Promises, promises

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

A lot of people didn't know it at the time, but Glen Sather came one post-season flop away from blowing up the Edmonton Oilers.

It was the spring of 1983-84, and while his star-studded, high-fliers were Stanley Cup favourites on paper, demolishing most of the NHL's scoring records and hogging most of its All-Star berths, they were swept in the final a year earlier and choked in the first round the year before that.

Worried that they might learn how to lose before they learned how to win, Slats was poised to dismantle the core and rebuild around 99 if the Boys on the Bus couldn't prove they were for real.

They did, and stayed together, most of them, for five championships.

The Vancouver Canucks are at a similar crossroads this spring. For four years they've started the year as a legitimate power in the west, boasting the best line in hockey, great young talent on defence and all the wisdom and money they needed to make it work.

It hasn't.

They won their division with 101 points last season and lost in the first round. They had 104 points two years ago and lost in the second round. They were second in the division with 94 points three years ago and bowed out in the first round.

This year doesn't look all that promising, either.

"I don't think we expected to have the difficulties we've had," said general manager Dave Nonis, whose club started the season 8-1-1 but has won 29 and lost 31 in the 60 games since.

"There have been periods where we've dominated some of the top teams in the league and we've had periods where we've looked like a team that's trying to find its way."

The Canucks should be well past that by now. The fact that three well-stocked clubs have never done anything in the playoffs, and a fourth might not even get there, might be evidence enough that it's time for a change.

"Everyone knows the ability is there," said Nonis, who still believes Vancouver has the talent and character to go deep. "We're going to find out a lot about the makeup of this group over the next dozen games. They have a chance to do something, and they understand it's one of the last chances they're going to get as a group to do something."

Nonis won't come out and say he'll blow up the Canucks unless they reach the post-season, but dismantling their core is a pretty easy call if they don't.

"We'll deal with it at that time," he said. "But obviously you don't want to go along forever with a team that has promise and doesn't fulfill that promise. If the team does well then you have what you thought you had. If it doesn't then you have to re-evaluate."

In fairness, the Canucks' defence has been ravaged by injury, but there's more than enough talent up front, you'd think, to pick up the slack.

Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, however, were a combined -35 heading into last night, leaving Anson Carter and the Sedin twins to carry most of the load.

"Picking out one or two players isn't helpful to anybody," said Nonis, when asked if Naslund and Bertuzzi have done enough. "With that said, your best players have to be your best players throughout the course of the year if you want to have some success."

Bertuzzi admits it's been rough, especially in a market that's sick of watching its team underachieve.

"I don't think guys enjoy getting ripped every day in the media," he said. "There's a lot of pressure in Vancouver, a lot of pressure. But if you want to play hockey, there's no better market to be in."

It might be the best market in the league, but some of them won't be in it very much longer if they don't straighten this out.

"We have a pretty talented club that needs to get back on track," said Nonis. "They have an opportunity to do that and they understand what the consequences are if they don't."


Photos