This article was originally written in December, 2015.
During the dead puck era in the years leading to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the Canucks’ trio of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison far from followed the pattern of declining offense in the league.
The West Coast Express line, named after the commuter train in BC’s lower mainland (which is obvious to any Vancouver resident), treated Canucks fans for four seasons with a combination of speed, skill and grit – and most importantly, production. In the line’s most dominant years between 2001-02 – 2003-04, the three players combined for 718 points. Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison were the respective top three Canucks scorers in all those seasons, and Naslund and Bertuzzi were often among the league leaders.
It was a unique unit in Canucks history, and possibly the team’s best line ever. Naslund, the Canucks captain, was one of the NHL’s superstars at the time, the lug Bertuzzi was known to some as the most feared power forward in the league, and Morrison was the center in his prime who complimented their style very well. It’s only fitting that the Canucks honor the West Coast Express Line prior to the team’s home game against the Buffalo Sabres on December 7, 2015.
West Coast Express Line Timeline
Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison were first united early in the 2001-02 season, and head coach Marc Crawford probably didn’t predict that this trio would stay together for the next four season, and record close to 1,000 points combined in that time. The unit gelled instantly, and soon was named the West Coast Express line, which has become iconic in Canucks history.
By the end of the 2001-02 season, Naslund was second in the NHL with 90 points, behind only Jarome Iginla, while Bertuzzi was third with 85 points. Bertuzzi, who only played 72 games due to a 10-game suspension, had the best point per game average (1.18) of any NHL player that year with at least 50 games played. Morrison, meanwhile, collected 67 points. The three led what was a major turnaround year in Vancouver, as the Canucks’ 42 wins were the most since they had 41 in 1993-94. The line also had a combined plus-61 rating, and all their point totals were career-highs at the time – that is, until the following season.
The West Coast Express line had made a name for themselves in 2001-02, but they were front and center as the league’s best line the following season.
The Peak of West Coast Express
In 2002-03, Naslund led the league in points late in the season but was eventually passed by Peter Forsberg, and finished second in the NHL with 104 points (48 goals, 56 assists); the Canucks captain also received the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best player as voted by the NHLPA. Bertuzzi finished fifth in NHL scoring with 97 points (46 goals, 51 assists), and racked up 144 penalty minutes as well. Morrison posted 71 points (25 goals, 46 assists), and had a plus-18 rating for the second straight season.
Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison’s combined 272 points was more than any other trio in the league that season (Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay totaled 271 points for Colorado). All of the point totals for the West Coast Express line from 2002-03 stand as their career-highs, while Vancouver’s 45 wins that season were the second most in franchise history at the time. It would also be the best playoff run the for Canucks in this era, who were one game away from the Western Conference Finals but lost to the Minnesota Wild in game seven of their second round series.
2003-04 was another strong season for the Canucks’ top line, as Naslund finished fourth in league scoring with 84 points in 78 games. Bertuzzi and Morrison each finished with 60 points, as Bertuzzi had missed the final 13 games of the season due to a suspension from the infamous Steve Moore incident.
The West Coast Express line stayed together for one more season after the 2004-05 NHL lockout, remaining as the team’s top line in what was the year Henrik and Daniel Sedin emerged as some of the top scorers on the Canucks. Naslund posted 79 points in 81 games, while Bertuzzi and Morrison had 71 and 56 points, respectively, in 82 games each.
After four seasons and a combined 924 points, the West Coast Express era came to an end when Bertuzzi was traded to the Florida Panthers at the end of the 2005-06 season.
What Made The West Coast Express So Special?
When Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison first began playing together in November 2001, the three were 28, 26 and 26 years old, respectively. Each entering their primes and bringing different skills to the table made the timing perfect. Morrison said it best in Canucks in Forty:
“[Naslund] was the pure goal scorer with under-rated passing skills. [Bertuzzi] was the premier power forward at the time with his physicality and finesse, and I brought speed and skill making.” – Brendan Morrison.
Their different abilities made the line very well-rounded. The three complimented each other’s style and created chances to score every time they stepped onto the ice. And if they didn’t score, their shifts were something to watch.
The statistics say a lot for the impact the West Coast Express line had on the Canucks franchise, but the trio had a lot to do with the turnaround of the team during this line’s year in the early 2000’s.
Vancouver had missed the playoffs for four straight miserable seasons from 1995-96 to 1999-00. Prior to 2002-03, the team had only won one playoff series since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994. The era headlined by Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison saw the Canucks return to being a team that consistently made the playoffs. For 12 years beginning in 2000-01, Vancouver missed the postseason only twice.
Naslund explained his fond memories of the impact he and his linemates had on the Canucks during their prime, also in Canucks in Forty:
“We had a great response from the Vancouver fans and it was important because it came at a time when there as a bit of a transition for the Canucks. We came together at the right time and the team became much more competitive. It seemed the three of us matured all at the same time.” – Markus Naslund.
And now that it’s been a decade since the West Coast Express line last played together in Vancouver, the fan base that was treated to watch this top line for years can now effectively look back on just how brilliant they were, as they will when the trio comes together one more time on December 7, 2015.