A recurring theme on Vancouver sports radio – and online – is fixing the Vancouver Canucks. Well, bad news folks: “fixing the Vancouver Canucks” can’t be done. Building a coherent plan for them, on the other hand, can. It’s all a matter of whether will they or won’t they.
There is No Fixing the Vancouver Canucks
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. A handcuffed manager, a risky contract, and a traded draft pick all into an arena. A fan says “What year is this?” The owner answers “All of them!”
How High? THIS High!
A touch of hyperbole, perhaps. But after the decade Vancouver Canucks fans have had, they can be excused. Ten years ago, the team had a good – if shortened – season. Gary Bettman had his third player lockout in 20 years so it wasn’t entirely sugar plum sausages. Even so, the Canucks themselves finished first place in their division with a .615 points percentage. That’s around 101 points in a full year, their fifth in a row hitting the century mark.
It continued a shockingly successful run under general manager Mike Gillis. Since taking the top job in the summer of 2008, the Canucks finished top of their division every year. His secret? Mostly, he left the team alone. He brought in a major piece in Christian Ehrhoff, but nobody knew he was a major piece at the time. With the San Jose Sharks facing salary cap issues, he absolutely fleeced them in the deal. It cost the Canucks very little in the way of players, certainly no core ones.
Gillis took what was mostly a very good team and tinkered with it to make it better. The reward was a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and a consistently excellent team. Then came two first-round losses, and a call for heads to roll. Those calls can be ignored when it’s from some fans – it’s tougher when the calls are from ownership.
From Inside the House
Head coach Alain Vigneault was fired, and a new coach was brought in. The common refrain was that there was a “country club” atmosphere where the players were too comfortable. Ownership seemed to believe it, and John Tortorella was soon behind the bench and fixing the Canucks. There are strong implications that the new coach was an ownership hire, not a Mike Gillis one.
Tortorella soon alienated half the team and brought back the “goalie controversy” that Vancouver was so famous for. Less than a year after Gillis made the biggest trade of his career – apologies to Christopher Higgins – Roberto Luongo demanded a trade. Again. Luongo got his wish, but both Tortorella and Gillis were finished in Vancouver.
Another new general manager – Jim Benning – got his break with the team, as did new NHL coach Willie Desjardins. The worst possible thing then happened, as the Canucks got a classic Dead Cat Bounce from the new coach and GM, finishing the year at 101 points. The forced trade of Ryan Kesler aside, nearly every deal Benning undertook was with the understanding the team was making the playoffs THIS year – whatever year it happened to be.
That’s not particularly normal for a general manager. Judging by his trade deals – mostly fine – and his free agent signings – mostly disastrous – it was clear Benning had one objective. That objective never changed, despite having a single year above .500 in points percentage from 2015-16 to 2020-21. It seems if there’s a lesson anywhere, it’s there.
Dig Up, Stupid!
Step one for folks who want to get out of a hole is to stop digging. An important caveat is that you then don’t decide to blast your way out with dynamite.
You know how we mentioned that Benning’s trades were “mostly fine”? The absolutely bewildering deal that sent contracts out for one year in return for a contract over the next six years is not that. Each year of his tenure was marked with wilder and wilder swings, either in free agency or with trades. This deal was the death knell for him, but the cumulative trajectory highlights where the problem lies.
The folks who interviewed for the general manager position – Benning included – clearly had just one question. Can the Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs? They were only interested in hearing one answer, and anyone who said no wasn’t going to get hired. By the looks of it, they asked that question every year, and the answer was always the same. It literally took a fan revolt before the owner swallowed his pride and fired his choice of manager.
The owner is currently paying both a coach and general manager to not work for his team. He’s going to be very, very reluctant to make further changes there. So how on earth can Patrik Allvin or Jim Rutherford go about fixing the Canucks? If it’s not the GM, and it’s not the coach, there aren’t many options left.
You Just Playin’
The Vancouver Canucks are in the ridiculous situation of having good players but a lousy team. It’s been exposed by a normally reliable Thatcher Demko having a difficult start to the season. Everyone knows they have a relatively weak defence corps and injuries struck where they could least afford them. 11 defencemen played for the Canucks before ten games had passed. Even so, the forward group is a high-skill one and goaltending should be the least of their worries.
Good talent is an excellent thing to have. That talent has given the Canucks multiple-goal leads TEN TIMES in their first 15 games. Heck, they’ve been up 2-0 in seven of those games, which is a remarkable start to the season. Given how slowly the team normally kicks off their games, it’s a huge change from previous years.
More remarkable, though, is how they have gone on to lose six of those seven games. No team in NHL history has started the season by losing their first three games after going up 2-0. Vancouver lost four. They didn’t get their first win until game eight, a sloppy, manic affair where the winning goal was scored into an empty net.
Never mind fixing the Canucks. How can you even decide what’s wrong?
That bizarre dichotomy is something that simply doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. You have to see them play before you can really understand just how ridiculous the situation is. There are various euphemisms for it out there: fragility, playing scared, the yips. The instant a goal goes against Vancouver, they get nervous. They can have all the confidence in the world at the start of the game – for good reason, given how often they have leads. But the hint of something going wrong and they collapse.
The Vancouver Canucks simply don’t believe they deserve to win games. They don’t trust that they can. These are the guys you want to see at the card table, the ones who get bluffed off pocket aces. There is only so far that systems can take a team because sooner or later it’s up to them to execute. The physical skills are there, but the brains are melting.
Even after the team missed chance after chance to start a rebuild, the one shot at momentum – building off the bubble playoff run – was snuffed out. That was miserable luck and financial reasons, but the off-season in 2020 was deadly. Yes, the fantastic run through the 2021-22 season was great, don’t get us wrong. But those happy few weeks are pushing against years of futility.
Fixing the Canucks
There is a relatively clear path forward for the Canucks, and no, it’s not “trade everybody!” The entire team – management through coaches to players – will need to start from scratch.
The league, alas, isn’t going to let them restart the season. So they’ll need to do the next best thing: give up on making the playoffs, and think of the future. We’ve already heard Jim Rutherford’s frustration at not having the coach he wants and how the team’s hands are tied by a lack of cap space and those high-payout contracts – one of which he signed. So that’s not what we’re talking about here.
No, what we mean is that the coach needs to be given the leeway to put the players who are playing best on the team – and bench the rest. Bruce Boudreau has sat down some players as healthy scratches. Conor Garland, Andrei Kuzmenko, Nils Höglander, Vasily Podkolzin, and Jack Rathbone have all been seated with the press this year. But Tanner Pearson should have joined them well before his injury. Same with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and to a lesser degree Tyler Myers. Even J.T. Miller looks like he could use a reset – great scoring, lousy focus.
Play the guys who earn it. Get the veterans’ attention and call it a wake-up call or tough love or whatever you want.
If the management or owner is reluctant to let that happen, then we don’t know. Maybe try trading everybody and see what happens then.