VANCOUVER – With some fans and bloggers starting to scream for his head – because the general manager’s scalp alone is no longer enough – Vancouver Canucks’ coach Travis Green was doing his best Friday to keep his noggin level.
It’s not like he hasn’t reason to be angry and vent or go full-Torts on his team. The Canucks have lost their last three games by an aggregate score of 18-8, plunging two games below .500 and building one of the NHL’s most atrocious defensive records.
The Canucks have unravelled in the first three weeks of this season the culture and identity it took Green three years to help knit after he was hired by GM Jim Benning at the nadir of Vancouver’s rebuild. The timing of this crisis in character must be especially exasperating to Green because it occurs at the start a season compressed to 56 games and, coincidentally, as the coach is trying to get a contract extension from his boss.
The hashtag #FireBenning is an old mantra on the West Coast that resurfaces with varying degrees of conviction and traction every time the Canucks lose a few games. But #FireGreen is entirely new, and feels spectacularly unfair.
His best players, Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller and now even Quinn Hughes, have struggled out of the gate. This doesn’t come close to explaining the collapse in Canucks systems, and neither does the exhausting schedule the NHL dared Vancouver to undertake with 13 games and four sets of backs-to-backs in the first 21 days. Practice? What’s that? But these factors do make it almost impossible to judge the team as a whole at the moment.
Still, that sound of time ticking could actually be a bomb as the Canucks open the second quarter of their season on Saturday against the same Toronto Maple Leafs who embarrassed them 7-3 on Thursday.
This kind of crisis is largely new to the young players who have grown under Green and pushed the Canucks steadily, if slowly, higher over the last three seasons. But it’s also new to Green at the NHL level.
“When you're coaching, there's lots of different emotions that go into your head,” Green told reporters on Zoom after the Canucks gathered Friday for meetings and off-ice work. “I think at the end of the day, you've always got to find a level place and be honest with where you're at. Getting mad or being overly excited about your game is useless. But there is anger in your game sometimes, and that's the competitive part of every coach.
“But always going back to having a level head and really being honest with what's going on on the ice is important.”
Earlier, Green said: “There's pressure on each individual player to play their best, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with saying there's pressure. There is pressure; that's what this business is all about. Thriving under pressure is important when you're in important games and big games and playoff games, but also in games when you're not playing your best. ... being able to play your best when it's tough and it's a grind.
“As far as it being tougher than any other year, it's different than any other year. And, you know, that's part of coaching.”
Before the Canucks lost three games, they won four straight. After getting their game together last week, the team’s defensive play has disintegrated this week.
Their problems are not simply about execution, Xs and Os, and getting more offence from Miller, more defence from Hughes and more saves from Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby.
The two veteran players the Canucks made available to the media on Friday, Brandon Sutter and Nate Schmidt, mentioned the character and emotion the team needs to display.
“We were going through a big transition from the team that was here five or six years ago to now,” Sutter, who arrived in 2015, said. “And I can say the feeling right now versus what it felt like three, four years ago is completely different. I know we have a good team here, and we've got the right guys in the room. It's just a good character check for us right now. We've got to climb through.”
Schmidt said the escape from this spiral is made complicated by circumstances. The defenceman is new to the Canucks and at a time when players need to come together and support each other and build their relationships, COVID-19 protocols keep them apart when they leave the rink.
“You know that's something that I would say is a huge part of hockey -- a huge part of anybody, right?” Schmidt said. “You go through (challenging) things in life, you want to go through them with the people that you are closest with. You drag yourself out of the mud together.
“It's a little bit harder when you can't go out and do anything and you’re just back in your room. But for me, even as the games have gone lately, you're still incredibly lucky to be playing this game every day. Yeah, let's take the (responsibility for) what happened but. . . you can't just come in and be mad and sad and woe is me. This league will chew you up if that's the way you think.”
Winning is the only elixir. Even that doesn’t solve all problems, but it’s far easier to fix whatever is left when the environment is positive instead of wrought with angst and self-doubt. Like Schmidt said, it’s like that in life, too.
Right now, however, the Canucks look a long way from winning and positivity has become one of Green's greatest challenges as a coach.
“I'm not going to throw any players under the bus; I think you know me better than that,” he said. “I will say, as a team we need to play better (and) certain individuals, obviously, within a team have to bring their best and play their best. It's no secret that some guys have maybe not had their best start this year, and that's okay, too. It's part of our job to guide them through it, teach them, talk to them, push them when needed. But I can tell that everyone in that room wants to play their best and wants to do whatever they can to win.”