The Vancouver Canucks’ new management team seems content with what they’ve accomplished so far this offseason, based on how they’ve operated over the past three weeks. Since locking up arbitration eligible defenseman Chris Tanev in early July, the club has been content to lock up 2014 first-round draft selections Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann to entry-level contracts and take care of the housekeeping in Utica (with deals for guys like Brandon DeFazio). The Canucks roster as it stands, is the one we’ll see on the ice to start next season.
On the surface its been an offseason of upheaval, punctuated by a new president, a new general manager, a new coach, a new friendly but decisive style of operating, a new franchise villain, a new oft-criticized star goaltender, and a handful of new players – none of them, really, top-of-the-lineup pieces (Radim Vrbata, aside). Looking a bit deeper though, at least in terms of the organization’s posture heading into next season and the into future, the changes seem cosmetic.
In the big picture, what’s the difference between the ‘reset’ of the summer of 2013 and the ‘retool and reenergize’ of the past six weeks? Cap space and decisive action. Aside from that, the goals of the franchise and the identity of the core is unchanged.
Let’s unpack this a bit further after the jump.
We’ll start, as we must, with Mike Gillis – clearly the best general manager in the mostly sordid history of Vancouver’s National Hockey League club. On Gillis’ way out the door, the thing that stood out to us was a strategic incoherence. Gillis’ moves often baffled fans, sometimes for good reason (the Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider saga), sometimes because his motives seemed incoherent. This was a team with a “window”, that made rebuilding moves like showcasing and trading Cody Hodgson for a future asset of little short-term consequence. This was an aging club that traded a star goaltender for an 18-year-old.
This “strategic incoherence” infuriated and puzzled Canucks fans, but there was nothing incoherent about it. Arguably it’s in the lifeblood of the organization, the one thing that – through three different management teams – the Canucks have remained eerily consistent about. The Canucks franchise, under the stewardship of the Aquilini family, does not, and will not, rebuild. At least not willingly.
This point was driven home and further developed by two of the franchise’s most beloved figureheads last week, and it’s worth unpacking the statements in full. The first comes from new president Trevor Linden, who explained his goals and gave a quick ‘state of the franchise’ overview during an interview with CKNW AM 980 last week:
“I think when you look at our team, we feel in fairness to Daniel and Henrik and Alex Burrows and Hamhuis and Bieksa, certainly Ryan Miller – we need to give these guys an opportunity to win. Obviously we’re in a bit of a transition phase here, we’ve added some real good players to our prospect pool this draft, so we need to work these guys into our lineup in a winning atmosphere. Bringing young guys into a situation where you have a chance to win is really important, so we need to create that environment and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There’s a couple of telling touches in that quote, most notably the “Obviously we’re in a bit of a transition phase here,” line. This new Canucks management team isn’t kidding themselves, they know they’re not contenders, especially not in the Pacific Division as it’s currently comprised. Regular season success though isn’t just an end in and of itself, it’s a means to an end in Linden’s formulation. It’s “really important” to bring in and develop “young guys” in a situation “where you have a chance to win.”
The new look Canucks recognize that they’re in a “building mode” of some kind, but they’re eschewing the “re-” prefix. They’re still committed to propping up a foundation that has looked cracked and moldy for several years now.
Continued Linden, on the subject of how many points he thinks the Canucks will finish with next season:
For me it’s about being in the top-16 so, I don’t know where that goes, and certainly on the Western Conference side of things, it’s a dog fight. […]
When you look at rosters, you look at depth charts, and you put them on the wall and you pick your teams and if we were all doing that you wouldn’t bother playing the games. The reason we have the season and play the games is those intangibles, it’s how your team comes together, it’s how they gel, it’s how they play, it’s the trust they have in one another, it’s the belief in the system they’re playing. So that’s what we’re going to focus on now, my focus is that we’re one of the top-16 teams because we want an opportunity at the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It would seem that Linden got the memo. He knows how and why former Canucks general managers Dave Nonis and Mike Gillis were dispatched. In Vancouver the mantra is simple: make the playoffs, or else!
Henrik Sedin also touched on the Canucks’ “Banners don’t fly forever (at least ours don’t… we don’t have any…)” posture further in an interview with Ornskoldvik-based media outlet Allehanda last week (via google translate):
Over there the objective must be to win every year. That is the goal we have. Vancouver does not attempt to rebuild the five years in the future as many teams (in the NHL) do. We invest every year. We may not have as good a team now that we had for (the last) six or seven years, but I think that many young (players) can take steps in (their) development. We have (acquired) a good goalie (Ryan Miller) who ought to be able to win a lot of games for us. […]
The chance (of winning the Stanley Cup) is always there. (The NHL is so even). One feels that (if you can just) get (into) the playoffs, you can win. See the New York Rangers, as no one believed. They took almost it all the way. Winning the Stanley Cup is the only thing that drives both me and Daniel.
For Henrik Sedin, one suspects, the desire to win now and compete every season is genuine. More than genuine, it’s part and parcel with the driving competitive force that motivates any athlete. For the organization, it’s difficult believe that the “win now and later!” thing is really based on a player development philosophy, or a desire to be “fair” to the likes of the Sedin twins. It seem much more likely that the Canucks have built a business model, and that model requires playoff revenue.
I’d add that there’s nothing cynical about a business model based on competing for the postseason annually, the Canucks are a business (not a public trust) and under the ownership of the Aquilini’s business has been good. More often than not, the hockey has been too (though not last season, my goodness).
The merits of cynicism aside though, the Canucks’ compulsion to be good every year continues to be a motivating force, maybe the motivating force, that makes sense of the club’s decision making. Why else do you trade Ryan Kesler for a package with a 26-year-old forward as the centerpiece, or deal two top-100 picks for bottom-six pieces like Derek Dorsett and Linden Vey? Why else do you both push to trade up for the first overall pick at the NHL entry draft, and then turn around and sign an aging veteran like Ryan Miller in free agency?
Taken as a whole, the only way those deals make even a hint of sense is if you’re trying to have it both ways; attempting to compete in the short-term, while keeping an eye on building for the future.
Despite all of the failure of last season and all of the changes this summer, the club’s posture remains unchanged, their faith in this Sedin-led core unshaken. If the roster renovations that Linden and general manager Jim Benning have overseen actually improve the club’s depth and allow the Canucks to keep up with just one of the three Californian behemoths, then an uncomfortable question will be kept at bay. If not, it’ll be open season, and fair to ask whether or not the organization’s perpetual balancing act is actually productive if the ultimate goal is to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to Lord Stanley’s Park.