OTTAWA — The heaviest thing about the Vancouver Canucks’ visit to Montreal on Monday was neither the poutine nor Elias Pettersson’s one-timer, but the juxtaposition between two flailing franchises from similarly-rabid hockey markets where fans are clamouring for change.
The Canucks and Montreal Canadiens were tied in the standings but couldn’t look farther apart in how they’re dealing with their crises through the first quarter of the National Hockey League season.
Prior to Monday’s 2-1 victory by Vancouver — someone had to win — Canadiens owner Geoff Molson emerged from hiding to proclaim the need for a fresh start after firing stale general manager Marc Bergevin and taking an aggressive first step towards renewal by naming Jeff Gorton Montreal’s new head of hockey operations.
It will be the New York Rangers’ former architect’s responsibility to hire a bilingual GM, rebuild and diversify the Canadiens’ hockey operations staff, and expand the mandate of the team’s medical department to include mental health.
Monday night’s game before a supportive home crowd at the Bell Centre seemed an inconsequential postscript to Molson’s rare press conference announcing the sweeping changes that should give the Canadiens a chance to build a sturdier platform from which to compete annually for the playoffs.
Monday was the first day of a new era for the Canadiens, now a giant step ahead of a Canucks organization clinging to the final days or weeks or months (it’s still hard to tell) of a dying era in franchise history.
Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini and his family are still trying to determine how and when to replace general manager Jim Benning, who rebuilt the team from the spare and aging parts he inherited in 2014 into one that finally generated some playoff success six years later but has alarmingly regressed in the two seasons since.
The fatal flaws in the Canucks’ construction, especially on defence, have been starkly exposed by the unprojectable and almost unfathomable collapse in scoring by a talented forward group that was expected to drive the team and spackle over the cracks in the lineup.
Pettersson’s goal on Monday was his first in 10 games, but Brock Boeser hasn’t scored in 11 and J.T. Miller in eight. Bo Horvat has one goal in 11. Eleven of the Canucks’ 16 losses have been decided either by one goal or two (with an empty-netter).
Free-agent acquisition Tucker Poolman has been a major disappointment on defence and already the four-year contract Benning gave him in July looks like something else the Canucks will have to survive. And the blue-line depth, generally, is so poorly built that Kyle Burroughs, who should be the spare right-side defenceman, was being used as a primary penalty-killer on his off-side Sunday when Brad Marchand danced around him to set up the winning goal in Boston.
Yet, Travis Green continues to keep the Canucks engaged and working relentlessly despite the coach looking like a dead-man-walking since Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Thursday that the Canucks were interested in Claude Julien before making a sudden U-turn away from Benning’s old coach from the Bruins.
Still, names of potential successors to Green, including Scott Walker, who left his player-development post with the Canucks a year after Trevor Linden was forced out as president in 2018, are out there in the white noise surrounding the team. This leaves Green flapping like long johns on a clothesline as he waits like everyone else to see which direction the franchise is moving.
The biggest early failing of the Benning-Linden era was not the decision to sign Loui Eriksson for $36 million in 2016, but the regime’s mushy messaging, its failure to clearly articulate priorities and the plan to rebuild the team.
And here we are nearing the apparent end of the Benning era and the same problem is even worse.
Three-and-a-half years since Linden’s departure left the Canucks without a willing and readily available senior spokesman and, importantly, a buffer between Aquilini and Benning, it’s not the presumptive outgoing GM that needs to speak but the owner.
And by the way, the Canucks need another president of hockey operations who can speak to fans and reporters when necessary and be a conduit between the GM and ownership.
When the Canucks were in a different kind of chaos at the start of last season and media conjecture had escalated to the point that people were reporting succession planning within the organization, Aquilini suppressed the flames a little with a clear, if divisive, statement on Twitter pledging support for his GM and coach. Both were reviewed after the season and brought back for this year, Green on a new two-year contract extension.
Will he make it through the first year of that? Will he make it through this road trip if it ends poorly in Ottawa? Few coaches get a guarantee, but Green deserves some clarity on his status amid all the white noise – clarity that Benning hadn’t the moral authority to provide two weeks ago during his only press conference so far this season.
Leaving a messaging void is dangerous at the best of times, doing so in the middle of a hurricane is reckless.
Canuck fans who have waited 51 years for a Stanley Cup could use some clarity, too. Because the biggest thing Geoff Molson provided Canadiens fans on Monday was not a new head of hockey-ops, but the rough draft of a plan to restore the team and consumer confidence in it.