VANCOUVER — As Travis Green returned to Vancouver for mid-summer coaching meetings this week, the Canucks team for which he is planning the 2019-20 National Hockey League season is significantly different than the one he last coached in April.
General manager Jim Benning has added potential 20-goal scorers J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland, as well as top-four defenceman Tyler Myers and third-pairing veteran Jordie Benn. And the most impactful newcomer could be 19-year-old defenceman Quinn Hughes, who sparkled in a five-game NHL cameo last spring and has the potential to follow Calder Trophy-winning Canuck centre Elias Pettersson to the NHL awards ceremony next year.
But Green is also facing the uncertainty of restricted free agent Brock Boeser’s stalled contract negotiations. As the 22-year-old winger deals with the grave illness of his father, Duke, home in Minnesota, Boeser and the Canucks are at a standoff, apparently waiting for other key RFAs around the NHL to sign and set the market.
And then there’s the dark cloud surrounding Loui Eriksson, the veteran winger who after 32 goals (and $27 million in compensation) over his first three years as a Canuck said at the world championships in May that he and Green “don’t really get on 100 per cent.”
There appears to be no exit for the Canucks on Eriksson, but will they play next season without him as the team tries to take what Benning and Green call the “next step”? And what the heck is that next step, anyway, and does it mean the head coach changes his focus away from player development?
Green talked about all of this with Sportsnet in his first interview since the NHL draft in June.
Sportsnet: How excited are you about the roster changes?
Green: I’m really excited. I think coaches are always excited about getting ready for the upcoming season. But with the players we’ve added, I’m excited about every guy we’ve signed, even the minor-league guys. Across the board, they’re all really good additions to our group.
SN: The team was still 25th in the league in scoring last season, 17th in goals-against and your special teams were average. Where are you going to be better?
Green: Everywhere. I think adding Tyler Myers and Jamie Benn to our defence, (Oscar) Fantenberg as well, is going to help. In Myers, you’re adding a guy who has played a while in this league, a big guy with a lot of range. You’re adding a top-four defencemen, which are hard to find. And I think in Benn you have a veteran guy who understands the value of defending. And I think he’s got some sneaky offensive parts to his game that people don’t think about: his shot, moving the puck out of his zone. Fantenberg is another smart player that is young enough in the league that he’s still improving. And obviously with Quinn Hughes coming in after a full summer of training and getting stronger, he’s a little bit of a wild card as far as where his game goes next year.
SN: The organization has never had a young defenceman as dynamic as Hughes. Is he a game-changer for you?
Green: He definitely has that capability. He did things in those five games that we probably haven’t seen on our defence since I’ve been here. When you look around the league, how you break the puck out and how you move it up and the ice, and how you get up the ice and create offence from your defence, is so important. It was exciting as a coaching staff to watch him. But it’s also our job to understand the player we have and taper expectations and put him in a position to succeed.
SN: So the defence should be better if Alex Edler and Chris Tanev stay healthy, but will you score more goals?
Green: I’m hoping goal-scoring will be spread out more with this group now. You’ve got two guys (Miller and Ferland) who are quite capable of scoring 20-plus goals in our league. But I like that they’re heavier bodies that can win puck battles. At the end of the day, you watch playoff hockey and it’s not just about how skilled you are. You’ve got to be able to be willing to compete and play when it’s hard. Both these players bring those elements to our team. And I think they’ll help our other skill players. I do believe guys like Pettersson and Boeser and Bo Horvat will benefit from having these guys on our team.
SN: You moved Boeser to Pettersson’s line from Horvat’s line last season. Do you finally have enough good wingers to surround both of your top centres?
Green: I do. I have switched the lines a lot in the past, but some of that was out of necessity, trying to find guys who were on top of their game that night. I like that Miller and Ferland are both capable of playing up and down the lineup.
SN: Miller, Ferland, Myers and Benn are all big bodies. Last season, you added Tanner Pearson and Josh Leivo, and last summer the team signed Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel. This trend towards heavier, physical players can’t be by accident.
Green: The game is a lot faster and you need guys that skate, for sure. You need guys who can play with the puck. But you’ve got to have guys who can get to the puck and win those puck battles. It’s no secret, when you watch the NHL playoffs, there’s usually a couple of big teams playing for the Stanley Cup.
SN: Last season you were eight points better, but to get back to the playoffs, the Canucks need to improve by another 12 to 15 points. How hard will that be?
Green: How hard is it? When you’re talking about 12 or 14 points, you’re talking about an extra two points per month. Is that a lot or is it not much? I can you tell you one thing: Every team in the NHL, when they go into the season, their goal is to make the playoffs.
SN: What is the next step?
Green: First of all, our young players have to continue to get better. We’ve got to make sure Petey, Boeser, Hughes, even guys like Bo and Marky (goalie Jacob Markstrom)… we’ve got to keep pushing those guys to be better hockey players. We need the team to play well, and we need a team that’s healthy. I think we’re a lot closer to that playoff marker than we were a year ago.
SN: Does that change your coaching priorities away from player development?
Green: Not really. Petey becoming a better player is a big part of us taking the next step. I can be very open and honest with him, but I know he’s driven to win. There are other young players I’ve seen in junior and the AHL that were very good players but weren’t driven to win. I know he’s going to do everything he can to be a better hockey player and push us to be a better hockey team. I believe Quinn Hughes has that in him. And I believe Brock took a lot of steps last year, too. We’ve got other young players like Jake Virtanen. Where does he take his game to? Our development now will really affect whether we win.
SN: How concerned are you that it’s August and Boeser still looks far away from a new contract?
Green: I’m not. This is part of today’s NHL. The one thing I know about Brock is he wants to play bad and he wants to play for this team. I talked to him recently about his summer training and where he’s at. He sounds excited to get going again. The contract stuff always takes care of itself, and I believe it will.
SN: When he does sign, it will be for a big number, which makes Eriksson’s $6-million cap hit more onerous. Were you surprised by what he said at worlds?
Green: What did he say, that we didn’t have trust and see eye to eye?
SN: That you didn’t get along 100 per cent and that you don’t trust him the way his previous coaches did.
Green: I was surprised that it came out publicly. But I’m not surprised that he isn’t happy about certain things. Players are proud — they want to play well and want to have individual success. I understand Loui hasn’t scored as much as he wanted to and maybe played at times as much as he wanted to. I understand that and we’ve discussed that. But it happens a lot (in the NHL). I like to think I have an open-door policy and try to be as honest with players as I can. Loui and I have talked about his play and I know he’s frustrated.
SN: Have you talked to him about what he said?
Green: I haven’t talked to Loui yet. I’m sure we will talk when I see him.
SN: Room for Loui under the salary cap is one issue, but is there still room for him on your team?
Green: Loui, I respect his career. I know he wants to probably play better than he has and have more success for himself. But I still have a job to do. And my job is to put the best team on the ice and play guys I see fit — and not just based on salaries. I want players who will do anything in their power to help the Vancouver Canucks win. That’s all they care about: being a Canuck and helping us win. With the additions of some forwards, we’ve got some tough decisions to make. And he’s no different than any other player coming into camp.
SN: Camp is still six weeks away. Is it hard to wait?
Green: I wish it was starting now. When you don’t make the playoffs and you watch the hockey during the playoffs… and then with the additions we’ve made, I’m excited to get going with our group. We’re going to have a lot of new players on our team. I can’t wait to get going.