It’s 14 games into the new season, and Vancouver Canucks fans are cracking. And to make one thing perfectly clear: it’s not the record.
Angry Canucks Fans Making Noise
The record itself isn’t a catastrophe at 5-7-2. That’s not great, certainly, but the team has seen worse 14-game streaks. Looking at the bare-bones numbers, the team has 34 goals for and 43 against. Again, not good in either case, but not an outright disaster. Indeed, take away the actual disaster of Thursday night’s match against the Colorado Avalanche and they’re middle-of-the-pack. Which is the actual problem.
From the Top
Earlier this year we ran a series on all seven years of Canucks general manager Jim Benning‘s tenure. The last one was, coincidentally or not, on April Fool’s Day. The team was in the middle of a brutal COVID-19 outbreak, one week into a three-week absence. They had lost twice to the Winnipeg Jets by an aggregate score of 9-1. The only team they could consistently beat was the Ottawa Senators. A lousy time was being had by all.
But they had a 16-18-3 record and still had a good shot at making the playoffs. Vancouver returned in dramatic fashion, getting two wins against the powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs. Canucks fans were charged up by the intensity of the wins. They couldn’t cheer in person, but optimism had a brief, shining moment. That was right before they lost seven of their next eight games – including three against the Senators. Any chance of building on the wild “Bubble Playoff” run from 2019-20 was gone. And with it went Benning’s seventh season with no sign of a long-promised breakthrough.
On the Ice
Year Eight started with a bang as big, inefficient contracts were shipped out. It was as close to an admission of guilt as he’s ever made, though it came at a cost. That straight-up money-for-risk deal got everyone’s attention, and for good reason. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is playing up to snuff, though with fewer points than expected. That’s not a bad thing, as the Canucks fans already have Quinn Hughes to shoulder that particular load.
The deal also brought the wildly entertaining whirling dervish Conor Garland. No complaints there, either, as he currently sits third in team scoring and fifth in ice time. He might be setting up a solid duo with another new arrival, rookie Vasily Podkolzin. Add the arrival of defensive role model Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars and the Canucks look like a much better team than last year. Or, for that matter, any version of the Vancouver Canucks from the past six years.
Behind the Bench
While the 2020-21 season was just chaos – it was played entirely on 2021, for instance – 2021-22 was supposed to be a return to normal. A bit of a hiccup when two of their stars missed most of training camp, sure, but otherwise normal. Okay, and some of the coaching staff were moved out, but STILL! Canucks fans wanted normalcy. But better. And again, given the offseason moves they had every reason to expect it. The depth had been improved; Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser were healthy; Ekman-Larsson was, if nothing else, a puck-mover. They are making a push to hit the playoffs running!
Coach Travis Green had, apparently, other ideas. The team – with better, faster players – was playing a tighter, more conservative game. Maybe he heard all the criticism of the team being susceptible to high-danger chances. Or maybe the plan is to put them in a defensive mindset for the playoffs. Could be that they wanted to compensate for a generally weaker defence. Whatever the plan was in October, as of November 12th it ain’t working.
What’s the Problem?
Let’s go in reverse order, here. The power-play has been, frankly, inert. Yes, Canucks fans came to hate Newell Brown’s infamous drop-pass entry, but the secret is it worked. Other teams copied it for a reason. Those that do use it to greater or lesser success, but it guaranteed that the special teams were moving at the start of play. This season with a plethora of weapons at the Canucks disposal it’s a mediocre 20th in the league. And that’s after a return to form against Dallas, going 3-for-6 with a newly-freed set of forwards.
Then there’s the penalty kill, which has been a waking nightmare. Vancouver has given up an astounding 16 goals on just 43 opportunities. A power-play goal against Vancouver has been the first goal of the game in each of the last SIX Canucks games. To say it’s been killing the team is an understatement. It’s not just forcing them to play from behind but is incredibly demoralizing. It’s hard enough to come back in this league, but it’s worse to come back from the same problem every night.
Sure, the team is missing their best two defensive forwards in Brandon Sutter and Tyler Motte. That’s not great. But again, Dickinson was brought in to play defence. Alex Chaisson wasn’t, but also shouldn’t have been kept up over Phil Di Giuseppe, who was their best penalty killer in the preseason.
Yes, it’s demoralizing to players to come from behind, but picture how the Canucks fans feel! The tension is there whenever a penalty is called, but part of their job is to play through it. And to see two games where the team has been spiritless – against the Buffalo Sabres and the Avalanche – is crazy. There’s no excuse for it, but this looks like a bunch who need something, anything to break their way.
Again, this is Year Eight. It was pretty obvious when Benning was hired that he got the job by telling the owner that the Canucks weren’t far away from their 2011 Stanley Cup finalist team. Then he spent the next couple of years trying to prove it before the drop-off became too obvious to ignore. Add the pressure to give Daniel and Henrik Sedin a good team to end their careers with, and you can understand some of his moves.
The team – on paper – is a playoff team. The defence isn’t good, but the forwards and goaltending should make up for it. But the defence could have been quite a bit better – if there was cap room to do so. Over the years, Benning’s trades have been hit and miss, as any GM is bound to have. Likewise, when he’s chosen to walk away from free agents the results have been a mixed bag. His signings, on the other hand, have been absolutely wild.
And it’s not even the players themselves, though he does have an affinity for “reclamation projects” that usually don’t work out. It’s the amount of cap space Benning has devoted to these players that shocks Canucks fans. This is probably best highlighted by the response to Sutter’s new contract. Normally, a player who so underperformed his previous deal getting re-signed would spark understandable outrage. In this case, it was a muted “Sure, one year at a million bucks seems about right.”
In the Stands
The Canucks are an integral part of Vancouver. Everyone on the team is a local star. They have phenomenal support at every level: in the stands, online, on the street. There are a vast number of podcasts and vidcasts and someone is probably mimeographing a weekly ‘zine exclusively about the Canucks. And after opening a six-game homestand with three straight losses, some boos were heard in game four. Giving up two power-play goals – one of which on a traditional Too Many Men call – the team got some serenading heading to the room after two periods. The Canucks scored early in the third, but it was easy to see whatever grace period they have this season is done.
And that goes double online. There’s no hiding the numbers, and highlight reels always make the rounds. That’s great until you realize your team is in a LOT of them for all the wrong reasons. Kind of like bragging you’re on posters in kid’s bedrooms across America – without mentioning the other guy on the poster is Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
Signing the Cheques
With Jim Benning standing firmly behind Travis Green, any changes are going to have to come from the owner. But he has likewise had no inclination to move on from his chosen man. Some of this may simply be financial – many of Francesco Aquilini’s businesses took a bath during the pandemic, after all. But the Canucks are a business, too, and losing the fans, while not as big a loss as in some markets, can hurt. Will he ever make a move?
It’s much too early for the obvious succession plan to happen yet. If the management and coaching staff are replaced, someone has to be willing to come in and be the replacement. Obviously, there would be no end to eager nominees trying out. But would Aquilini bring in someone to perform a clean sweep? There is little appetite for a new rebuilding phase. It could well be that a simple change of voice would be enough to motivate the players. If any change happens, that’s is the far more likely option.
There’s some ‘sunk cost’ fallacy going on, definitely. After committing the resources, time, and reputation that he has – repeatedly telling fans to “trust the system” and talking up five-year plans – it’s going to be hard to change direction. But unless there is a change – and soon enough to salvage this season, not the next one – the Canucks fans may be the ones walking away.
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