VANCOUVER– At the end of a chaotic season that was unimaginable when it began, the Vancouver Canucks did something sensible Thursday as they moved towards a new contract for head coach Travis Green.
Naturally, the path to this point of logic was crazy.
Working all season without a contract extension, Green actually made it to unofficial free agency when reports broke that the coach who has overseen the Canucks’ transformation was on the verge of finally getting a raise and new deal from the National Hockey League team.
The Canucks closed out their lost season on Wednesday, losing 6-2 to the Calgary Flames four days after the Stanley Cup tournament started, to finalize their regression from last summer’s playoff breakthrough.
Along the way, there was an impossible schedule at the start, a debilitating COVID-19 outbreak, an avalanche of injuries, an even worse schedule at the end, and several other subplots surrounding general manger Jim Benning and what has become a consumer confidence crisis about ownership.
Given this upheaval and all the angst and uncertainty it has generated for next season, it always made sense that the team should seek some continuity from a coaching staff that, under Green and with players supplied by Benning, lifted what had been a 69-point team back into the playoffs last season.
It took only 257 days from the end of the Canucks’ three-round playoff run in Edmonton to re-sign the head coach – or at least agree to do so.
There was no announcement Thursday from the Canucks on Green as the 50-year-old head coach worked on getting extensions for his staff of assistants, according to Vancouver reporter Irfaan Gaffar.
But the expectation for what is supposed to be an end-of-season press conference on Friday is that Benning will have Green beside him on the Zoom call with reporters, who have a question or two about what transpired the last few months.
The significance of retaining Green, promoted by Benning to replace Willie Desjardins in 2017, extends beyond the ice.
Players lauded Green and his assistants in various interviews this week.
It’s true, you will never see a hockey player under contract step up to a microphone, announce his disdain for the head coach and ask his employer to seek someone better.
But the breadth and tenor of the testimonials made it impossible to question the players’ honesty in supporting Green and his staff.
Quinn Hughes, last season’s Calder Trophy runner-up, said Wednesday that Green and defence coach Nolan Baumgartner raised him. “Maybe nurture is the word,” Hughes said.
Veteran defenceman Tyler Myers said Thursday: “The talks the guys have had in the room the past couple of weeks with everything going on, I know we all think very highly of the coaching staff. I think we have something good going in the group right now.”
Centre Brandon Sutter, who was part of the Desjardins-Green transition, told reporters: “In terms of the job that Greener and coaches have done, I think it’s been awesome. Two years ago, even last season, it just felt like we were kind of finding our way a bit. Last season in the building, you could feel it with the fans, just the energy we had last year. It was a fun year. That’s all because of our coaching staff and what they’ve done and, obviously, players improving. We’ve got a lot of good young players, too, that made some strides. But it’s all driven by your coaches, and I think they’ve given us the best chance that we can have to win.”
And goalie Branden Holtby, speaking Thursday about goaltending coach Ian Clark, said: “When you have something good, you don’t let it go. That’s up to the higher-ups to figure that out.”
The higher-ups apparently did, although that still does not guarantee that Clark will return.
He is widely regarded as one of the best goaltending coaches in the world and, understandably, probably wants to be paid like it. Plenty of teams would be interested in Clark, and it’s far easier to make room on your staff for a goaltending coach than a head coach.
Despite Canuck goalie Thatcher Demko’s public plea on Tuesday for the Canucks to retain Clark – “I owe probably just about everything to him” – the 55-year-old from Vancouver could still choose to explore free agency.
How much is he worth to the Calgary Flames, who spent $36-million to take Jacob Markstrom away from the Canucks, then saw their new starter post a .904 save percentage this season that was his worst since he resurrected his NHL career in Vancouver in 2015?
Or how attractive might living and working in South Florida be for Clark, whose former pupil, Sergei Bobrovsky, has been a mess since signing a $70-million contract with the Panthers two years ago?
One of Benning’s mistakes last fall was to underestimate the impact on team culture and leadership of allowing a handful of Canuck players to leave as unrestricted free agents. Understanding that the NHL is a salary-capped business didn’t lessen the disappointment and confusion some returning players felt about the exits.
Providing stability to these players by retaining their coaches after three seasons of improvement — before the Canucks plummeted through a trap door in 2021 — is a prudent thing to do. Even if it took the Canucks way too long to get here.