Although it is likely that the Vancouver Canucks, Prince George Cougars and P.G. Spruce Kings will qualify for the playoffs, it’s doubtful any one of these organizations will boast about a truly successful season.
Yes, it’s hard to believe that we are in mid-January and the Canucks have just passed the mid-point of their schedule; the Cougars have 27 games left; and the Spruce Kings have just 14 games to go.
The Canucks have always been and will continue to be the favorite NHL team for most B.C. residents and this support is heightened this year with the addition of Mats Sundin and P.G.’s Jason Labarbera.
Vancouver is a better team than last season, especially when one considers that they have maintained a spot in the top six of the Western Conference, despite Roberto Luongo’s two-month absence.
Even though five games aren’t enough to form an opinion on Sundin, obviously he will help. Luongo won’t have the fatigue or baby factor affecting him and assuming he stays healthy, he will be a main factor in Vancouver securing a post-season berth.
The Canucks have added offensive depth and possess a solid defensive core. They have also strengthened their goaltending situation, with the addition of Labarbera.
While optimism remains high, the Canucks still are not as strong as the Sharks and the defending champion Red Wings. If Vancouver doesn’t reach the Western final, which I certainly don’t predict, then indeed it will be another year of frustration, especially for the longtime, loyal, but starving fans in this province.
The West is separated into three tiers. San Jose and Detroit are in a class by themselves, while the next group includes Vancouver, Anaheim, Calgary and Chicago. Although each of these teams has more than 35 games left, I think it’s safe to assume that these clubs will compete in the post-season with the last two berths wide open.
Meanwhile, there are many question marks that linger around the Cougars, including whether they will achieve their modest goal of making the playoffs. I was surprised the Cougars didn’t make a move or two on trade deadline day; however this was consistent with many other WHL teams, which is a contrast to what has transpired at the trade deadline in past years.
The Cougars much-maligned goaltending has been getting better, and the defence is somewhat improved since the coaching change. The Cats still lack firepower, but so do the teams behind them (the Bruins and Winterhawks).
I expect the Cougars to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot which means a quick first round loss to the Vancouver Giants. In other words, look for another tumble in season ticket renewals, unless the team offers its dwindling fan base incentives at a reduced cost.
The Giants are the class of the Western Conference with Tri-City, Spokane and Kelowna the only teams with a legitimate chance of knocking them off.
So, what can you say about the Spruce Kings, the most disappointing of these three teams? The Spruce Kings season can be characterized as a flop. The team hasn’t won in more than a month, a span of 10 games, and that includes match ups against the lowly Millionaires and Centennials. How can a team be so bad (with a losing record) and yet have five of their players picked to play in the all-star game in Vernon?
The Kings are a shoo-in for the playoffs, not due to their dazzling play, but because of Quesnel’s and Merritt’s incompetence. The team is destined to place sixth out of eight in the Interior Conference for the second straight year, which is a huge underachievement for a veteran-filled club.
Salmon Arm and Vernon are the best in the conference with Penticton and Westside in the tier below. Then it’s Trail and P.G. on the same level before a big drop to the Millionaires and Centennials.
Since the Spruce Kings have capable goalies, there is a possibility the team might score a first round upset; however, a long playoff run remains remote.
In conclusion, P.G. hockey fans can expect their three beloved teams to play extra games beyond the regular season. This will be an upgrade over last year, but certainly not enough to avoid more disappointment, which has become a regular occurrence in the springtime.
Hartley Miller is the sports director for radio stations 94X and the Wolf@97fm. He also writes for Opinion250. Hartley can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.