leap. He can be excused if it crossed his mind, however.

But really, what was the rush? Like his team, Nonis had nowhere to go.

The first mega-upset came before this year's Stanley Cup playoffs have even begun. The Vancouver Canucks, with sufficient talent on paper and one of the game's best goaltenders to be in the mix in the Western Conference, find themselves without a ticket for the big dance.

How did this happen?

In the days and weeks ahead, look for a couple of story lines to emerge.

The Canucks' heart and leadership will be challenged. Both Nonis and coach Alain Vigneault have one year remaining on their contracts, which doesn't necessarily mean either is safe.

Nonis is a first-time GM, promoted from within the organization after Brian Burke departed in the spring of 2004. The 41-year-old native of nearby Burnaby, B.C., is the youngest and only GM in team history that's been born and raised in the Vancouver area.

Helping to possibly bridge some of the inexperience in the GM office is assistant GM Steve Tambellini, a respected front-office person who just completed his 17th season with the organization. Losing Burke was a blow, but the team still appeared to be in good hands with Nonis and Tambellini.

Vigneault was Nonis' first and only hire in terms of an NHL head coach. Vigneault spent two years behind Montreal's bench and was a Jack Adams nominee for coach of the year in 1999-2000, but he was fired after 20 games the following season when the Canadiens got off to a slow start. The Canucks hired Vigneault to coach their AHL affiliate in Manitoba, which came within one game of the conference finals in 2005-06. Vigneault guided the Canucks last year to their best regular season in team history, setting records for wins (49) and points (105) en route to the Northwest Division title and a first postseason appearance since 2003-04.

Vigneault, who won the Jack Adams Award, led the team past Dallas in an overtime-filled, low-scoring opening-round victory that was seven games of grueling action. The Canucks had very little left and dropped a five-game series in the second round to the eventual Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.

Coming into this season, there was no reason to believe the Canucks wouldn't be part of the mix again – certainly not a team that would drop out of the top eight.

But this has been a trend for a number of long-tenured veterans in Vancouver such as Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden (two stints), twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, Mattias Ohlund and Brendan Morrison. And in that time, the Canucks have won only one other playoff round besides last spring.

This season in particular, the Canucks were too much about Alex Burrows, Matt Cooke (before he got traded) and Taylor Pyatt and not enough about the top-skill players. Vancouver relied too much on Roberto Luongo's artistry in goal. He was good but not great. But he shouldn't have to be great for the team to succeed. He needs to be picked up now and then, and that didn't happen enough.

Was he distracted by the fact his wife, living in Florida, was experiencing a difficult pregnancy before the birth of their first child last week? Possibly.

"Mentally, it was probably the hardest season I've played," said Luongo, who fought off tears and talked in hushed tones after the team was eliminated Thursday night.

Luongo's toughest stretch of the season came late when the Canucks needed him most, whether that was fair or not. The team was ranked sixth in goaltending statistics Friday; obviously overall it's not a problem.

Vancouver was 38-26-10 after winning at Edmonton on March 20 and poised for a run at the division title instead of simply trying to hold on to a spot. Instead, the Canucks proceeded to go 1-6 and now find themselves trying to answer difficult questions.

The only thing that is sure about the future is that there will be change, and it could be significant. Eight players are due to be unrestricted free agents, and all could be gone. The list – headlined by Naslund, Linden and Morrison – also includes forwards Brad Isbister and Byron Ritchie, defensemen Aaron Miller and Mike Weaver and backup goalie Curtis Sanford.

And it's not so much that they will command big dollars on the open market as that Vancouver just isn't interesting anymore.

Nonis has to be wary, however, that only a year remains on contracts for the Sedins, Jeff Cowan, Matt Pettinger, Pyatt, Burrows and defenseman Mattias Ohlund. Luongo has two years left on his current deal.

They probably already have had plenty of these kind of meetings, but Nonis & Co. have to decide what group they're going to build this team around, and one logically would assume it starts with Luongo, continues with the Sedins and includes Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond Willie Mitchell, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Burrows, Pyatt and Pettinger.

From there, the team needs to fill the holes and form an identity. They play in a great building and in a passionate, enthusiastic market. You can't fool the people in this market, and they deserve a good product. The heat is on now for the Canucks to deliver, and no one needs to remind Nonis and Vigneault of that.

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