VANCOUVER -- Only six players remain from the team Travis Green coached at the start of his first season with the Vancouver Canucks just over three years ago.
Green took over a 69-point club in 2017, nudged it to 73 points, then 81 and last season was on pace for 93 points when the National Hockey League halted in March for the coronavirus. The Canucks made the playoffs for the first time in five years, then beat the Minnesota Wild in the summer Stanley Cup tournament qualifying round and upset the champion St. Louis Blues before losing in seven games to the Vegas Golden Knights.
But any lingering euphoria from the breakthrough was extinguished a month later when six Canucks, including starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, warrior-defenceman Chris Tanev and first-line winger Tyler Toffoli, walked away in free agency.
Vancouver general manager Jim Benning countered by signing goalie Braden Holtby and acquiring first-pairing defenceman Nate Schmidt.
Green knew change was likely, but that didn’t make the exodus any easier. In a broad interview with Sportsnet from his home in Southern California, the coach talked about losing some leaders while adding others, whether the Canucks have taken a step back, what he expects next season and whether he’ll be part of the organization after that. Yes, in case you haven't heard, Green needs a new contract.
Our exclusive Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sportsnet: As a former player, you’re keenly aware that NHL rosters are always churning and free agency is frequently a time of change. But even knowing that, was it hard to see a handful of players leave the Canucks in October?
Green: It was a little intense. You’re watching and hoping. It’s the same with free agency every year; every coach is a little nervous about what’s going to happen and how his team is going to look. Especially with what’s going on in the world this year and what’s going on with the flat salary cap, it obviously changes the dynamic of free agency.
Sportsnet: Were you prepared emotionally to see veterans leaders like Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev sign for the rival Calgary Flames?
Green: Jim and I have a really great relationship and he keeps me up to speed with what’s going on. I’m invested with our players. On a personal note with Marky, I’m connected to him probably way closer than other players on our team. We go back a long way (to the American Hockey League) and it’s never easy when you see players go to another team. But I’m happy for Marky, too, that he got rewarded.
Sportsnet: Did it surprise you?
Green: You have to be realistic as a coach. I think what makes a coach a good coach is caring for his players and wanting the best for them. I want the best for all our players. It was the same thing with Tanny. He was an important piece of our team. He had a long run with our group and was important to me, too, but that’s part of hockey. I saw it when I played — you get used to having change. I was thinking about it the other day: From my first year to now, how many guys are still on the team? Not a whole lot. That’s the evolution of a hockey team. But it is an emotional time when you’re losing players that you’ve had for a while, but you also know that’s part of it.
Sportsnet: You and the players talked throughout last season about how close your room was and how much the players liked each other. Do you think about how the changes will affect your dressing room?
Green: It would be foolish to say I haven’t thought about it. We have lost some leaders in our room. But we haven’t talked about what the new guys bring and the evolution of leadership within a room. I’m excited to see how that occurs. We’ve got tremendous leaders still within our team, and every year you bring in guys who bring their own things to leadership. When you’re talking about Nate Schmidt or you’re talking about Braden Holtby, they bring leadership with them. Last year, when we brought in J.T. Miller, he maybe brought another level of leadership that he hadn’t shown before because he hadn’t been given that opportunity.
Sportsnet: Let’s talk about Schmidt and Holtby, your marquee additions. What do they bring?
Green: I can’t say enough about them. When you talk about Holtby, look at his resume and what he’s done in the league and the quality of goaltending he is capable of. You don’t have to say anything else. I’m excited to see him in person and have him on our team. And as far as Schmidt, we’ve seen first-hand (in the Pacific Division) the type of player he is. He has a lot of qualities. He can play in all situations. He brings a lot of energy to the group, which I like. When you get into scenarios when the season is hard and can seem long, you need guys with an engine that runs hot. There shouldn’t be a bad day in the NHL. We don’t want a team with energy-suckers in our group.
Sportsnet: Is energy-suckers a new analytics term?
Green: (Laughs). We want guys that come to the rink and love the game. A bad day at the rink is not that bad a day.
Sportsnet: Schmidt would certainly agree with you. As reliable and honourable as Tanev was, Schmidt looks like an upgrade. Is this the best your top-four on defence has been?
Green: I don’t want to compare Tanev to Schmidt. They’re both good hockey players. I think we all know what Tanny is about and I’ve got a good idea what Nate is and I’m excited to see him. This is as excited as I’ve been about an addition to our team. It’s a huge addition to our group. I was excited last year when we added J.T. Miller and we saw the type of season he had. I don’t want to put pressure on Nate, but it’s very similar.
Sportsnet: No one was acquired to replace Troy Stecher on the third pairing, so it looks like you’ll be going with prospects at the bottom of the defence. Are you concerned about a possible downgrade there?
Green: I’m not so worried about pairings as much as who comes in and earns a job on the team. We’ll worry about the pairings after that. But there is a good opportunity now for young defencemen, no secret about it. That’s the exciting part. Dealing with young players, for me, has always been something I look forward to. You put a lot of thought into how you bring these young players along. What kind of message are you going to send to these players? And not just when training camp starts, but right now, during the off-season?
I’m in the middle of actually reaching out to all our young defencemen and checking in with them and making sure they have an understanding with where they’re at, what’s at stake and the work they have to do in the off-season. It’s easy for people to say: ‘Here’s who’s going to be on the team. Here are the pairings.’ At the end of the day, you’ve got to come in and earn it. There’s going to be healthy competition between five or six guys for those bottom two spots. That’s exciting for a coach. Maybe someone surprises us.
Sportsnet: So you’ve got defence coach Nolan Baumgartner working overtime to prepare?
Green: (Laughs). You never know, he might have to lace ’em up in a worst-case scenario.
Sportsnet: Like the lineup, your coaching staff will be different after the club granted Manny Malhotra permission to take a promotion with the Toronto Maple Leafs. How do you feel about that?
Green: I’m extremely happy for Manny and proud of Manny. When I first arrived in Vancouver, to look at where he is now as a coach from when I got here, with the work he put in, is impressive. When you’re the eye in the sky as a young coach (working games from the press box), you want more.
When he came and talked to me (about the Leafs’ offer), I was honest with him: I told him I didn’t want him to leave and I love him on the staff. But I also understand that if you’re doing good things within your team and organization, people are going to (offer) them better positions. That’s part of the league. Are we going to miss Manny? Of course, we are. I loved our staff with Manny, but I am happy and proud of him. He’s going to do a good job in Toronto. But, again, with someone leaving and getting promoted, it’s an opportunity for us to bring in a new coach.
Sportsnet: Have you someone in mind?
Green: I’m not very far yet. I’ve got a small list started, but we haven’t gone too far down that road yet.
Sportsnet: Let's say you've got Holtby for Markstrom and Schmidt for Tanev. But without a replacement for Toffoli, it looks on paper like your team has taken a small step back from the end of last season. Do you agree?
Green: To be honest, I try not to get too wrapped up in that. At the end of the day, you’ve got to go out and just do it and perform. If I go back to the start of last year, someone asked me if I thought we could be in the top 20 teams in the league because no one was picking us to be in the top 20. My answer was the same: I’m not worried about expectations (from others) and where they think our team will finish. We’ll push our guys to be the best they can be.
I’ve talked about it for three years: We want to continue to push and build towards winning a Stanley Cup in Vancouver. It’s a daily process that gets you there. You don’t get into the playoffs on Day 1. You can’t do anything on Day 1 except get better.
Sportsnet: Do you think the organic improvement of young players like Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette will make you a better team next season even with the free agency losses?
Green: I have a strong belief in the players inside that locker room still. We’re just starting to get to a time where it’s exciting to be a Vancouver Canuck. I thought last year, we obviously exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. I know people are saying our team is this or that for next year. I believe there will be improvement in a lot of players from last year.
The season hasn’t even started (but) when the cards get on the table, I know our group will be ready to go. I don’t worry about what the outside world says about our group. I’ve got a strong belief about where we’re going in Vancouver and it’s going to be an exciting time for the next four-to-six years.
Sportsnet: You’re heading into the final year of your initial NHL contract and general manager Jim Benning has said talks are in a holding pattern due to the pandemic and uncertain NHL landscape. Are you confident you’ll be part of that exciting future?
Green: I understand it. I’ve had some dialogue with Jim and kicked some things around. For me, the biggest thing is that we’re always on the same page, and we have been from Day 1. The fact Jim wants to extend me fits with what I want to do. When I first came to Vancouver, we talked about building this team up and taking the proper steps to do it. Obviously, you have to be aligned with your general manager and your ownership, and we have been the whole way. I still want to coach this team and win in Vancouver, not just now and not just next year but for the long term. We’ll see how this plays out during the pandemic and revisit it.
Sportsnet: I don’t suppose you’d tell us, but you’re not curious about exploring free agency and seeing what the market offers for an up-and-coming coach?
Green: I’m not looking at all to coach another team. I want to coach in Vancouver. I’m a B.C. guy (from Castlegar) and it means something to me to be in B.C. And it means something to finish what you started and be part of that process. I enjoy coaching in this city and I enjoy the people I work with. That’s important to me. When you ask me if I want to stay in Vancouver, of course I do. It’s not even a question in my mind. I can’t imagine winning a Stanley Cup in any city but Vancouver.