After transformative summer, key to Canucks' redemption is commitment

Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green, from left to right, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, of Sweden, watch from the bench during the NHL hockey team's training camp in Vancouver, on Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER -- For one summer and the hockey season that followed, Travis Green’s buzzword for his players was “adaptable.”

The coronavirus forced change and adaptability on all of us.

But after a miserable pandemic season for the Vancouver Canucks, who plummeted from within a game of the Stanley Cup playoffs’ final four to one game from the bottom four in the National Hockey League standings, the coach has new buzzwords.

“Commitment,” Green said Tuesday night from his Southern California home. “And a little bit of redemption.”

Green told Sportsnet he is excited about the Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade and other July upgrades that have made the Canucks deeper and better. But the key to getting back to the playoffs next season is the commitment from everyone in the organization to be better and, especially, for Vancouver’s key, young players to keep pushing for improvement.

If everyone does that, Green said, they can also have redemption.

In one of his first interviews since general manager Jim Benning’s roster renovation, which included acquiring Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland and Jason Dickinson in trade and a pile of players in free agency to push for depth positions, Green also said incumbent J.T. Miller could play centre next season as the coaching staff takes advantage of the options created by the improved lineup.

Green said it was vital to reinvigorate the organization after last season, and the upgrades the Canucks have made has everyone excited about returning to training camp in September.

“I think it was important,” Green said. “It was a very hard season last year, emotionally, physically. Especially after the season before when we had such positive energy at the end of the year, and everyone was looking forward to the next season, last year was miserable quite honestly. I think it really left a mark on our players, on our coaches and our management team and our ownership.

“It took me a while to even have year-end meetings, just because I wanted to make sure that the message was right, and I just felt like I needed some time and I think the players needed some time to even talk about season. You're going to come back the next year and you want to be better, but there has to be a commitment to be better. The easy thing to say is: 'Hey, let's be better.' But that takes a commitment. . . from everyone in the organization.”

Benning’s marquee additions from a year ago, goalie Braden Holtby and defenceman Nate Schmidt, were jettisoned last week. Jake Virtanen was bought out, and Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle and their bad contracts were sent to Arizona with first- and second-round picks in exchange for defenceman Ekman-Larsson (and $43.56-million in cap charges) and Garland, the dynamic winger who was quickly signed to a five-year, $24.75-million contract.

“When you're adding quality players like Oliver and Conor, it's hard not to get excited,” Green said. “I think there's a lot of left in (Ekman-Larsson). After speaking with him and watching video on him, I have no doubt that he's going to have a really good season this year. Admittedly, he said he didn't play his best last year and maybe even a little bit before that. Sometimes a change of scenery really helps a player. I think we're getting a player who's hungry also to have a real big season and a big bounce back. He's going to help us in a lot of ways.”

And Garland?

“I've noticed him right from his rookie season,” Green said. “When he first got called up, it was hard not to notice him. His engine runs hot, he's competitive, he's feisty. The eye test, when you watch him, it's hard not to notice him. And analytically, he's got very good numbers. He is still coming into his own; he hasn't played a lot of games in the NHL. I think you can say that about a lot of our players: there's still more to give and they haven't hit their ceiling.

“I don't put any of the blame (for last season) on anyone that has left our team. I think everyone's part of the blame. As a group, we just did not have a very good season. The one thing is that we're committed to being better this season, and we've started that process. You couldn't ask for a better commitment than what our organization has done so far (this summer) but we've still got a lot of work to do.”

Even in August, Green was coy about lineup deployments, but it’s not automatic that Garland plays with captain Bo Horvat on the second line while Dickinson centres the third.

“What I like is that we're going to have options,” Green said. “With J.T. playing centre last year, out of necessity, I think he grew into that position. I think that gives us some flexibility where we could run our centres in different options if we want to. Obviously, we've got some young wingers with Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander. I never. . . want to put pressure on a young player to be at a certain level. But I'm also hopeful that (Podkolzin) can play in that top nine and we’ll see where we end up with the lines. We'll probably try a lot of different combinations in camp and in exhibition.”

With the salary cap and trade-capital limitations, the Canucks didn’t upgrade their defence like they did the forwards group. Ekman-Larsson over Alex Edler, the career-Canuck who signed with the Los Angeles Kings, is an upgrade. But signing Tucker Poolman to replace Nate Schmidt is a downgrade. So where is the improvement?

Green: “Every team has stronger and weaker defencemen individually. I like the group of defencemen that we have. But team defence is exactly that -- it's team defence. Part of that is commitment when you're in your own zone, part of that is a commitment not to cheat in certain areas of the game, and part of that is having the puck more. With the changes we've made, we will have the puck more. But we're going to have to be very committed in certain parts of our game.”

There’s that C-word again.

Green also mentioned the P-word, but wasn’t as emphatic as GM Benning about projecting the Canucks as a playoff team.

“That will be our expectation from our group going into the year,” he said. “And yet, as a coach and team, amongst our players, we don't start looking at the end of the season and talking about what we're going to do in the playoffs. I think that's dangerous when you start doing that. There's definitely a process to everything. Right now as coaches, we want to get our team prepared for Game 1. But I can tell you that our long-term goals are to be in the playoffs next year.”

Training camp opens Sept. 23 in Abbotsford, and the Canucks’ first pre-season game is against the Seattle Kraken in Spokane, Wash., three nights later.

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