Canucks clean house after fans send loud and clear message

Elliotte Friedman joined Sportsnet Central to break down Bruce Boudreau being hired as the new Vancouver Canucks' head coach and why the organization finally made the decision to let Travis Green and Jim Benning go.

VANCOUVER -- The most disappointing start to a Vancouver Canucks season led to the most sweeping night of change in franchise history as both general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green were fired Sunday by the National Hockey League club.

Benning rebuilt the Canucks after replacing Mike Gillis as GM in 2014, but the flawed roster he created around a core of drafted-and-developed young stars made it extremely challenging for Green, whose team sunk to 8-15-2 with a 4-1 loss Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That game ended with renewed chants inside Rogers Arena of “Fire Benning!” among fans whose commitment of money and time to the Canucks make them easily the most important segment of the team’s multi-layered fan base. Even worse was the symbolism attached to one of these ticket-buying fans renouncing his support by discarding on the ice his Canucks jersey, which happened to have captain Bo Horvat’s name on it.

There was no coming back from that moment, and the prevailing sentiment among fans on Sunday night seemed to be relief that this era was finally ending.

The dismissals of Benning and Green, who had worked together for four-plus seasons, were reported by numerous media sources about two hours apart on Sunday evening and officially confirmed later.

Top assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner departs with Green, with Bruce Boudreau hired as the Canucks’ new head coach. Scott Walker, who left the team’s player-development department three years ago, is also joining the coaching staff.

The 66-year-old Boudreau, whose 13 seasons as a head coach in Washington, Anaheim and Minnesota do not include a losing record anywhere, signed a contract to coach the Canucks this season and next -- the same time frame that the team will be paying Green most of the $5.5 million that Benning awarded the outgoing coach on a two-year extension last spring.

Benning’s own contract also runs through next season. His top assistant, John Weisbrod, was fired with him on Sunday.

Longtime senior adviser Stan Smyl was named the interim general manager and minor-league GM/player-development director Ryan Johnson is the interim assistant GM.

Smyl and Johnson will be working with surviving assistant GM Chris Gear, senior adviser Doug Jarvis and special advisers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, with the Canucks saying a search for new leadership has begun.

These are hugely substantive changes after a regime that felt stale and too concentrated in power under Benning, who was forced to deal directly with Canucks chairman Francesco Aquilini and the ownership family after Trevor Linden was pushed out as president of hockey operations in 2018.

"These are difficult decisions, but we believed we would have a competitive group this year. As a result, I'm extremely disappointed in how the team has performed so far," Aquilini said in a statement. "I'm making these changes because we want to build a team that competes for championships and it's time for new leadership to help take us there."

While they consider a long-term replacement at general manager, the Aquilinis need to hire a new president to restore the important buffer between ownership and management.

But while Sunday’s changes reflect the end of a contentious era under Benning, they won’t immediately address the problem of the underachievement this season of Canuck players and, especially, the scoring crisis among struggling top forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and, lately, J.T. Miller.

In his only press conference this season, Benning said in November he wasn’t worried about being fired, and if owners “get to a point where, you know, they don't feel like I'm doing a good job and I need to be replaced, they'll make that decision.”

But he also said: “I like this group of players. I think, along the way, what we tried to do is make sure that with our younger players, we surrounded them with veteran players so they could learn from them. But now we've kind of handed it over to that younger group of players that we've drafted and developed. And with that responsibility, comes a lot of pressure. Now we've got to work with these guys to get them to play to their potential. . . so we can start winning.”

Since that statement, the Canucks have gone 3-6-0, so they aren’t winning and most of those young players still aren’t performing close to their potential. Naturally, the question is: Were these younger players ready to have the team placed in their hands?

Boudreau, whose streak of winning records will be severely tested by the Canucks over the remaining 57 games, must find a way to get more out of this roster than Green. Until last season, when the Canucks were ravaged by COVID-19 and other factors, Green had over-delivered through his first three years as coach.

But Boudreau will also have to assess the accountability and readiness to lead of the Canucks’ young core. This is part of a team’s culture, and that’s usually more difficult to change than simply switching coaches.

Fired 21 months ago by the Minnesota Wild, Boudreau recently told Sportsnet 650 radio: “I’m a Canadian. I’ve never coached in Canada (and) would be thrilled at the opportunity. And Vancouver’s a great city. I think they have great fans. I don’t think anybody would not love that opportunity.”

In the Canucks' statement, Aquilini said, "Bruce is one of the most experienced coaches in the NHL, with nearly 1,000 games behind the bench and a successful track record working with some of the game's best talent. Scott is a young coach with an excellent reputation who will fit in very well with our group."

Green, who grew up in Castlegar in Southeastern B.C., loved the opportunity to coach an NHL team in his home province. It’s fair to wonder how much of this start is really his fault.

But the coaching staff must bear much of the responsibility for the team's awful special-teams play that includes a penalty-kill unit whose success rate of just 64.6 per cent is the worst through 25 games in NHL history.

There is no question about responsibility for the roster: this was Benning’s team, built from scratch. His ability to identify and develop a core of young players for its foundation was undermined by the GM’s high-profile mistakes in free agency. But painfully slow as the overall progress may have been, Benning built the Canucks into a team that won two playoff rounds in the Edmonton bubble 16 months ago and came within a game of making the conference final.

With so many young, talented players still improving, the Canucks’ future back then looked blindingly blight. But they have retreated into utter darkness since then.

Now, others will have to find a way to lead them out.

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