VANCOUVER — The day after saying he needed some players near the top and bottom of his lineup to be better, coach Travis Green gave a lot of them Friday off.
Whether to practise or rest will be an ongoing dilemma for the Vancouver Canucks after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak. But there is an even bigger, more delicate challenge for Green: How much can the coach fairly demand from players who may still be suffering lingering effects from the respiratory virus?
No team in the National Hockey League has been through what the Canucks have, flattened by COVID’s P.1 variant, so how can anyone know how hard to push players?
Desperate to keep their unlikely playoff charge going, the Canucks play the Ottawa Senators Saturday after losing 3-0 to them Thursday night.
“We're not looking for excuses, we're not going to talk about excuses,” Green said Friday when asked about moving past the team’s health crisis. “Sometimes you're not going to be at your best, and you've got to find ways to win. As a coach, the message is always going to be that that's the expectation. That's the culture that we're trying to install here anyway.
“If I thought a guy wasn't feeling very well, he wouldn't have been playing. For the guys that are playing, there's expectations. I thought we had some guys who didn't play very well last night, didn't play their best. I thought we had some guys. . . maybe 10 per cent lower. I think with our team, we need to have everyone firing. I thought last night we needed a little more from a few guys.”
At best, this seems unempathetic. At worst, Green sounds almost cruel.
He’s not. Nobody understands what his players have been through as well as Green, who became about as sick as anyone on the team and required medical attention beyond the Canucks’ own medical staff.
One of the most basic requirements of effective coaching is to understand and know your players. In that sense, the shared experience of fighting the coronavirus may make Green as close to his players as he’ll ever be.
“I don't think it changes me as a coach,” he said. “I don't think it changes you really at all. It just makes you. . . have a strong understanding of what they're going through. A feel for them, I guess, especially guys that maybe had it a little harder than others.
"It's really just being a compassionate person, and caring about players and caring about people that you know. I don't think it has anything to do with coaching. You want the best for the people you care about, and obviously you care about your players.”
The last two players to emerge from the COVID shutdown joined teammates on the ice Friday at Rogers Arena during the optional practice that was run by assistant coaches Nolan Baumgartner and Jason King but watched from the bench by Green.
Energy forward Tyler Motte, who was still too sick to play in the Canucks’ first three games back, practised along with extra Loui Eriksson, whose 14-day quarantine as a close-contact made him last off the NHL’s COVID Protocol List.
Forwards Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Nils Hoglander and Brandon Sutter, defencemen Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers, Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic, and starting goalie Thatcher Demko were given Friday off.
Demko’s appearance on Thursday, when he stopped 22 of 24 shots, was his first since signing a five-year, $25-million contract extension just as the COVID crisis was exploding.
“I was just so humbled by it, so grateful,” he finally told reporters about his new deal. “It's truly unbelievable. To be part of this organization has been an honour since Day 1, and to be able to continue that for another five years is something that my family and I are extremely fortunate to have accomplished.
"When the talks started it was really easy for me (because) I know I wanted to be here for a long time. I was just really grateful and humbled by the whole situation.”
Groomed to become an NHL starter since the Canucks chose him in the second round of the 2014 draft, the 25-year-old from San Diego seized the No. 1 role this season by decisively outplaying Braden Holtby.
Holtby had the most important and impressive performances of his difficult season by sweeping two games against the Toronto Maple Leafs this week, but Green made the right call switching goalies on Thursday when Demko was declared fit to start.
Holtby probably needed a break after facing 79 shots in just over 48 hours while coming back from COVID, but Demko is the team’s starter. He was the Canucks' MVP until the shutdown.
Green’s goaltending choice isn’t necessarily automatic, especially if Holtby extends his vintage form beyond this week. But after investing $25 million in Demko, the Canucks at least owe him the chance to keep playing.