VANCOUVER — The tinfoil-toque conspiracies about Vancouver Canucks players being unable or unwilling to play better at the start of this season in order to get their bosses fired have the advantage, at least, of simplistic solutions.
If it’s all the general manager’s fault, fire Jim Benning and everything should get better. If it’s coaching or the uncertainty over the coach’s contract, there are two choices: re-sign Travis Green or remove him. We’re guessing he’d prefer the former.
To be sure, Benning and Green share blame and will have to answer one way or another for what has occurred over the last month. Going into Game 2 on Saturday of a four-game series against the Calgary Flames, and likely to face former Canucks goaltending star Jacob Markstrom in all of them, Vancouver has lost six straight games in regulation and already has 11 losses this season without a loser point to show for them.
Benning overpaid for several role players during the depth of the Canucks’ rebuild and those contracts have haunted the team and were a major factor in the exodus of Markstrom and Vancouver’s other free agents in October. And the loose defensive hockey the Canucks got away with under Green when Markstrom was saving goals way beyond expectation, contributed mightily to Vancouver’s poor start now that Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby have struggled to provide NHL-average goaltending.
But as the Canucks’ season twirls around the drain, like a hurricane, there has been a perfect storm of factors that have negatively impacted the team.
It’s not like Benning and Green don’t deserve blame, but the blame spreads far wider than just the GM and coach. There isn’t a lone gunman here. Many factors have brought the Canucks to this point.
READY OR NOT
A month before training camp began, senior Canuck Alex Edler told Sportsnet: “The team really came together in the playoffs and we showed to people and to ourselves, too, how good we can be when we play together. It was a good, little playoff run. But I also think when you have a season like that or a run like that, you have to push even harder the next year because you can’t expect to take another step from momentum.”
And then the Canucks, after the roster churn from last fall, showed up for this season as if they expected to get better on momentum. Almost all their young players, and especially Elias Pettersson, struggled at the start. By the time the urgency level was elevated, the Canucks were already in a hole that these same young players had never experienced at the NHL level.
After the Canucks were embarrassed 7-3 at home by the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 21, Green said: “We look a little bit immature at times. It could be when you have a little bit of success, and you win some playoff series, you come back and you forget how hard it is to win. We’re not a team that has ever won easy.”
The problem with the Canucks’ condensed schedule isn’t only that they started with a debilitating 16 games in 27 days, which included an NHL-leading 10 road games and four back-to-backs, but the league also gave the Canucks no downtime to practise or rest. Until this week, Vancouver never had more than one day between games.
The Canucks were awful in a lot of these games and earned their losses, but the playing surface clearly was tilted against them. Consider this: the Flames have played back-to-back games just once and had five full days between games to practise and reset in January; the Winnipeg Jets have played back-to-back three times but have already had three schedule breaks longer than the Canucks’ two days between games this week; the Toronto Maple Leafs have played only one back-to-back and had four days to rest and practise last week before sweeping three games from the Canucks; and the Edmonton Oilers have played three back-to-backs but at least had three full days between games to start February.
No wonder, Green called the schedule “brutal.” When his floundering team badly needed rest and quality practice, it got none.
THE BEST PLAYERS
With just a single assist in his first six games, Pettersson wasn’t the only key Canuck struggling early. Defenceman Quinn Hughes has 17 points in 17 games but has been a nightmare defensively at even strength, with an expected-goals-for percentage of 41.3 and a minus-13 rating that is tied with popular ex-Canuck Erik Gudbranson for worst in the NHL. Centre Bo Horvat has one goal and one assist in his last nine games, and the most alarmingly erratic forward has been winger J.T. Miller.
Their leading scorer and a formidable driver of possession last season, Miller missed the first three games due to COVID-19 protocol, but has been a giveaway machine since then. He still has 13 points in 14 games, albeit only three goals, but has been arguably the least predictable Canuck. In a 6-2 loss in Montreal on Feb. 1, Miller had no points, no shots, no hits and was minus-three. In the rematch Vancouver lost 5-3 the next night, Miller had an assist, four shots on net and six hits. It’s hard to know what is going on.
The Canucks either underestimated the value inside their dressing room of Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, or overestimated the strength of the culture those players left behind. Either way, the Canucks not only lacked structural discipline through many of their games, they lacked urgency, physicality and defiance. They lost far too easily, prompting an indictment from former Canuck Kevin Bieksa on Hockey Night in Canada that the team has been “fun” to play against.
This isn’t on second-year captain Horvat, who is 25. Where was the impact on leadership from veterans like Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, Tyler Myers, Edler and Miller? New goalie Holtby earned an extra start in Toronto simply for having the jam to call out Miller on the ice and demand more from teammates after the game.
Holtby and Demko have been more like victims than perpetrators of the Canucks’ poor start, so slack and chaotic was the defending in front of them until the last couple of games. But at a time when Markstrom is playing like a Vezina Trophy candidate for the Flames, Holtby’s save percentage is .885 and Demko’s .895 – well below the league-average save rate of .905. Except for a three-game run by Demko at the end of January, neither has delivered goaltending strong enough to lift the team and instead the goalies have looked more like corks bobbing along on the Canucks’ backwards current.
Besides the obvious, unfillable need for a losing team to come together off the ice so players can support each other, ever-tighter pandemic restrictions on team gatherings and player interactions have made it hugely challenging for newcomers like Holtby, Nate Schmidt, Nils Hoglander and Travis Hamonic (before he was injured) to blend into the team and build relationships with teammates. If the Canucks were winning, this would seem secondary. During a death spiral, it feels kind of important.
“Personally, one of my favourite things about the sport is just the camaraderie between guys and being close with guys and being able to see them outside the rink and hang out,” Demko said this week. “Obviously, that's a little bit different this year.”
It is clear from the Canucks’ skeletal staffing levels and the team’s actual player payroll versus its salary-cap number (currently $70.8 million vs. $86 million, including LTIR allowances, according to capfriendly.com), managing owner Francesco Aquilini is trying not to spend more than necessary this season. With NHL revenues shrivelled by the pandemic and teams facing millions in losses with no ticket revenue, this frugality is completely understandable.
But delaying a contract extension for Green has put the coach in a precarious spot, and there have been numerous reports that ownership balked at any player buyouts prior to free agency, which, if true, certainly restricted management. The Aquilini family has supported Benning by providing a huge runway to build the Canucks and always spent money when needed, but hockey-ops could have used some help last fall.