The Vancouver Canucks fans don’t have a Love/Hate relationship with their team. It’s probably better described as a Hostage/Captor relationship where they periodically switch roles.
Vancouver Canucks Fans Panic! On the Airwaves
Why Don’t Good Times Last Forever?
No question, it’s been a long time since the 2011 Stanley Cup run, and fans of the team feel every second of it. The fall from those 111-point team heights to sixth or seventh in the division was rapid and painful. Missing the playoffs in 2014 cost general manager Mike Gillis his job, getting replaced by current general manager Jim Benning.
Many fans have pointed to that as the beginning of a five-year plan that one should judge Benning’s performance on. That’s difficult to assert, though, given that everything points to a change of direction during his tenure.
When Benning was brought in, he made moves to enhance the current team. A rebuild doesn’t involve bringing in veterans Ryan Miller or Radim Vrbata. The end result was a resurgence to 101 points and a return to the playoffs. Ends up that was the dead cat bounce which fooled management into thinking the team was still a challenger.
The team also wanted to make the last years of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin good ones. Players and a pick were sent away for Brandon Sutter, increasing depth at centre, which is not the type of move a team in a rebuild makes. More youth and picks left the team as they brought in Erik Gudbranson and Markus Granlund in an attempt to fill gaps left by their Cup push. The 2016 signing of Loui Eriksson stands out as a highlight of its own, but is part of the same thought process.
None of it worked, and the fans were more than happy to let them know.
Following the Money (Out the Door)
There are positives and negatives when a professional sports team is the only game in town. All respect to the BC Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps, but hockey’s the game here. The city also has two full-time sports radio stations, so the Canucks will take up a whole lot of that airtime. But hey! Since when has an oversaturation of media been a bad thing? All news is good news, right?
Scouts and player agents will frequently mention frustration at over-criticism of top players coming up to their draft years. That’s because when those players are at the head of the line, their play will be examined with ever-finer combs. And that will happen over the course of years now, as whoever the local phenom is gets national attention, whatever age they are.
Now imagine having to talk about a single player four hours a day, five days a week. Things are not only going to get nit-picky, but even the slightest change from normal will become grist for the media mill. That’s pretty much the situation with the Vancouver Canucks. And as we all know, bad news is much more interesting than good – especially for something as low-stakes as a sports team. It’s fun to argue and get passionate about sports because it’s harmless. (Well, mostly.)
Unless that is, those sports are your business. Attendance had dropped by 1,200 seats per game by 2016-17. That season Benning traded away two veteran players (Alexandre Burrows and Jannik Hansen) for youth. At the end of the year, the Sedins retired. The wholesale change of a rebuild finally started.
What Took So Long
Remember that 1,200 seats per game decline? It had been preceded by a 1,000 seat increase from the 2011 run to the 2013-14 season. As the team was getting worse – but trying to maintain their place – ticket sales improved.
As much as the fans and radio stations were calling for a tear-down rebuild, it’s hard to picture owner Francisco Aquilini agreeing to either selling off the team’s stars or otherwise starting over from scratch. He was frustrated at the team not reaching the playoffs, likely as much as even the most strident fan. Though his reasoning may be slightly different.
The Aquilini purchase of the Canucks and Orca Bay has a contentious history, with ongoing lawsuits, offsetting debt purchases, and accusations of backroom deals. Even now the economic and legal complications must be at the top of his mind. What he does not need is his guaranteed income from the Canucks drying up.
Here’s what I think: Aquilini hired Benning in 2014 only when Benning assured him the team could stay a contender. That’s a big deal because the players do not receive paycheques during the playoffs. It took the latest collective bargaining agreement to even set aside $15(-ish) million for playoff-bound players. As the NHL is still mostly a gate-driven league, making the playoffs means a lot of profit for team owners.
It took not just years of frustrated fans ranting on sports shows and public media but actual declining sales before a rebuild could truly start.
Everything’s Good Now!
Well, not quite.
This season has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Vancouver Canucks fans. A difficult November that only produced five wins looks even worse when compared to an eight-win October. But there was plenty of warning that the second month of the season would be a brutal one. Ten games on the road, fifteen total in those thirty days. Popular thinking was that if the team could get through and still be in a playoff spot by the end of it, they’d be looking all right.
They got through, and in a playoff spot. Barely. Even worse, teams that were surprisingly below them in the standings have normalized their play. The Vegas Golden Knights have recovered from their own weak November to go 6-2-2 for December. The Winnipeg Jets have shaken off a bad start to the year. The Calgary Flames tore off seven straight wins after a coaching change. The Dallas Stars rocketed back from a 1-8 start to the year.
New Month, New Disasters
The Vancouver Canucks numbers normalized as well – not as good as the easy schedule in October suggested, not as bad as November’s results showed. Their ridiculous number of five-goal+ games were now interspersed with a half dozen one-goal games. Opposing teams were cashing in on more of the opportunities they were given. Their goalies were occasionally human.
In the media, it was a nightmare of epic proportions. Obviously. But in reality, it was a team that looks about average (not mentioning “the M word“…) being about average.
Then came The Weekend! *cue dramatic fanfare here*
Back-to-back games on the road against the San Jose Sharks and Golden Knights would be an opportunity to get wins against teams in their conference. Both teams are in a dogfight with Vancouver for the playoffs, and two victories would cement the Canucks’ position. It would get the team back to .500 and make their two games in hand four points.
End result? Two losses in regulation. They played well enough to win against the Sharks, but didn’t, and were dominated by the Knights. So much for that. Add to that a demoralizing home loss to the Montreal Canadiens and, well, Vancouver Canucks fans light those switchboards up!
Some sample headlines:
“Fans Were Promised Change”
“How Are They Better Than Last Year?”
“Whose Fault is it: Benning or Green’s?”
“This Canucks Team Supposed to be Better”
“The Heat is on Jim Benning and Travis Green”
“Canucks Must Win 3 of 4 to Retain Confidence of Fanbase”
Now that the team managed a win in the return engagement against Vegas, things seem to have calmed down. Which highlights how ludicrous the reactionary headlines were: real problems don’t get fixed in one game. Unless it’s Game Seven, but bringing that up probably won’t win Canucks fans over…
The truth is that this is a better Canucks team than last year’s version. Their depth has improved considerably, but not to the degree where they can shrug off injuries to top players. Heck, injuries in their bottom-six damaged them considerably. Two of their best players are a rookie and a sophomore, and their best is, without question, their goaltender. Without Jacob Markstrom playing lights-out this season, their results would be even worse.
This isn’t the description of a top team. Expecting them to be one this year is more than a bit optimistic. But that they are better than last season isn’t really a question. The funny thing about that is the final standings might not show it.
There are a lot of teams who are pretty close in ability, and a few bounces here or there can make the difference between making the playoffs or not for any of them. Parity is a real thing in the league. The team may well end up with the same 35 wins they managed last season and out of the playoffs. That would suck for fans, sure, but it shouldn’t surprise them.
In the meantime, Vancouver Canucks fans are stuck with a wildly entertaining team with two of the top young players in the league in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. They have a great scorer in Brock Boeser, and a tireless captain in Bo Horvat. They’ve got a solid prospect pool and soon a regional rival, whatever they’ll be called.
Pointing to the team’s five-year record only shows half the story. I’m convinced that Jim Benning was only allowed to actually rebuild the team in the middle of 2017 when it was clear they wouldn’t be making the playoffs then, either. To my eyes, this is the third year of whatever plan he has to return the team to peak profitability.
Oh, and to the playoffs. Which one of those is more important to you probably depends on your perspective.
VANCOUVER, BC – FEBRUARY 28: Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning speaks to the media after a game between against the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings. Benning was discussing the recent trades of Vancouver Canucks Left Wing Alexandre Burrows (14) and Vancouver Canucks Right Wing Jannik Hansen (36). February 28, 2017, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC. (Photo by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)