Why the Canucks’ Stubbornness Could Cost them a Playoff berth

Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

Change is Coming.

That’s the marketing message the Vancouver Canucks used to usher in the new era of Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins during the summer of 2014.

“Trader Jim” initially lived up to the billing with his high-profile trade of Ryan Kesler and free-agent signings of Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata. Since that first summer, bold moves have been few and far between during the frequent dark patches in the
2015-16 season.

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Though they were introduced as representing a change from the ‘stay still Gill’ era, Benning and Desjardins have proven to be less-than-flexible about abandoning preconceived ideas, even when situations change or unexpected opportunities present themselves. 

For all the team’s difficulties this season, Vancouver remains in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Pacific Division. A more proactive, nimble approach by Willie and Jim could help them achieve the goal they set at the beginning of the season. Here are four examples of past and current situations where their stubbornness has hurt their team.

Passive Playoff Coaching

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During Desjardins’ rookie season behind the Vancouver bench, I was willing to cut him some slack for decisions like keeping Linden Vey on the first power-play unit when he was clearly ineffective in that role. I figured Desjardins was learning the ropes in the NHL and that as long as he showed signs of improvement in his decision-making over time, he was on the right track.

In my mind, the apprenticeship period ended when the playoffs rolled around. And to Willie’s credit, Vey’s role had been on the decline for awhile, to the point where he dressed for just one game in the postseason. But Willie’s determination to roll four lines kept Daniel and Henrik Sedin limited to no more than 17 minutes of ice time for the first three games against the Calgary Flames. 

Only after Vancouver had fallen into a 2-1 series hole and squandered home-ice advantage did Desjardins start leaning more heavily on Daniel and Henrik. By then, it was too late—the Flames smelled blood and knew they could win, while the Canucks could only try not to lose.

If Willie had moved more quickly to dictate the tone of the series by leaning on his best players, the Canucks might have enjoyed a more favourable playoff outcome.

Loyalty to Ryan Miller

One of Benning’s first moves as Canucks GM was to sign free-agent goaltender Ryan Miller, a player he had a hand in drafting as director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres back in 1999.

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For all the Canucks’ success in 2014-15, Miller was mediocre. He posted a .911 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average in 45 appearances before tearing the MCL in his right knee on February 28.

Benning ignited an offseason wildfire when he admitted at the Canucks’ summer season ticket holder event that he’d passed on a chance to trade 35-year-old Miller and his $6-million-a-year contract. Instead, Benning dealt fan favourite Eddie Lack, whose year-end save percentage of .921 and 2.45 goals-against average were better than Miller’s and whose 11-5-2 record after Miller’s injury cemented Vancouver’s 101-point season and return to the playoffs.

If Benning had taken advantage of the opportunity to move Miler, he would have freed up
nearly $5 million in salary-cap space for this season and given Lack and Jacob Markstrom to duke it out for the No. 1 spot in
net, likely without much of a decrease in netminding quality. 
Miller has been pretty good behind a shaky defense, but he’s being overused and has cost his team some points. 

The low point of Miller’s season to date came on the road during
the first weekend of November. On Saturday, he handed the Buffalo Sabres a 3-2
win after failing to stop a Rasmus Ristolainen shot with 17 seconds left in the
game, then on Sunday he was outduelled by New Jersey Devils’ backup Keith
Kinkaid, dropping a 4-3 overtime decision.

Throughout his career, Miller has been used to playing big
minutes. Since he joined the Canucks, the pattern has continued, even in the
face of diminishing returns.

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In early December, after Miller had posted a 2-6-2 record while playing
10 of 12 games, Benning finally started to shift his position on how much
playing time his netminders would receive.

Despite the promise, not much has changed. Since December 2,
Miller has made six starts, while Markstrom has started just twice—in
games that were 12 days apart.

“It is a lot more challenging than I thought, coming out West,” Miller
admitted to Brad
of the Vancouver Sun
before the Canucks took off on their latest road trip, where he has started
three of four games so far. 

Miller, 35, ranks fourth in ice time among all
goaltenders and is at risk of burning out again if the organization doesn’t
take active steps to get Jacob Markstrom into more games.

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Unwillingness to Deviate from Lineup Plans

One of the reasons why Miller was overworked at the beginning of the season was the team’s reluctance to lean on fill-in Richard Bachman while Markstrom spent the first month on the sidelines with a hamstring injury.

Bachman saw just one game of action, which came right before Markstrom was set to rejoin the team, and looked just fine in a 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes. Though Miller’s 4-2-4 record in October was solid, could the Canucks have benefitted over the long term if they’d been more willing to play Bachman while he was with the team?

Willie Desjardins has also been slow to make changes in how he
deploys his skaters, even when he’s not getting results. As the Canucks began to
slump in mid-November, a stagnant power play brought the same look game after
game, a penalty kill that has been among the NHL’s best for years turned
suddenly porous, and secondary scoring dried up for virtually every forward not
named Sedin or Jannik Hansen.

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Many NHL coaches are unwilling to make changes to a winning
lineup, but Desjardins doesn’t make changes when the team is losing, either.
Even after Tuesday’s 6-2 blowout in Minnesota, he chose to come back with the
same 18 players two nights later in Philadelphia rather than try to shake
things up by inserting Ronalds Kenins or Andrey Pedan into the lineup.

Unwillingness to Address Deficiencies

The Canucks are dead last in the NHL at the faceoff dot, with a success rate of just 45.9 percent. The team has been thin down the middle ever since Brandon Sutter went down with a sports hernia injury that eventually required surgery.

On December 14, Jim Benning had an opportunity to improve his team’s depth at center at a minimal cost.

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Adding Stoll to the lineup would have filled an immediate need for Vancouver at center and could have helped to relieve the heavier-than-expected workload that youngsters Bo Horvat and Jared McCann have been carrying. We have also now learned that the organization knew when Stoll was on waivers that Henrik Sedin was playing through a lower-body injury. 

“We talked about it, but we decided that we’re going to try and get younger,” Benning told Ben Kuzma of The Province about his decision to pass on Stoll. “He can win draws and help on the penalty kill, but we’ve got Adam Cracknell in that role and we just felt that if we’re going to pick up a guy, it’s going to be a younger (player).”

Adam Cracknell is 39.1 percent in the faceoff circle. And the Canucks have given up 15 power-play goals in 66 times shorthanded since Sutter went down—a kill rate of just 77.3 percent. These are two areas where the Canucks clearly need help, yet Benning actively chose to stay the course, apparently because he didn’t want a 33-year-old in his lineup for even a short time.

After his off-ice troubles last summer, Stoll certainly comes with some baggage, but he would have been a handy stop-gap solution at a reasonable price until Sutter gets back into the lineup. If Henrik had stayed healthy, Stoll’s presence could also have allowed the Canucks to release Jared McCann to get his confidence back as part of Team Canada’s World Junior team.

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The order of priority for waiver claims is based on a team’s position in the standings, with the worst teams getting first crack at players who are placed on waivers. The Canucks could have had Stoll if they’d wanted him—he was ultimately claimed by the Minnesota Wild, who sit well above Vancouver in the standings.

  • andyg

    1) The fact that the Canucks even made the playoffs last season was in itself a victory for Aquillini’s NO REBUILDING policy.

    2) Have you seen what Eddie Lack has done this season in a BACKUP role?

    3) The coach doesn’t play AHL players enough? THAT is why the Canucks are likely to miss the playoffs?

    4) The same Jarrett Stoll that many teams passed on including the one that gave him a chance this summer?

    • Ragnarok Ouroboros

      agree with most of the points except Stoll.

      It bugs the hell out of me that he keeps throwing Hanson out there on the top line put Vrbata there and get him going.
      Also Mcann scored most of his goals with Prust and Dorsett – try it again. Put a guy with some hands with those two – they dig out the puck.

      Totally agree that Willie is to slow to change up the lines.

      Send Mcann to the WJ’s already. Then bring him back after.

  • wojohowitz

    An interesting blog post from PITB asks which line plays more when the Canucks are down a goal; The Dorset line or the twins?…and that`s all on Willie.

    • wojohowitz

      Dorsett and co. play more simply because Willie has been instructed to sit the kids when the game is on the line. Give them even two minutes more per game and it comes at the expense of someone else.

  • wojohowitz

    Benning addressed the issue.

    The unwillingness to accept his decision is yours.

    Playing their rookies is what they have decided to do,even if McCann really stinks in the circle – much more so than Cracknell.

  • wojohowitz

    Good article! Miller is the sole reason we are currently losing 4-3 to Florida right now. And I am sick of watching Burrows/Higgins complete nothing positive offensively while taking up valuable cap space as well as Miller.

  • wojohowitz

    Passing on Stoll was the right decision, you can’t have a druggy like him acting as an example for the youngsters, and Benning gains nothing by using this type of justification publicly.

    I don’t buy the “Miller is tired” argument, not after one third of the season. He’s a professional athlete and hasn’t faced an unreasonable schedule, compared to other goalies of his age. Maybe he is fighting some sort of injury or other health issue.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    Ouch Carol! You sting like a bee. This is not your usual I support the Canucks no matter what. But you make some good points and I find it hard to disagree with anything you wrote.

    Eddie Lack is beeing forced to play a new style by his goalie coach, and my understanding is he’s having a difficult time. I like Lack and was in favor of a Lack and Marksrom combo. This could have easily backfired. Our current combo is more of a “sure” bet.

    Willie is a crusty old dude. He prefers older players and won’t change any time soon. I thought he would be a good fit with young guys. I think Willie continues on the hot seat until mid January. If things don’t improve …

    Willie may find himself on a conditioning stint in Utica and Travis Green could be our new coach. Interesting times.

  • andyg


    When was the last time something on this site was well written or even made sense.

    Your Miller problem is now solved as he went down with a injury. You will now get lots of Markstrom.

  • wojohowitz

    Typical. Another game, another miserable loss. Just about every player on the Canucks had a horrible game. They look like a bunch of minor leaguers, and that is an insult to minor leaguers. Jim Benning needs to be replaced as soon as possible. Canuck fans should demand a refund for all the games that they have attended this season. Trevor Linden should be ashamed of himself.

  • Cageyvet

    The fundamental problem that the Canucks have — aging superstars and rapidly deteriorating secondary players — is not going to be solved by squeaking into the playoffs, nor by picking up waiver-wire trash like Stoll or a backup goalie like Lack (and god help us if we really did go into the season with a tandem of Lack and Markstrom — we might as well just be rolling with Bachmann and Cannata).

    I think your core premise is totally flawed; i.e. why the Canucks might not make the playoffs. You’re rehashing a lot of stuff that we’ve already gone over and is nowhere near as potentially egregious as the Sbisa, Sutter or Dorsett signings but arguably those make sense if you’re trying to figure out how to make a transition while bringing up your young players.

    I’d look at it this way — who are the veteran players who really don’t seem to be carrying their weight? Higgins, Burrows, Hamhuis for sure. That’s $11.5 million that I think is far less well spent right now than Miller. At any rate, stop-gap measures aren’t going to do it — you need to be able to bring up the young players and see what they can do. Arguing that Desjardins sucks because Kenins and Pedan aren’t getting into the lineup makes little sense — I think Pedan should be playing instead of Weber but that’s a coaching decision that shouldn’t be as crazy as you make it sound. Biega has really impressed me more than in previous call-ups and I think should stay. But McCann and Horvat (and Baertschi too) have played some of their best hockey the past couple of games and seem to be getting stronger which is a pleasant surprise. If we come out of this season — playoffs or not — with the development of 2 young c’s a winger and a D all under age 24 I count that as a success. Squeaking into the playoffs with Stoll is not my idea of a great season.

    • Dirty30

      Agree with you that Stoll and Lack are not long-term solutions.

      Also, Sbisa, Sutter and Dorsett all have some upside, but from a financial standpoint, Benning could have negotiated 20% cheaper contracts for Sbisa and Dorsett at least given there were not a gang of teams bidding for their services. That amounts to a couple million more in cap-space.

      As for your point about the veterans, absolutely their value today is not close to how they’re performing, but these contracts were signed at their performing peaks. Hamhuis was an Olympic gold medalist 1.5 years ago in the middle of this same contract, and everyone thought it was a great deal. Obviously, they are different players this year and a good GM needs to have some foresight to see if a drop-off is coming and to deal his assets at the right time. But I still think the coach has the most immediate impact because if he’s playing these underperforming veterans in key situations — Higgins in shootout, for example — instead of young players we need to develop, that’s 100% on him.

      Willie has had 30 games to prove that deployment strategy works, and you can see the results. The fanbase is rightfully questioning the coach because “insanity = doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, and his answers in interviews indicates he somehow thinks what he’s doing is mostly right.

      • Ragnarok Ouroboros

        I didn’t agree with the signings of any of those three at the time — overpaying when there likely wasn’t a big market for at least Sbisa and Dorsett nor any rush to sign them — but I think Dorsett at least has continued to show much more than I would have expected. I actually think the 4th line has performed pretty admirably other than Prust’s occasional brain farts (I do really hope this doesn’t mean we’ll re-sign him but knowing Benning I’m guessing he will — I’d rather see Gaunce or Grenier in that role next year).

        Most of those vet contracts we’re complaining about right now (Burrows, Higgins, Hamhuis, etc) are leftovers from the last regime and something that JB had to work around.

        I also don’t think that Desjardins is perfect. But I also don’t think he can win at this point. He doesn’t play young guys and he’s called hidebound and destroying their development. He plays young guys and he’s not playing them right. You are faulting him for icing Higgins during the shootout — last year he was 3-5 with two winners. I have no idea what he looks like in practice with the SO –maybe he’s good, I don’t know. AV kept going back to the Sedin well for SO for a long time even when it was abundantly clear how poor they were at it. Vrbata and Burrows are SO specialists but after the DET game Desjardins threw out Baertschi and McCann as 2 of the 3 first shooters. How is that not changing strategies?

        Linden Vey played 12:23 despite the incredible love that WD apparently has for him. Higgins played 14:36.

        The issue is not coaching. We are not going to coach our way out of the fact that our center ice depth is currently a 19yr old, a 20yr old, a 24yr old just up from the AHL, and a 30yr old who’d played 70 NHL games prior to this season. We are not going to coach our way out of the fact that our defense consists of 3 borderline AHL players and a 22yr old just out of the NCAA.

        Years of mismanagement and an aging core gives our coaching staff very little to work with. The knives are out for AV and Therrien for similar management problems (and for all our rose-colored glasses of AV people are asking the same questions now they asked here — why he can’t get past his love of Girardi or Tanner Glass despite their clear non-performance as with Rome). I am frankly amazed that we have so much more of a promising future in such a short time under Benning who has turned around a complete mess far faster than I would have imagined. I am not amazed that we are pretty poor this year but there is more to hope for than in a long time. I think we are seeing the same thing in Toronto (and a good argument against a tank) — a decade of missing the playoffs did nothing to solidify that team (including high picks), while just two years of more dedicated management (i.e. keeping Nylander in the AHL despite the temptation to bring him up) has really righted that ship.

        • Ragnarok Ouroboros

          Lots of solid points in your reply. I think Willie is starting to finally feel the heat, just wish he’d learn to switch things up a bit faster to save some unnecessary heartache for the fanbase.

          I liked Prust until he Twitter-trolled Farnham and then didn’t back it up, and more egregiously, let the Ducks manhandle our rookies. Was glad Benning called them out on it in public the next day.

          The youth has been by far the best thing this year not named Sedin, and one of the main reasons I keep watching. Go Canucks!

    • Ragnarok Ouroboros

      Agree with your post.

      The problem with the article is that it assumes everything at face value i.e. Benning says they are trying to make the playoffs so that must be goal number one, when in fact, Benning’s main goal might actually be to develop core prospects in a veteran laden line-up. The team makes the playoffs great for the owner, they don’t do well then management drafts a little higher – either way the main focus is likely still on prospect development.

      Some will complain that drafting in the middle doesn’t help (should the team do ok but miss the playoffs) but Benning is obviously very confident in his ability to draft impact players and so far he has delivered.

      • Dirty30

        Or he was hoping to trade vets with value for picks to package with some lower prospects and perhaps trade up..

        I seem to recall Burkie did some creative trading to get 2 and 3 to pick the Sedins long ago.

        Two things have become apparent though — aging vets with value aren’t so much any more and Benning’s trading ability is up there with Sbisa’s puck handling skills.

        It’s nice to find gems in the bargain bin, but those guys still have to develop and compete against guys who were drafted ahead of them for a good reason.

        • Dirty30

          With which Benning trades do you take issue?

          I’d argue dumping Kesler, Bieksa & Garrison on NTCs and getting assets back in return (including the selection for McCann) trumps any of his minor trades that have not worked out such as Vey.

          His main issue has been some of the contracts he’s handed out and the mess he inherited.

  • Hate to nitpick but:

    “secondary scoring dried up for virtually every forward not named Sedin or Jannik Hansen”

    The top line is by definition not secondary scoring. If no one but your top line is scoring, you have no secondary scoring.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    Markstrom should get more starts. Perhaps they are over playing Miiller on purpose as part of a stealth rebuild. I’m personally hoping the Canucks do poorly this year so they can officially start a rebuild. I’m hoping they will trade several players at the deadline; Higgins, Vrbata, Prust, and Hamhuis at minimum. Even though Burrows has been a favorite for many years, I’d trade him too.

  • Cageyvet

    I have been a Willie supporter, preferring to give him the benefit of the doubt and let him learn on the job, while not laying all the blame at his feet with a team in transition and battling injuries. I am rapidly losing patience due to his continued head scratching deployment of personnel in the shootouts, the 3 on 3, and during key situations where we need offense. I’m constantly surprised by the fans who seem to want a high draft pick (as it’s obvious we will again struggle should we even make the playoffs) complaining about the mounting losses. Those don’t bother me. What does bother me is watching Higgins and Burrows chew up minutes over the kids who at least have upside, and even more not seeing Markstrom play a bigger role when he’s also a player with potential we should explore, Miller hasn’t been the problem but does anyone think his career has any upside left? It seems the entire province of BC wants to see the kids show their stuff in the extra frame and get our backup some playing minutes, yet the coach continues to repeat what has clearly failed. I may be wrong, but was that not McCann’s first crack at the shootout? If Willie is on the hot seat, he has nobody to blame but himself. Move Vrbata and Hamhuis (Mr. No Intensity and Mr. Declining Skills) at the deadline, move Higgins tomorrow for anybody and bring up Gaunce, and since nobody will take Burrows at his cap hit, at least get him some linemates who play an energy game where he too can be effective. Biega needs to stay with the big club, Weber is depth at best, and for all the early bashing of Sbisa I predicted after his first injury that fans would have to find someone else to blame for our continued poor showing on the blueline. We miss his physical play separating people from the puck on the boards, and he at least deserves the chance to continue to show he can eliminate the dreadful turnovers. I’ve watched every game, and I am not convinced he deserves the endless criticism when vets like Hamhuis and Edler are making similarly jaw dropping errors of the kind that have nothing to do with who they’re matched up against. The kids are fine, will continue to develop, and since finishing last only gives us a 20 per cent shot at Matthews, don’t go full tank, but play those who have an upside to their career and let the chips fall where they may, if that’s bottom 5 in the league, so be it.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    Willie is a good coach! When the team is down a goal and needs offense, he plays Dorsett and Prust more than any other player, including the Viking wonder twins who have been top-10 in league scoring all season. Willie knows what he is doing, he has fully embraced the stealth-tank!*

    Benning is a great GM! He signed Sbisa, Dorsett, Miller and Prust for almost 15 million. Benning knows what he is doing, he has fully embraced the stealth tank!*

    *either that or neither of them know what they are doing ?

  • Dirty30

    Hi Carol, I read every article on this site, and yours is the first one that compelled me to leave a comment. It was balanced, articulate, and presented views that Canucks management desperately need to listen to if they want to turn the franchise around. The coaching in the playoffs last year was disastrous, and I don’t believe Desjardins was held accountable enough. He got a free “rookie coach pass”, which is fine given he deserves credit for getting the team into the playoffs, but the mistakes he’s continued to make in sticking to his outdated — and statistically inferior — strategies have cost the team, the players and fans dearly. I’ve been a lifelong Canucks fan, but from seeing Ferland run amuck last year through to Miller overplayed into the ice, etc. fans have little confidence in Desjardins ability to inspire, adapt and lead the team. Benning, though far from perfect in allocating dollars and Corrado-gate, has a different set of constraints trade-wise since it takes two GMs to make a trade, and realistically the Canucks have few bargaining chips left on the table. Yes, he should have traded Miller’s albatross contract in the summer, but if Miller’s ice time was managed better and Markstrom had more starts earlier in the year, he would have a much higher winning percentage and not run into health woes before we’ve even reached the All-Star break.

  • Dirty30

    I was surprised to read the article that showed when the Canucks were down a goal, the Cracknell, Prust, Dorsett line sit 1st, 3rd and 5th in allocated ice-time. This line has 7 goals on the season whereas there are 6 Canucks that have tied or beaten the production of the entire line. Is this proper utilization of personnel?

    Also, I go nuts when we have an offensive zone faceoff and out comes the 4th line, Cracknell loses the draw and we’re back in our zone. Hey Willie, these are roll players and there roll isn’t to score in critical situations. Their roll is primarily not to get scored on when they are on the ice, if they do bag the odd goal it’s gravy.