Contenders or pretenders

BARRY MACDONALD -- 24 Hours Vancouver

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

It has been a few weeks since I suggested in this space that the Vancouver Canucks might have been a little bit better than their record indicated.

What I didn't mention was my right to reverse any decision. As you may have guessed, I am about to exercise that right, one that of course extends to any ink-stained wretch in desperate search of a hook.

Which is not to suggest I am reaching, when I tell you that heading into last night's affair with Colorado, the Canucks were a somewhat discombobulated bunch. It doesn't take six syllables to discern there is something wrong with this team.

It merely takes a study of some disturbing trends that have come to characterize it. These are trends that could soon become habits ... habits that could then become hard to break.

The record prior to Wednesday night's affair was certainly respectable enough -- 15 wins, 8 losses, and a couple of overtime defeats.

Vancouver was atop the Northwest Division and third in the Western Conference behind only Detroit and Los Angeles. But the general consensus when digesting what the Canucks have accomplished so far is that they have not looked inspired doing it.

And that folks should be distressing.

This team was fancied as one of the league's elite when the season began. But I have a difficult time looking at the Canucks as a legitimate juggernaut, and certainly for that matter, a legitimate contender.

Are they more pretender than contender? Too early for that judgment. But it is not too early to start sounding the alarm in certain areas.

Let's start with the big line. Markus Naslund has been the best, and most consistent of the three. Brendan Morrison has been average at best and Todd Bertuzzi has been enigmatic as ever.

With his size and skill set, there is no physical reason why this man doesn't dominate on a consistent basis. Not once in a while. Consistently.

If he hasn't put the Steve Moore incident in the rear-view mirror, he needs to. There is no way a motivated Bertuzzi has 46 players ahead of him in the scoring race, with all due respect to the likes of Brian Gionta, Jason Williams and Ladislav Nagy.

Bertuzzi needs to drastically increase his nasty quotient. The opposition needs to know when he is on the ice, ready to lower the boom like he has on the likes of Bryce Salvador and Barret Jackman. Good, clean, thunderous, game-changing checks. Remember those?

With Bertuzzi in line for the Lady Byng, the Canucks top two lines are both no hitters. Naslund, Morrison, Daniel, Henrik and Anson Carter aren't likely to pull up the slack.

Opposing defencemen know they have time to make plays against a team that doesn't play a physical style. Instead of looking over their shoulders, they are looking for a teammate, for a quick breakout against the alleged forecheck.

Another area that should be causing some angst among hockey fans are Vancouver's poor starts.

Ten times in their last dozen games, the other guys scored first. There is no happy face to be drawn on this one. It speaks volumes about this teams' preparation, and its lack of passion out of the gate.

It also makes it open season for people in the speculation business. who have publicly questioned the leadership of the team and/or the coaching.

There is a possibility this team is pacing itself, saving its "A" game for March, April, and possibly May. But that is dangerous territory for a group that has not made a habit of Stanley Cup runs.

Sooner than later, the Canucks need to forge an identity. Their best players need to be just that.

Dan Cloutier needs to stay healthy and play well. If Dave Nonis doesn't see the sum of the parts adding up to what it should, this team will be broken up. It's a window of opportunity closing fast. And so is the competition in the Western Conference.

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