At the end of the Vancouver Canucks’ farewell tour, coach Travis Green was asked after Saturday’s 4-1 win against the playoff-bound Edmonton Oilers about the play of Matthew Highmore and where the energy forward fits for next season.
“Well, as far as the future goes, you know, that’s tough to say,” Green said.
There was more to his answer, but that quote applies universally to the Canucks during an end to their National Hockey League season that is so surreal Vancouver has three more meaningless regular-season games remaining after the Stanley Cup playoffs opened for others on Saturday night.
Green, of course, doesn’t have a contract for next season and neither do any of the coaches on his staff. Goaltending guru Ian Clark, one of the most attractive free-agent pieces in coaching, is already considered gone.
General manager Jim Benning is under contract but also under siege, having built a team that broke through the playoff bubble last summer but went dramatically backwards this season during his seventh year in charge.
It’s impossible to know if Benning and his right-hand assistant, John Weisbrod, will be running hockey operations after next week. We believe that decision hasn’t been made.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman confirmed during the Vancouver-Edmonton broadcast that former Canuck Geoff Courtnall has been approached by ownership for counsel about the direction of management for next season and beyond.
Courtnall and managing partner Francesco Aquilini have been friends since the 1990s, and Courtnall was among a small group of confidants who recommended the owner take a chance on Mike Gillis as general manager back in 2008.
Friedman reported that Courtnall nearly joined the Canucks in an advisory role after Trevor Linden was pushed out of the organization in 2018 over differences with the Aquilini family.
It’s unclear what Courtnall’s role would be – he hasn’t the hockey management credentials to be a general manager – but the Canucks could use another voice in hockey operations. They have missed Linden as the frontman for the organization and a conduit between departments since he left three years ago and his position above Benning went unfilled.
This not only made Benning’s job of running the team more difficult, it has caused at times a vacuum in messaging, which is an obvious liability in a hockey-mad market that was exposed this season when the Canucks muddled through several serious challenges.
Much more than losing games has contributed to the crisis in consumer confidence that seems to be developing in Vancouver and it feels a lot like 2014 when the Aquilinis fired Gillis and replaced him at the top of hockey operations with Linden, the most popular figure in Canucks history.
Uncertainty clouds more than Green’s next contract or Highmore’s role on the Canucks – or whatever team he is playing for – next season.
This turmoil also makes what the team is still doing on the ice, both coaches and players, even more impressive with the Canucks eliminated from the playoff race but still making up games after their COVID-19 shutdown in April.
The Canucks went 3-3 on their last big road trip of the pandemic season.
Sure, Oilers coach Dave Tippett, unable to bubble-wrap Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl after they asked to participate in Edmonton’s final regular-season game, restricted his superstars to less than 17 minutes playing time on Saturday – about two minutes less than what Josh Archibald logged.
But the Canucks still took the game away in the third period, finishing strong by outshooting the Oilers 17-5 and getting two goals from Highmore and another from Travis Boyd during a four-minute span in the middle of the final frame.
Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko was brilliant, stopping McDavid on a breakaway and making one of his best saves this season on a back-side, power-play one-timer by Alex Chiasson that the Canuck somehow knocked out of mid-air with his pad and kept from fully crossing the goal line.
“He’s just got to keep progressing,” Green said of his 25-year-old, first-year starter. “He showed us glimpses of it last year in the bubble at the end with how good he can play, and he’s had a good season again this year. He’s a young guy, still relatively young for goalies, and I expect him to continue to progress. I think he’s got a chance to be one of the best goalies in the league.”
“We’re all competitors, we all have pride in this organization and ourselves,” Demko said. “If you’re not going to give 100 per cent, you’re just letting the guy next to you down. That’s something that’s not going to fly around here, so we understand the situation we’re in (but) we still want to show up these last three games and give it a solid effort.”
The Canucks play three meaningless games in four days against the Calgary Flames, beginning Sunday night in Vancouver. The start times have been altered so these games in the consolation bracket don’t interfere with playoff games between teams trying to win the Stanley Cup.
“I probably won’t watch until our season’s done,” Demko said. “Typically, if we’re not playing in the playoffs, I kind of keep an eye on it from distance, maybe watch a game here or there. But I’m focused on our remaining games. Obviously, it’s unique circumstances, but we have a job to do and that’s what I’ll be geared towards.”
“I like watching playoff hockey,” captain Bo Horvat said. “I think it makes you excited, hungrier for next year, in my opinion. It just drives me to want to be in the playoffs next year and to be hungry for it, so I’ll definitely be tuning in.”
Right now, there’s a lot more hunger than excitement on the West Coast.