Desjardins, Linden and Benning addressing the media. “We have difficult decisions to make this off-season” – Linden pic.twitter.com/sEhvQ2RoAf
— Vancouver Canucks (@VanCanucks) April 29, 2015
The Vancouver Canucks brain trust of Jim Benning, Trevor Linden, and Willie Desjardins held court for one final time in the 2014-2015 season earlier this morning, fielding a variety of questions from media on topics ranging from player deployment to prospects and the future.
There’s a lot to dig into today, and some pretty compelling things about the organization’s philosophy were shared. Let’s dig in to what was revealed after the jump.
There’s a lot to get to in this presser, and I won’t cover everything they went over today. The whole conference is embedded so you can view it yourself, but there’s too much to digest for just one post. Below are my initial thoughts on a variety of topics covered by the Canucks:
- Trevor Linden opened up the press conference by briefly touching on how, in his mind, the Canucks had a successful season in that the met the goals they set out to meet at the beginning of the year. I’m not about to argue that Vancouver’s season wasn’t successful, but I do wonder if the goals that the management group has set out for themselves are conducive to the long-term ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
- Benning addressed this concern after being prompted to do so by our own Thom Drance later in the presser, saying he feels that developing kids in a winning environment is important and that even with the 23rd overall draft pick this summer, Vancouver will still be able to get a good player. We’ve looked at who may be available around the 20th overall pick previously, and determined that the guys in that range are most likely to turn into 40-point NHLers or so. Good players, but I don’t think those are front-line guys.
- I’ll also point out that virtually every measure of underlying effectiveness declined this season over last for Vancouver, so how much of this good season was legitimate rather than superficial is up for debate.
- On that note, I should say that we thought that most of Vancouver’s biggest struggles under John Tortorella last season were of the superficial variety and likely to fix themselves this season. Vancouver’s return to the playoffs shouldn’t have been surprising if you were paying attention last year, and despite more points in the standings, I’d argue that the team got significantly worse in 2014-15. That’s a topic for another day though.
- There was a significant amount of focus on prospects in this presser, which I think is telling on it’s own. Both the media and fans seem to see the writing on the wall in some regard as it pertains to the age of Vancouver’s best and most critical players. The Sedins will be 35 next season. Vancouver’s one 30-goal scorer will be 34. The only guy in the top-5 on the team in goals who was under 33 probably isn’t coming back. This is a problem.
- A lot of the talk seemed to centre around Bo Horvat and how strong he looked this year, especially in the playoffs against Calgary. In that series, he was legitimately Vancouver’s second best centre behind Henrik Sedin and led the Canucks in scoring. Horvat came a long, long way from getting plastered in his first number of games, and continued developing strongly after taking a massive step in his draft+1 season.
- Willie Desjardins spoke about how Horvat was “pretty special” for coming into the NHL and succeeding as a 19-year old, and he’s pretty bang-on here. The NHL tends to eat it’s own young before players quickly get really good around 21 years old. It’s nearly impossible for the majority of guys under 20 to make a significant positive contribution.
- Lest we forget that Horvat’s impact before Ronalds Kenins was added to the roster in January was mostly massively negative too. We could all see the tools and skill he possessed, but there’s a difference between talent and ability. Horvat has proven he’s immensely talented, but he still has to keep improving to have legitimate top-6 ability. It looks to be a fairly good bet that he gets there though.
- Benning also mentioned how Cole Cassels and Jared McCann had been “excellent” and that he was pleased with Hunter Shinkaruk’s development. He was hesitant to pay Nicklas Jensen many compliments though, which may not indicate great things from the former 29th overall pick.
- Benning also added that the organization wouldn’t be afraid to ask a player with a NTC to waive that clause if the organization chose to go a different direction. Given that Vancouver is rather strapped for cap space and also indicated an interest in retaining Yannick Weber, might this mean Kevin Bieksa’s days as a Canuck are numbered?
- Willie Desjardins was asked about the Sedins’ playoff ice time once again today, and while he admitted to some fault in how he handled them, also remained defensive about his strategy. Desjardins noted that the Canucks won game 2 while playing the twins 16 minutes and lost game 6 with them getting 22 minutes, and also made note of how the team wants to win 3 rounds instead of just one, meaning that your best players have to have some gas in the tank.
- The “we won with them playing 16 minutes” defense is a very poor one since it fundamentally ignores that the Canucks’ lead was built by the Sedins early in the game and preserved by some excellent goaltending by Eddie Lack. The Canucks did not win because they played the Sedins 16 minutes. The Sedins played 16 minutes because the Canucks were winning.
- The “we’re trying to go deep in the playoffs” excuse doesn’t pass the sniff test either since by acting in this regard, Desjardins is falling for a type of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Yes, it’s ideal that both coaches preserve their best players for later rounds, but both are forced into a position to be self-serving, it is only rational for each coach to “cheat” on any “preserve your talent” agreement and try to exploit match-ups. By not playing the Sedins, Desjardins allowed Hartley to cheat on him and exploit Vancouver’s depth, which the Flames hammered in that series.
- Finally, Benning spoke at length at the organization’s desire to add “core prospects,” and how they believed that it’s necessary for these players to develop in a winning environment for them to achieve success in the future. While no one is in disagreement about the need for core prospects, there’s a legitimate concern that trying to make the playoffs every year leads to prolonged mediocrity rather than future success.
- When Thom asked about this, his concern was rebuffed with talk that if you don’t develop kids in a winning environment, you’ll wind up with a bunch of guys who are good but don’t know how to win. It sounds nice, but this is just straight up inaccurate.
Trevor Linden wasn’t drafted into a winning culture. Neither did the Sedins, but I guess that matters less when you’re a TOP 3 DRAFT PICK!!!
— Money Puck (@MoneyPuck_) April 29, 2015
- Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were not drafted into “winning environments.” The Blackhawks were a laughing stock under Bill Wirtz – surely you remember this. But once legitimate elite talent entered the organization, the team learned to win because they were so damn talented. Same thing with the L.A. Kings. Doughty and Kopitar were both top-10 picks and the team still sucked for their first few seasons. Look a few years down the road, and they have two cups.
- Hell, you’re seeing this play out again right now with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Both teams were really bad. Both teams drafted core prospects really high. Both teams are now getting good again.
- The Edmonton Oilers always get brought up as a counterpoint to this argument, but the Oilers are unique in their ineptitude. If your management team is halfway decent, the comparative advantage you get from drafting high in the first round tends to out-weigh the benefits you derive from teaching your kids how to win. Most bad teams become elite. Most elite teams remain elite. And the teams in the middle tend towards sustained mediocrity.
Projecting NHL teams over 4 years based on their points in the standings pic.twitter.com/BePv2UQFyy
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) February 23, 2015
- The problem is that “acquiring core prospects” fundamentally runs counter to “fostering a winning environment.” If you draft high in the first round, you have given yourself a massive comparative advantage relative to even teams that are picking around 10th or later. Those teams drafting high are going to be competitive eventually, and you’re going to have to beat them.
- To win the Stanley cup in the next decade, the Canucks will need to go through a team that has Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl down the middle and a GM in place who’s built a champion before. Not only will the Canucks have to draft exceptionally well to compete, but they’ll also have to out-draft and out-acquire the Oilers everywhere else to build a better team.
- If you’re going down the “win every year” path, your player acquisition can’t just be the best in the NHL. It has to be lapping the competition. Being the best is obviously the goal to strive for, but I think it’s massively dismissive of your competition to believe that you’re that much better than anyone else that you can both make up and beat out your comparative disadvantage.
In order to go down the road the Canucks look to be going down and be ultimately successful in the long run, you need to be the smartest guys in every room. You need to build a better team than everyone else, and you need to do it from a position of comparative disadvantage. And even then, being the best and smartest management group might not be enough since history tells us that the advantage you get from being a bad team is so great that even perennial laughingstocks like the Bill Wirtz Chicago Blackhawks and Charles Wang New York Islanders can pull themselves out from the morass of crap with a couple of elite prospects and front office tweaks.
What’s inarguable is that Vancouver is entering a transitional period, and eyes have to be looking towards the future more attentively than ever. This summer, and possibly the next one too, will be crucial from turning the Mike Gillis Canucks into the Jim Benning Canucks, and shaping this franchise’s fate even beyond that. Here’s to hoping the transition goes smoothly.