VANCOUVER -- Bruce, there he goes?
In inviting Bruce Boudreau to return to the Vancouver Canucks next season for his option year, president Jim Rutherford also opened the door for the head coach to leave after a 32-15-10 turnaround that kept the National Hockey League team in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season.
With unequivocal clarity, Rutherford said he wants Boudreau to return under terms of the existing two-year agreement the coach signed with owner Francesco Aquilini in December, a few days before Rutherford was hired above Boudreau as the head of hockey operations.
There will be no extension offered Boudreau this summer, Rutherford said, which means the 67-year-old coach could explore potential offers from other teams before the June 1 deadline for him to decide on his option year with the Canucks.
The directness of Rutherford’s statement to reporters at management’s year-end press conference on Tuesday left no wiggle room. Essentially, Boudreau can take it or leave it.
And that will feel to many fans and players like a risky ultimatum after Boudreau’s .649 winning percentage, albeit on a tiny sample, topped Alain Vigneault’s coaching mark as the best in franchise history.
“We would be willing to have him back under the contract that he agreed to when he came here,” Rutherford said when asked about the possibility of an extension for Boudreau. “That's certainly not to say that at the end of next year we wouldn't want him back if he continues to do the job he's doing. I just feel that as good a job as he's done, it wasn't a full season.
“He knows we want him back. He was told that before the season was over. And he knows our position. Like I said, he did a terrific job, but he didn't coach a whole season here. We would like to see him back and work with him on a few things. Everybody work together to make it better.”
Those things include the Canucks’ “structure,” Rutherford said, noting the team needs to rely less on star goalie Thatcher Demko. As an example, Rutherford said the team’s defensive-zone exits are among the worst in the NHL.
Those comments seemed especially pointed in the context of Boudreau’s uncertain status.
Rutherford said that during his time as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager, coach Mike Sullivan went into the final year of his contract in 2017-18 after winning consecutive Stanley Cups. The Canuck boss rejects the idea that Boudreau would be a “lame duck” with players without the security of a season under contract beyond the next one.
Former Vancouver coach Travis Green, fired and replaced by Boudreau on Dec. 5, endured a season-long public drama about his status when he worked through the final year of his contract in 2021.
“If people would suggest he's a lame duck because the players will decide not to listen to him, that won't happen,” Rutherford said of Boudreau. “The players who start not listening to him will be gone before him.
“I firmly believe that this is the right thing to do. In our business, you have to be cautious with your decisions. And you have to do them for the right reasons. And if you don't, you're going to get yourself in a position someday where you're paying three or four coaches in the same year. That's when managing up will become difficult.
“Both sides have until June 1, so he can take whatever time he wants. The longer you leave things, these type of things start to fester a bit because then they become more emotional. But we have to make sure in our job that we don't let it become emotional, and for the wrong reasons it gets off the tracks. Our talks with him have been very positive. He's well aware that we appreciate and respect the job he's done, explained to him why we're doing it the way we're doing it and why we want him back. But also with the understanding, you know, continue to do the job you're doing. It doesn't mean this is your last year in Vancouver.”
The potential divorce between the Canucks and their popular coach overshadowed a lot of positive spending news announced by Rutherford during a half-hour press conference with general manager Patrik Allvin.
Rutherford said the Canucks are close to finalizing a site for a permanent practice facility, the absence of which has left the organization behind most other NHL teams. The team is planning a massive back-of-house renovation to Rogers Arena to enlarge and upgrade the Canucks’ compound for players and staff.
The team is also re-starting its YoungStars event in Penticton, B.C., for rookies and prospects, with two other NHL teams committed and a third one interested in the Sept. 14-19 tournament. A development camp will be staged in July at the University of B.C., and the Canucks will hold their training camp in Whistler, Sept. 23-24.
The renovation of the Canucks’ roster will be trickier than the renovation and construction of their facilities. Rutherford and Allvin reiterated the need to improve the NHL lineup, without much salary-cap flexibility at present to do so. Management needs to navigate contract issues with J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat, who are eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2023, and a $7.5-million US qualifying offer owed to restricted free agent Brock Boeser in July.
Rutherford said contract talks have started with Boeser’s agent, Ben Hankinson. Allvin said he is confident with amateur scouting director Todd Harvey, a Jim Benning hire from the previous regime, running the Canucks draft July 7-8 in Montreal.
“It's very complicated, probably a little more complicated here than we'd like,” Rutherford said of the off-season. “But that's our jobs. We have to figure out how to do it. It's complicated, but it's doable.”