Photo Credit: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
To paraphrase the 2006 pop hit by the Scissor Sisters, “I don’t feel like tankin’, no sir, no tankin’ today.”
There’s a popular train of thought among Canucks fans these days that the team’s best course of action this season is to aim for a last-place finish in the standings and a chance to draft the NHL’s next potential superstar, Auston Matthews.
This is not an idea I can support. I believe the logic behind tanking is flawed and that the price tag attached to finishing 30th overall is far too high to justify the potential benefits.
Emotionally, the idea of rooting for my home team to lose game after game is too demoralizing for me to accept. The Canucks franchise didn’t have to try to be terrible for most of the first two decades of its existence. In the second year of operation, 1971-72, Vancouver led the NHL with 50 losses in 78 games—nearly two losses for every three games played.
The organization lurched along until Pat Quinn joined the team as president and general manager for the 1987-88 season. The former Canucks defenseman had proven himself as a coach, winning the Jack Adams award and guiding the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 1980. He decided to try his hand at the management side of the game in Vancouver.
Quinn guided the Canucks to the franchise’s first-ever period of sustained success. He brought in iconic stars like Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure and Kirk McLean and, after stepping behind the bench as head coach with 26 games remaining in the 1990-91 season, got the Canucks within one game of winning the 1994 Stanley Cup against the New York Rangers.
The excitement over the team’s upward trajectory in the early 90s convinced my father that the time was right to spring for season tickets. My family jumped on board in October of 1992, just in time to watch Pavel Bure’s back-to-back 60-goal years and enjoy a front-row view, literally, of the 1994 Stanley Cup run.
The top two moments of our season-ticket time are part of the Canucks’ enduring iconography.
That’s me just behind Trevor Linden’s left shoulder in the fourth picture of this collection from 604 Now, where Linden skates the Clarence Campbell Bowl around the Pacific Coliseum after the Canucks knocked off the Toronto Maple Leafs in triple overtime. My mom’s a bit of a blur just above the blade of Trev’s stick in the fifth photo, where a bloody Linden embraces Kirk McLean after their Game 6 win over the Rangers in the final.
When I look at those pictures, the memories flood back—of the out-of-the-blue first-round comeback against the Calgary Flames, of the battles against the Dallas Stars and the Maple Leafs and of Kirk McLean’s 52-save performance that allowed the Canucks to steal Game 1 of the final in overtime at Madison Square Garden.
It was heartbreaking to come so close, but fail to win it all. Nevertheless, optimism ruled for the next couple of seasons. The Canucks’ core was intact and the team was moving into its new downtown arena—onward and upward!
The momentum stalled, first, because of the lockout that limited the 1994-95 season to just 48 games, then due to Bure’s serious knee injury early in the 1995-96 season. By November of 1997, Quinn had been fired and the team was collapsing in a hurry.
By that point, the front-row view wasn’t nearly as appealing. We gave up the tickets after the 23-47-12 season in 1998-89, when Bure sat out until he was traded to the Florida Panthers in January and the team finished 26th out of 27 teams with just 58 points.
According to the Canucks’ website, attendance at Rogers Arena bottomed out that season on November 9, 1998, when just 13,906 fans showed up to watch the Canucks lose 4-3 to the Los Angeles Kings. The atmosphere at the arena had become so lifeless and depressing by that point that even my favourite game of “get excited about watching the other team’s star players” was starting to lose its lustre.
By the time we signed off as season-ticket holders, the Canucks had already accumulated some important puzzle-pieces for their West Coast Express-era resurgence—Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski, general manager Brian Burke, coach Marc Crawford, and the draft picks that would eventually be bundled up by Burke, along with defenseman Bryan McCabe, to draft Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Even with those positives, it would take 12 years after the twins were drafted for the Canucks to return to the Stanley Cup Final—and Burke couldn’t make history repeat itself when he tried to undertake a similar bold rebuild in Toronto with the Maple Leafs…
Though there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that tanking is a dodgy exercise at best.
The most successful modern example is the Chicago Blackhawks, who were able to build a winner on the backs of first-overall pick Patrick Kane, third-overall Jonathan Toews and 14th-overall Brent Seabrook while those stars were still young. The Blackhawks’ championship core also includes a number of players who didn’t come to the team through high draft choices—gems like Duncan Keith (drafted 54th in 2002), Niklas Hjalmarsson (drafted 108th in 2005), Patrick Sharp (a third-round pick who was acquired by trade in 2005) and Marian Hossa (signed to a 12-year contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2009).
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Edmonton Oilers—maybe close to their first playoff appearance in a decade even though they’ve had four first-overall picks in the last six years, as well as a heap of other high draft choices.
The Oilers remain the cautionary tale—that it takes more for a team to succeed than simply collecting the most talented players available at the top of the draft year after year.
While the Oilers scrape and claw their way to the playoff fringes in an awful division after years of heartache, the Dallas Stars have developed into the NHL’s top team this season without leaning heavily on their own high draft picks. Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza were both chosen second overall, but they were acquired through savvy trading and have stepped up their games since joining the Dallas organization. Just as importantly, Jamie Benn has turned into the latest poster child for how elite players can be found anywhere in the draft—a fifth-round pick out of the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies who is showing this season that he might be the NHL’s best power forward.
The Stars have turned around quickly since new owner Tom Gaglardi took over in November of 2011. He has hired good people, empowered them to make bold decisions and proved been willing to spend the necessary money to create a winner and rebuild the Stars brand. That’s the business model I would like to see the Canucks emulate.
Vancouver has a chance to be successful with its on-the-fly rebuild. The team already has a number of promising young forwards in its system, and a terrific-looking goaltending prospect in Thatcher Demko. The biggest need is for a stud defenseman—and since blueliners typically take longer to develop than forwards, that player should be older than the Horvat/McCann/Virtanen/Boeser group, not younger. With any luck, Jim Benning can be the man who solves another team’s salary-cap woes this summer by taking a blueliner off their hands. Daring to dream, Jacob Trouba of Winnipeg would be just the right age and might be too expensive for the Jets to re-sign as a restricted free agent this summer…
Here’s my least-emotional, most-rational reason why tanking is a bad idea for the Canucks. Even if you believe that the talent of an Auston Matthews is on par with someone like Connor McDavid and that the Canucks need an elite No. 1 center to replace Henrik Sedin when he retires, the new draft lottery rules for 2016 dictate that the team finishing 30th overall will only have a 20 percent chance of receiving the first pick.
Any non-playoff team can win any of the first three spots, so a 30th-place finish could mean a pick as low as fourth overall for a tanking team that gets unlucky this year. If I’m betting on the Canucks my wager is that if they do ever do finish 30th, the ping-pong balls will not be falling their way.
In the short term, it’s less painful for fans to watch a team that has a chance to win every night. I don’t mind the idea—especially in this year’s bottom-feeding Pacific Division—that the Canucks should still shoot for the postseason and try to catch lightning in a bottle. I want to see what lessons were learned after last year’s postseason debacle against Calgary, I think it would be a good experience for the team’s current group of youngsters and, done properly, I think a team in the salary-cap era can successfully build out its roster without necessarily relying solely high draft picks.
I’m impatient. I want the Canucks to be really good again in two years, not 10 years.