Canucks' chaotic season ends with more questions than answers

Vancouver Canucks goalie Braden Holtby, left, and Quinn Hughes, right, crash into the net with Calgary Flames' Elias Lindholm from scoring during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The Vancouver Canucks would swear it’s more than a straight, three-hour drive between Calgary and Edmonton. The cities were in different galaxies for the Canucks.

Last September, their breakthrough season ended in Edmonton, three rounds into the Stanley Cup bubble tournament. Just eight months later, the longest 56-game season in history finally expired Wednesday in Calgary with the Canucks in 24th place, long-eliminated from the playoffs that began without them last weekend.

Where there was some glory in Edmonton and, more importantly, an ocean of hope, there was only regret and bitter disappointment in Calgary, and now anger and despair among fans whose wait for a Stanley Cup is up to 51 years and counting.

Edmonton? It’s hard to remember what that felt like for the Canucks. Or for Travis Green.

No one personifies the dramatic descent of the franchise this season than Green. He might have won coach of the year last season if the NHL held its awards vote after the playoffs instead of before them. But left unfairly dangling this year without a contract extension, Green’s game on Wednesday, a 6-2 loss to the Flames, may have been his last for the team he helped build.

“I still look at our group like we are a team on the rise,” Green told reporters on his final Zoom call. “I don't have any doubt about that. Yes, things didn't go well this year. We didn't have a good start to the season. When you look back, there's always things you'd probably do different and change. But it is what it is and you learn as you go, and you become better. I think the start definitely cost us this year but. . . I have no doubt with the pieces, the young pieces, we have, it's an exciting time still. . . in Vancouver. Good things are on the rise for the Vancouver Canucks.”

It doesn’t feel that way.

Whether Green returns or not, the team he leaves behind has cornerstone players like Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Thatcher Demko and Bo Horvat. Rookie Nils Hoglander appears to be part of this core, and soon, too, will be Russian draft pick Vasili Podkolzin.

But after general manager Jim Benning under-estimated the impact on team leadership and culture of a quartet of Canucks who left in free agency last fall, and somehow allowed first-line winger Tyler Toffoli to get away without even a contract offer, Vancouver had a brutal schedule to start 2021 and brutal results to show for it.

The Canucks never recovered from their 6-11-0 start in the Canadian division, and when they finally started to close the standings gap, were decimated in April by the NHL’s most serious COVID-19 outbreak. The coronavirus survivors, minus eight injured or unavailable players, went 7-11-1 the rest of the way.

“Man, it's been. . . just been crazy,” veteran forward J.T. Miller said. “It's hard to really describe it. It's probably been more mentally challenging for me than anything. Unfortunately, we were down in the standings fairly early, and then just chasing it. It was a hard season, just mentally very taxing.

“It's been a hard year for everybody. We've gone through a lot as a team and I'm really proud with the way that our team, head to toe, kind of grinded through this. Just a very unlikely, crazy season.”

And. . . “I hope we never have to go through it again.”

Although the Canucks’ core isn’t going anywhere, there is always roster churn in sports. The turnover this summer, however, could include the entire staff of coaches who, under Green, developed the young, foundational players and turned the 69-point team they inherited in 2017 into the one that eliminated the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues last summer before nearly taking down the Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs.

“For me personally, I love Greener and Baumer,” Hughes said, referring also to assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner, who ran the defence and tutored Hughes. “Since I've gotten here, they've really, I don't know, maybe nurture is the word. (They) brought me up. I think they've done a tremendous job.

“With young guys, you know, Brock comes in, he has a great year. Petey (Pettersson) comes in and has great year, and then I came in. Hogs (Hoglander) is having a really good year this year, and I think that's a result of Greener and Baumer.”

Miller said: “Every coach that we have has a lot of respect from our players, and you know we all wish they can be back. That's all I can really say. They've given me every opportunity in the world, so I am super thankful for that.”

Told about the support from his players, Green said: “It's nice to hear. As a coach, it’s a fine line between players liking a coach and not liking him and getting the most out of them. And being on the right side of that line all the time gets a little tricky. But when you hear it out of your players, it's what you want to hear.”

It was unclear when Green would speak to the Vancouver media again, or even what role he will play in exit meetings Thursday and Friday.

Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, under siege from fans, is discussing potential roles for ex-players Daniel and Henrik Sedin, although nothing was finalized on Wednesday. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Tuesday that Benning will remain GM – disconcerting news to the 96 per cent of more than 3,000 listeners who voted this week in a Sportsnet 650 radio poll for “extreme” changes in management.

This is the backdrop to the start of the Canucks’ off-season.

“It's hard right now,” Green said when asked if there’s anything he’d like to say about his time with the Canucks. “I don't want to not say anything, but I don't really want to go there right now. I think it's well known how I feel about our group and our team and the city.”

“For whatever it's worth, we tried our best,” Hughes said. “And I know that for a fact.”

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