They say there’s only two things an NHL franchise can sell it’s fanbase: Wins or hope.
In the Vancouver Canucks home tilt on Hockey Night in Canada against the Toronto Maple Leafs this past Saturday the team was selling neither, continuing a season-long trend. Rogers Arena was abuzz with the return of the beloved “flying skate” jerseys, and a number of luminaries from the Canucks early 90’s glory days were in attendance. To top it off, captain Henrik Sedin was honored as the team’s all-time leader in games played. Amid all this excitement, how did they Canucks fare against the Leafs?
Well, they fell flat on their faces of course.
The only team in the entire NHL with fewer regulation wins than the Canucks strolled into Vancouver and steamrolled them. After 60 minutes were done, the shot clock stood at 38-19 in favor of the visitors, while the scoreline ended up 5-2 for the boys in blue and white.
The embarrassing loss just added to the bad news and rumors swirling around the club of late. The team recently lost two key components, center Brandon Sutter and defenseman Alex Edler, for the next month and a half, effectively sinking whatever little playoff hopes the team had. Word also leaked out that Alex Burrows would (allegedly) be willing to waive his no-trade clause if asked by management to leave the only NHL city he’s ever known. Then, on Saturday night, before the game was even over, the bombshell hit:
— Dave (@YLWNucksFan) February 14, 2016
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman may have just been giving his own personal opinion, but there’s a ring of truth to it. The Canucks ownership is evidently not allowing GM Jim Benning to run the team as he sees fit.
Now, if that is indeed true, it runs completely counter to why Benning was ostensibly brought into the organization in the first place. Benning has long been lauded as a shrewd scout and identifier of talent. His tenure as director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres from 1998-2004 was a huge reason the club made consecutive Eastern Conference Final appearances in 2006 and 2007, while he was of course one of the architects of the 2011 Boston Bruins Cup team as the organization’s assistant general manager.
The thinking at the time Benning was hired by Vancouver, presumably, was that the Canucks were ready to transition to a new core (they were), the coffers were relatively bereft of young talent (also true), and a new manager with a good track record of recognizing and acquiring quality prospects who could take over was needed. Enter Benning. Seems like a pretty easy plan if you’re the Canucks ownership; simply sit back, let Benning build this thing back up, and reap the long-term rewards.
So why then are we reading news like this, which seems to contradict that plan?
Benning: I would even look to add, if we can, to make our team better to compete for a playoff spot. We want to make the playoffs
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) February 11, 2016
Poor, poor, poor Canuck fans… pic.twitter.com/KoY61LFiIK
— Garret Hohl (@GarretHohl) February 12, 2016
Something is not adding up here. The Canucks are, by nearly every measurement, a moribund NHL club at best, and should not even be entertaining the thought of “adding to make the playoffs” or any other nonsense that doesn’t lead the club to a top five pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Benning, Canucks President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden and the rest of Vancouver’s brain trust are smart hockey men, and they can see the writing on the wall.
Halford and Brough now saying that there were rumours that Linden and Benning were not happy about making the playoffs last year.
— Dave (@YLWNucksFan) February 14, 2016
That may be conjecture, or it may be legitimate inside knowledge, it’s hard to know for certain, but one thing that is certain is Benning and Linden are no dummies. If they knew last year it was in the club’s best interest to score a high draft pick, they must be aware of how desperately such a pick is needed this year. Why then do quotes like the former keep slipping out?
It’s pretty simple: Money, and the flawed thinking that fans only care about winning now.
The Aquilini family, which owns the Canucks, allegedly has some concerns about the market, most notably that fans will stay away from games if the team has to go through a long rebuilding process. Here too is another ring of truth, as Vancouver has been known to be a somewhat fickle market in the past, and we’ve seen evidence of that already.
According to ESPN, the Canucks are filling Rogers Arena at about 97.4% capacity this season, averaging some 18,421 fans. That doesn’t sound so bad, until you consider this is announced ticket sales, not actual butts in seats. It gets worse when you realize that 97.4% is actually 18th in the NHL and down 1.5% from last year. It gets downright embarrassing when you consider the Canucks sold out 474 consecutive home games between November 2002 and October 2014.
So it seems like a logical argument: As the team gets bad, the fans stop coming, and revenue goes down. How then do you explain the superior attendance figures in other Canadian markets like Toronto (102.5% capacity), Winnipeg (101.9%), Montreal (100.1%), Edmonton (100%) and Calgary (99.2%)? Like the Canucks, none of those teams are in the playoffs, and you could make a case for at least a few of them being objectively worse on the ice than Vancouver.
Simply put, the fans in Vancouver aren’t coming because they are frustrated by how the team is being operated, so much so that talk of a boycott has been bandied about (though this is surely the extreme end of the spectrum). The fans want to watch a product on the ice which gets them excited about the future, not the likes of Linden Vey, Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa or Matt Bartkowski (serviceable NHLers to be sure, but ultimately stop-gap players on the Canucks) trotted out again and again.
There is however a solution that allows the Canucks ownership, management, and fanbase to all have their cake and eat it too, however it requires an acceptance of the reality of the situation, that this club is NOT making the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if the team adds Steven Stamkos at the deadline, it’s just not going to happen. The revenue from those two extra home playoff dates isn’t getting deposited into ownership’s bank account, sorry.
But there is a way to make the best of this bad situation, which is by doing exactly what the club should be doing in this situation: Selling assets and giving the kids a chance. Selling the fans hope.
Jake Virtanen, the franchise’s new hotness, has been one of the Canucks best forwards for the past month, so why then is he still only playing 10-11 minutes a game? Ditto for Jared McCann and Sven Baertschi, who are averaging a little more than 12 minutes. Vancouver fans want to see what these players can do in an expanded role (to be fair, this has largely been coach Willie Desjardins’ decision, but he’s just doing what he feels is best with the roster management, as mandated by ownership, has given him).
And then there’s the kids down in Utica who are having excellent seasons for the Comets. Why hasn’t Hunter Shinkaruk gotten more than one cursory look in the NHL this season? He’s handily leading the Comets in both goals and points and even made an appearance in the AHL all-star game as a sophomore pro, yet Vancouver treats him like he doesn’t exist. Or Brendan Gaunce, who might be the Comets most improved player, scoring at twice the rate this year than he did last year. Even undersized d-man Jordan Subban has proven himself worthy of getting a shot on the big club with 27 points in 41 games as an AHL rookie.
Wouldn’t handing the reigns over to these players now boost some of the excitement around the club? Don’t you think fans are more interested in seeing, for example, what Shinkaruk and Subban could do on the power play instead of Vey and Yannick Weber (who has been a complete dud this year)?
And more importantly, shouldn’t management be able to execute a plan which will bring in even more hope and excitement? Isn’t it better to acquire draft picks, propsects, and, dare I say, a chance at Auston Matthews instead of a damaging attempt to add pieces for a futile playoff run? Why cut off your nose to spite your face?
Wins or hope. Currently the Canucks aren’t selling their fans either. You know this. I know this. Benning and Linden know this. Yet the Aquilinis, if the rumors are to believed, evidently don’t know this, assuming winning now is the only thing which will get the Vancouver faithful to part with their hard-earned money.
Well actually, they’re right. Canucks fans DO want to see their team win. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen this year, and unless management is given free reign to alter the club as they see fit, it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future either.