Watching my hometown Vancouver Canucks this season has brought an unexpected sadness along with the usual ups and downs of a (shortened!) season – the crushing realization that the title window has closed for this particular group of players.
Hard to believe, right? Last year this team won the President’s Trophy and finished with the most wins in the league and the season before that they came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup! How could their window have closed?
Two years ago the Canucks, led by Ryan Kesler, the Sedin twins and a non-shattered Roberto Luongo seemed to be a perennial contender for years to come. Yet, here we are acknowledging their window has closed. This team does not feel like a threat to win the Cup, they just do not. Something has been lost with this group of players and the instant that happens it becomes time to blow it up. Otherwise you enter the brutal “mediocrity” zone in which you make the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed each season, never have a chance to win a series and end up with a mediocre lottery pick. No thank you – as tough a pill as it is to swallow, it is better to blow it up completely and suffer through a few years of epically bad teams while building through the draft (think Edmonton, and not Calgary).
The Title Window is incredibly fickle and it slams shut when least expected. Some franchises struggle for years to make the right choice, the hard choice and rebuild the proper way; instead, most end up with the typical overpaid free agents or trade pieces who suck up salary and do just enough to hold the team above the playoff line (again, think the Calgary Flames or Boston Celtics). As tough as it is to stomach your team being bad for a long stretch, this can be infinitely worse because you are bad…just not bad enough to get a legitmate franchise player in the draft (think the Portland Trailblazers). Teams in each sport have seen their windows slam shut, sometimes completely unexpectedly – some of the classics being the 80’s Houston Rockets, the 90’s Lakers, the Boston Celtics / Red Sox, the Core 4 New York Yankees, the 80’s Oilers…the list goes on and on.
The Title Window can close for a variety of reasons, occasionally for injury reasons (like the Canucks with Kesler), occasionally for money reasons (the 80’s Oilers who had to trade Wayne Gretzky and ended their dynasty right there) or for other reasons (the disease of more, drugs, outside influence, aging etc).
The moment the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Bruins their window had closed and we did not even realize it. There was some factors at play such as injuries like the ones to Kesler (who truly led the way for us even if we had not yet fully realized the importance of his impact) or Roberto Luongo getting figured out by most teams and run out of a few buildings (he flops, stays down and you can get into his head) but the fact remains that the window was closed. Then we started to give out some bad contracts, like the one to Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond or Keith Ballard, and we started to pick up a bunch of guys to fill out our roster who could not score to save their lives (looking at you David Booth!) and here we are. The hard choices need to be made.
Look at three of the most successful franchises in sports today – NHL Champions Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins and NBA Contender Oklahoma City Thunder. These three teams built through the draft, brilliantly, and ended up drafting incredibly well and picking up multiple franchise players in a few years (the Hawks have Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook; the Pens skate Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and had Jordan Staal; the Thunder drafted Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant). For years these teams struggled but they were patient – and more importantly so were the fans. Now OKC has some of the best fans in the NBA, the Hawks had a 21 game point streak and the Pens have the best player in the NHL and are a favorite to win the Cup.
The Canucks window has closed and it is time for them to begin thinking about the sort of future they want for the team, their city and their fans. It is never easy to admit that the window has closed and because it is so infrequent that a team has a chance to win a title we tend to hang on, way too long even as the team becomes farther and farther from a championship.
So Vancouver (and others clinging desperately to teams past their primes) it is time to blow it up, stockpile picks and move through a few years of mediocrity. However, know that soon the world will become better, the future brighter and eventually if we are really lucky the window might, one day, open again.