Canucks Year-End Press Conference: Reflections on the Season and What It All Means

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. 
  • 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. 
      • 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. 

    • 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.
    So there you have it: impressions from the Canucks’ year-end media availability. There were some encouraging things said, such as the focus on building towards the future and the desire to continue to add more core prospects and build a strong feeder system, but there were also some concerning topics tossed about too. The coach continued to defend questionable decision making in the playoffs, and how Jim Benning plans to accomplish his long term goals may run entirely counterproductive to winning a Stanley Cup.

    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.

    • Vanoxy

      Good breakdown.

      Sustained mediocrity is going to be the annual forecast, at least until 5 or 6 of the core guys move on.

      I will miss Bieksa, Burrows, Hamhuis and the Twins but the future is on hold while they are taking up 40% of the cap.

    • nucksandbolts

      Good article, I agree with almost everything you said. Except that Kopi was a top 10 pick when he went 11th, which is just me nitpicking but still thought I’d point it out.

      Also that Pronman graph is very telling, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it quoted more.

    • andyg

      My worry is that they have run out of chips to play to aquire help for the future. No money for FA and no depth in any given area to move and cover a weakness.

      This could mean using draft picks to try and pick up some more left overs as we did with two 2nd round picks this year.

      If we don’t keep our top 3 picks there won’t be any prospects to develop.

    • wojohowitz

      The premise that you have to be really bad to become really really good doesn`t fly. The best example is Detroit and a big part of the equation is to be lucky. One example is Pittsburgh with the second or third overall pick had to choose between Staal and Toews and they took Staal. Another example is the Norris trophy winner over the last decade tends not to be a first round pick but guys like Keith, or Lidstrom or maybe one day Shea Weber. Benning may be the man but only if he turns out to be the smartest guy in the room. This management team appears to be very old school and sounds like they don`t know what corsi means and don`t care.

    • yvr_guy

      I think statists sometimes get in the way of intelligent analysis, because by my reading of your article, every NHL team that isn’t a prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite (elite), should actively be trying to lose every game possible.

      From a business standpoint (putting fans in seats) and from the perspective of competitive athletics that’s not on. That’s not why people watch pro sports and that’s not how the business of pro sports functions.

      Some teams are going to happen to be awful, but franchises that go out of their way to be awful have a tendency to stay that way. And even my simple math tells me that only one team can pick first overall and only three teams can pick in the top three, etc. And with a new draft lottery rules, even being the worst is no guarantee of the top pick.

      This year’s prohibitive favorite to win the Calder was drafted in the 4th round. All around the league you’ll find elite level talent that was taken outside the top 10 of the draft and mediocre talent, if not outright busts who were taken in the top ten.

      • orcasfan

        Management has to be fully aware of where their team stands relative to the life cycle of it’s players. The Canucks are on the downswing and will likely get progressively worse unless there is an injection of ‘elite level talent’. Ergo, the chances of the Canucks actually making the playoffs ($$$$$ for owners) and fans actively buying into the Canucks program with their wallets ($$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ for owners) lessens with every year they ride the train to mediocrity.

        Canucks fans want to cheer for a winner more than anything else. Despite ownership’s best attempts to sell the fans on a ‘Make the playoffs every year’ approach to winning, Canucks aren’t buying it. This is shown by lagging ticket sales even when the team made the playoffs. The best way to get the fans back on board is to sell them a vision/hope of a potential cup in the future. That’s how the Oilers kept their faithful filling the seats at Rexall through 9 dreadful seasons, that’s why the Leafs sold out every game (until this year) despite being a poorly constructed team. Right now the Canucks fans aren’t buying into the Canucks vision of the future, and thus have no hope. No Hope means no irrational spending on tickets and merch, no hopes means less profits for the owner.

        If the Canucks truly wanted run a sound business, they would realize the way they are running their business is misaligned with the expectations of their key stakeholders. I’m sure they will figure this out when season ticket renewals come due.

    • BigMcD

      Are the oilers unique in their ineptitude?

      I would argue your example of the blackhawks is equally unique and special.

      I like your articles and canucks army articles in general but it seems when certain ideas dont suit your opinion, they are chalked up to random unique situations and dismissed.

      Lets call a spade a spade, its not inaccurate to want to bring kids into a winning environment, but as you point out its not always necessary if you handle it properly.

      Tampa bay made playoffs in 2011 by the way with successful team that nearly made the cup. Stamkos gained experience in those playoffs, and the team had msl up until last season and msl was a huge reason stamkos was breaking records.

      Lets also hope tampa can actually win a round vs the detroit model which benning is trying to emulate.

      • orcasfan

        This site has consistently pushed the argument that the ONLY way to be a true Cup contender is to lose badly enough for a few years that the team stockpiles high draft picks. Giving the examples of Chicago and LA. Of course, if it was that easy, then why haven’t we seen, in recent years, Cup contenders arising from Toronto, or Columbus, or the Islanders, or Florida, or (of course) Edmonton?

        The truth is that there are a lot more elements that go into creating a Cup contending team. You need excellent management, good scouting and player development, good coaching, health, and a big dose of Luck! If one of those elements is not up to par, your chances diminish. The Canucks in 2011 were a good example.

        To use LA as an example of success because of two players drafted relatively high is nonsense! First, if Sutter had not been hired as the coach at the end of the season, that team would likely not have even made the playoffs! And the GM had put together a very talented group of players, mostly from trades, as well as young, big and fast depth guys from within. Their Cups were primarily due to Lombardi’s brilliance, and not because they have a Doughty or Kopitar.

        • RandomScrub

          I agree with your central point that a lot of factors need to fall into place to build a cup contender, however by your very example (2011 Canucks) a couple of high draft picks are very much amongst them (remember the Sedins were 2nd and 3rd overall…).

          • orcasfan

            Of course a couple of high draft picks could help. But the Sedins were picked in 1999, so I doubt people here would be satisfied to wait 12 years for the arrival of a Cup contending team! And I doubt that time span would be OK for writers on this site.That’s not to diminish in any way the importance of the twins, by the way.

    • BigMcD

      When the Canucks sign Sbisa and Dorsett to ridiculous contracts, you say it is a terrible decision, because it is not going to help us win in the short term. Then, when management says they want to win, you say it is a terrible decision, because we might be too good in the short term.

      It doesn’t make any sense. Do you want to win or do you want to lose? If you want to lose, the Sbisa and Dorsett contracts should be applauded. If not, then the attitudes of management should be applauded.

    • orcasfan

      How many core, top ten, first round picks did the Bruins have of their own when they won the Cup? Horton was traded for. Seguin wasn’t crucial. Count how many key players were on the Bruins in 2011 that they drafted in the top 10.

      There is not one key player there.

      What does that tell you? You have to have a mixture of trades, signings and draft picks to be a winner. Too many people here want to tank so that we’ll have a dynasty. It’s so stupid it could work.

      But I just think it’s stupid — and good way to get fans to stay away from the rink. Again, you might think of the Canucks as a play toy, but to the owners it is still a business. It has to turn a profit. I can’t see this team selling a t-shirt if they go in to tank mode to get that precious top 3 pick. It’ll be like 1999 all over again.

    • pheenster

      Canucks never want to tank badly enough for a McDavid and they never do good enough to make any year count.

      In other words, this year was for nothing again.
      Canucks love talking about how hard building a winner is and how hard getting landmark talent is, while McDavid is now over in a team next door.

      When Seattle gets a team it will be so long Canucks because there’s no way any will go to a Canucks game if there’s a better team a few hours away.

      And like cross border shopping, only the rubes and nitwits will stay here to shop and keep the mafia government in power. Canucks you are living on borrowed time and you got nothing but decades of wasted time to show for it.

      Seattle hockey all the way!

    • yvr_guy

      After watching the video a few of the comments really stood out:

      – The first question related to prospects was to Benning. He was asked which prospects he thought could make the team next year and he only mentioned Bartschi and Virtanen – 2 guys that he brought to the team. He spoke about the other guys later on, but these two are at the top of the list.

      – Benning seems quite keen to keep Weber, as long as the money is right.

      – Benning praised Lack by essentially saying he played as well as Miller this season. He and Willie also spoke about needing two good goalies, so that would suggest that Lack will be back.

      – Willie doesn’t seem to be taking any responsibility for losing the series to Calgary. In addition to the Sedin example from this article he also challenged Miller’s comment about not being totally ready (I don’t recall the exact quote). It looks as if management views the playoff exit through the old school lens of lack of heart or intangibles like that.

    • pheenster

      “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.”

      And if you’ve ever heard Benning and Desjardins speak, you become instantly aware that very few rooms exist in which they will ever be the smartest guys in…

    • RandomScrub

      Hello i just wanted to express how happy we all are that our friends down south kicked your sorry butts out of the playoffs. How is that in the last 10 yrs you have become the most hated team in Canada? Oh is it because of players (mostly cheap shot artists). The fans( officially more annoying then leaf fans….if thats even possible). Or is it the fact that when you had the whole country cheering for you in the Stanley cup finals you S#$@ the bed and then decided it would be cool to destroy your own city….lmao! Where did this arrogance come from? Are they putting something in the heroin now? Mcdavid says “Vancouver is a nice place….a nice place to take a dump!!” Cheers from alberta…The new “centre of the universe”

    • Andy

      Rhys,

      Given the progress that Calgary & Edmonton will take (plus the continued dominance of the Kings & Ducks), is there a reasonable chance that the Canucks could end up badly enough enough that they get top-5 talents, even though they’re “trying to win”?

      • Spiel

        I think this is a more likely outcome. Especially with the upcoming changes to the draft lottery where the first three picks will be determined by lottery of the non-playoff teams.

    • Spiel

      The forgotten point in the “tank strategy” is that the terrible teams still need to outperform the other terrible teams in making draft selections and developing players. There are no teams that are just standing still. It’s why a team like the Oilers, who have had so many first overall picks have not moved past teams as fast as predicted. While the Oilers picked Taylor Hall, other teams still got players like Seguin, Tarasenko, Johansen, etc.

      No doubt, it is easier to find first line players early in the draft, but it is not impossible to find players who can be first line scorers later in the first round or in other rounds. Of the top 34 scorers in the NHL (players that had 64 points or more) in 2015, 16/34 or 47% were taken at the 15th overall or higher pick in the draft. So almost 50% of what would be the top scorers in the league were drafted in spot after non-playoff teams picked their first choices.