PENTICTON, B.C. – It is too early to determine if Patrik Allvin is building a winning team, but the Vancouver Canucks rookie general manager has certainly built the largest hockey operations department in franchise history.
From his squadron of top assistants, including ground-breaking AGMs Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay, to a player-development department that has tripled in size and now includes Hall-of-Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, to coaching additions and even a many-million-dollar overhaul to the Canuck compound at Rogers Arena, the organization has probably never devoted more off-ice resources to improving the team.
But the NHL's salary cap applies unyieldingly to the player payroll, and with it historically flat, offloading unfavourable contracts has been extremely difficult. Without trades, Allvin was able in the off-season only to slightly upgrade his forwards group with the additions of free agents Ilya Mikheyev, Andrei Kuzmenko and Curtis Lazar.
Yet, much is expected from a team that finished last season 32-15-10 under coach Bruce Boudreau and president of hockey-operations Jim Rutherford, but still missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.
With the Canucks’ Young Stars tournament this weekend and training camp next week in Whistler, Sportsnet sat down with Allvin to discuss the team and what he sees.
Sportsnet: After a lot of change off the ice but with largely the same roster you inherited when you became general manager last January, what excites you about this season?
Allvin: I'm excited that the players are excited. I thought it was great to see Kuzmenko and Mikheyev coming in really early (in August) and getting settled into the city and start working out and preparing. I was happy to get the J.T. Miller deal done. And he's excited to be locked up here for seven more years.
Sportsnet: Let’s start there. You have talked about the difficulty in trading contracts and how that prevented you from making as many roster changes as you would have liked during the summer. A seven-year, $56-million extension allows you to keep Miller, your best forward and leading scorer. But J.T. will be 30 when that deal starts next year. Are you worried this will turn into another onerous contract that could handcuff the organization?
Allvin: Always when players are getting up in age, I guess there's more factors that play into it: age, obviously, and injuries and stuff like that. But you know what? He was our best player, and has been the best player for a couple of years in Vancouver. So, for us to give up on that one, that would be hard. We settled on a deal that makes sense.
Sportsnet: There were months of trade rumours about J.T. Do you think the team would have gotten worse, short-term, if you’d traded him?
Allvin: Yeah, depending on what the return was. But as we said all the way from when we took over, we wanted to take our time to evaluate what we had. And J.T. just continued to grow on both Jim (Rutherford) and I, and we felt the way he plays, the way he carries himself, how competitive he is, parting ways with a 100-point guy and a No. 1 centre, it would definitely be hard.
Sportsnet: Re-signing Miller was surprising for a lot of people, as is the fact that your captain, Bo Horvat, is about to enter the final season of his contract without an extension in place. Are you optimistic that you will get one before the season?
Allvin: Deals like this take time. Am I optimistic it's going to happen before the season? Maybe. We're still communicating, so we'll see.
Sportsnet: Are you worried this issue could become the next great distraction?
Allvin: It could be, it definitely could be. I mean, we saw it on all the rumours on Miller. It could be a distraction, but I know Bo is focused and committed and wants to stay, so hopefully we find a solution here.
Sportsnet: You said after last season that you wanted to upgrade the defence, then reiterated that goal after free agency in July. Any chance it will still happen?
Allvin: We're still a couple of weeks away, but the fact of the matter was that, coming in here, we had seven one-way contracts (on defence). So in order for us to add something -- it was tough in the free-agent market -- nothing really materialized over the summer in terms of a trade. If everybody's healthy, I think we're pretty good, led by Quinn Hughes and OEL (Oliver Ekman-Larsson). Every indication is Tucker Poolman is good to go here from Day 1, and if he is, I think that changes our group. That being said, if we come across something that makes our team better, we're open to that.
Sportsnet: Jim Rutherford, your boss, had some pretty sharp comments in May and said the Canucks’ zone exits were among the worst in the NHL. How does that get better with all the same defencemen?
Allvin: I think what Jim was alluding to was more the way we play, with structure and retrievals and how quick you get from Point A to B. In our case, I think it was pretty clear that we were holding on to pucks too long. It was not that our zone exits were not on the tape, it was just that we were waiting and waiting and waiting and then made a pass. We want to get out of our own end quicker. So I think it was more: How do we play that style? There's nothing wrong with our D-corps to execute it, but we need to be on the same page.
Sportsnet: Does upgrading the forwards mean you’ll spend less time in the defensive zone?
Allvin: I sure hope so. And hopefully with good puck possession, we will wear other teams down and by doing that create more scoring chances.
Sportsnet: You essentially spent 20 years preparing to become an NHL general manager, then got the job during a once-a-century global pandemic that flattened the salary-cap and changed the way teams had to operate. Were you prepared for this?
Allvin: I don't know if you could ever prepare for this, even going back to my previous job in Pittsburgh. Coming into the COVID year (in 2020) and the implications moving forward here, I don't think anybody saw a flat cap. With some of the structured contracts that were already in place here, and escrows and all that, that definitely hurt us. It hurt a lot of teams, especially teams in our situation with no cap flexibility.
Sportsnet: At least you could build out your hockey-ops staff. What was your message to them?
Allvin: I mean, it's been quite a turnover on staffs in different departments. My message to my colleagues is: We've got one chance to get this right, so let's (focus) on the hiring process, how we do things, how we run meetings, what message we're getting out, and how prepared and detailed we are. If we don't do that right now, it will hurt us down the road.
Sportsnet: By re-signing Miller, you obviously believe the Canucks are in a window to win. Did your view on this change from the time you took the job?
Allvin: It's a good question. If you look at other teams like, I mean, Colorado, when did their window open up? It was probably a couple of years ago, right? But they were so bad for a long period of time, and you needed to be lucky to get a Nathan MacKinnon (first overall in the draft). When you watch your team, we're not old, we're not really young, so I guess we're in that window because our core players are in their 20s and you're hoping that they just continue to get better.
Sportsnet: Other than the obvious – win more games – what’s the biggest key to getting better?
Allvin: We're not a playoff team. So, I mean, for us, first and foremost we need to change our mindset. We need to understand that whatever we've done up to this point is not good enough. We need to change it. We need to push ourselves to get to the next level. And the next level for us is just to be a playoff team, a consistent playoff contender. So we have steps to take, absolutely.
Sportsnet: Do you feel there’s a lot of pressure to win on a team that hasn’t done anything outside a playoff run in the Edmonton bubble three seasons ago?
Allvin: There's always pressure in pro sports to deliver. I would say that part of the pressure is how you handle it and how you prepare yourself for it. I would say that (players) have probably struggled with the fact they don't really know what it takes to get to the next level. That's a challenge. My biggest thing here is to raise the bar. Everybody's talking about the culture, and every day the players have to raise the culture of this team. That was my year-end message: This is not good enough, we need to find a way to get better and it's on you guys to come prepared and change things. You can talk about coaches and all those outside noises, but it's up to the players to sacrifice and do what it takes.
Sportsnet: How much encouragement do you take from going 32-15-10 over the final two-thirds of last season?
Allvin: Whatever people think of those last 50 games, it wasn’t good enough because we didn’t make the playoffs. So let’s stop talking about it. We need to be better.