Back from the Bottom – Part II

Yesterday, we took a look back at three trades that helped reverse the fortunes of the Canucks from the late 1990s. Each of these trades had something in common. Namely, they each featured older core players being traded for younger, future core pieces. Although there were other, sometimes important, pieces involved in each deal, we can essentially boil each trade down to that essential fact. Pavel Bure became Ed Jovanovski, Alexander Mogilny turned into Brendan Morrison, and Trevor Linden became Todd Bertuzzi (as well as a key asset that was instrumental in acquiring the Sedins). Mike Keenan – and later, Brian Burke – were able to extract value for their ageing, and occasionally diminishing assets. Toss in a few good draft picks and the continued development of some talent already on the roster – like Markus Naslund and Mattias Ohlund – and the Canucks were able to ride the wave back to respectability. A textbook rebuild, or so the story goes.

So how do the current Canucks measure up against the team from the late nineties? In truth, the results are mixed. There are mitigating factors in today’s NHL that make the old, conventional rebuild a little more complicated than from nearly two decades ago. There are also contextual factors within the Canucks organization itself that changes the outlook. A rebuild in 2016 is far different than a rebuild in 1999, but let us still see what can be gleaned from comparing the two.

Rebuild-to-Date

Despite organizational rhetoric to the contrary, the Canucks have been slowly commencing the rebuilding project for some time now. The important question is exactly when did it begin? Some might say it began with the firing of Alain Vigneault in 2013, or even with the jettisoning of Christian Ehrhoff in 2011 for a fourth-round pick. The best argument, I believe, is that the rebuild began in earnest with the Roberto Luongo trade in March 2014.

When Mike Gillis pulled the trigger on the Luongo deal, he effectively signalled the beginning of the end for the 2011 core. The best goaltender in franchise history fetched young goaltender Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias. Ryan Kesler, having requested a move out of town around the time of the Sochi Olympics, was subsequently dealt (by new GM Jim Benning) to Anaheim with a 2015 third round pick in exchange for centre Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa, and the 24th overall pick in 2014 (Jared McCann). Kevin Bieksa was dealt after the following season for a 2016 second round pick. Dan Hamhuis walked for nothing this summer, as did Sami Salo in 2012. The Sedins, Alex Burrows, and Alex Edler all still remain with the team. Its debatable whether or not Cory Schneider was indeed a core piece of the 2011 team, but for argument’s sake, let’s say he was. For him, of course, the Canucks obtained Bo Horvat.

Early returns are not superb, at least in comparison to the previous Canucks rebuild. It should be noted, however, that those trades generally involved players more established at the NHL level. That said, the basic premise of those trades was acquiring younger core pieces for older ones. And by that measure, the jury is still very much out. From the Luongo deal, Matthias lasted just over one season before bolting to Toronto in free agency, leaving the Canucks with only Jacob Markstrom. The young goaltender made some important developmental strides last year, so there is still hope that he could morph into a core piece for the Canucks before the advent of Thatcher Demko. The Kesler deal is a bit more complex, but we can probably safely say that Sbisa will not be a core player. Bonino and McCann are already former Canucks, bringing back Brandon Sutter and Erik Gudbranson, respectively, in return. There is some debate regarding whether either of these players are truly “foundational” players, but Canucks management certainly believes they are. The second round pick acquired for Bieksa was subsequently flipped to Pittsburgh in the Bonino-Sutter trade. Bo Horvat, meanwhile, can be readily identified as a future core piece – if he isn’t one already.

Complicating Factors

Obviously, the major difference between the late 1990s and today is the presence of the salary cap and the proliferation of no-movement and no-trade clauses. By the standards of the time, Bure, Mogilny, and even Linden were highly-paid players. Moving them, however, did not require any clever cap maneuvering. All that mattered was the presence of a willing trade partner that could fit the player’s contract within its internal budget. Additionally, neither of these players possessed any real leverage – at least in comparison to players today – in the form of NMCs and NTCs. Not to give Benning a crutch, but his predecessor signed a number of these in order to keep the cap hit of individual players at a reasonable figure, making good trades involving core players more difficult in a cap world. The Luongo deal, made by Gillis, is a great example of the how trading core players has changed in the cap era. With a gargantuan contract and a full NTC, extracting maximum value for an elite goaltender would be difficult. Gillis tried, naturally, but his travails proved just how much the traditional rebuild game plan had changed. Kesler, Bieksa, and Hamhuis all had NTCs, as do the Sedins, Burrows, and Edler. If this was 1999, we can reasonably assume that the return for those players would have been greater. As it stands, the Canucks have acquired arguably only one legitimate core player (Horvat) from the previous group. There has yet to be a final verdict concerning Sutter, Gudbranson, and Markstrom.

The other contextual factor, hinted at yesterday, is the direction from ownership. Back when Brian Burke was at the helm, John McCaw sent him a message to “trim the budget.” Today, the consensus direction is to “make the playoffs.” Both messages invoke the bottom line, but in subtly different ways. The 1999 Canucks were hemorrhaging cash, so the mandate was to cut costs regardless of the consequences on the ice. The franchise was losing games by the dozen and dollars by the million, anyway. Why not just cut the losses? So that’s exactly what management did. The 2016 Canucks, in contrast, are still trying to turn a profit at the gates – no easy feat, considering the product. While Burke only had to worry about losing less money, Benning has to be wary of making less. It is a small difference, yes, but one that has profound effects on organizational philosophy.

Conclusion

The NHL landscape has certainly changed since 1999-2000. The traditional model of rebuilding, while still very useful, has been complicated by the presence of the salary cap and the emergence of NMCs and NTCs. The Canucks of yesteryear were able to acquire players further along in their development – and arguably with greater potential – in three major trades over the course of three seasons because the club had more flexibility. That said, the other components of a rebuild, such as drafting, developing, and signing free agents, have remained as important as ever. The turn-of-the century Canucks still needed players who were already with the club, like Markus Naslund, Mattias Ohlund, and Adrian Aucoin, to take the next step, as does the modern-day team. It needed to draft its next leaders, like the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Kevin Bieksa. It needed to be patient with these players as they developed.

By looking at the past, the natural conclusion is that the Canucks should trade their remaining core players and maximize the return. But it’s also worth discussing if maximizing the return today means the same as it did 16 years ago. Is it probable to get the same guaranteed return in the modern NHL, with NMCs, NTCs, and a salary cap? Does Jim Benning have the managerial acumen to pull off a trade heist?

And perhaps most importantly of all, where is Mike Milbury when you need him?

  • TheRealPB

    I appreciated both the articles you wrote. I would like to personally thank JD for not writing on this topic as it would of been butchered.

    I really appreciated your desire to explain constraints on GM’s that many people forget such as NTC’s and how they impact future GM’s. Imagine negotiating with another GM for a player they have that has a NTC, talk about leverage on your part!

    Nice work

    Mr R

  • Foximus

    Great article.

    I agree that Benning has been walking a thin line with regards to building a new core but still remaining competitive (i.e.: playoffs) Time will tell about the new “core” players and I think Benning has done a nice job drafting. If we are waiting for a trade heist we might be waiting a very long time.

    It’s an interesting time to be a Canucks fan. Rebuilding on the fly hasn’t been done successfully by many GM’s. Here’s hoping that Benning is one of the few. Some GM’s can’t even rebuild with a full tear down – Oilers.

    While I personally think the full tear down was the way to go, I’m not the owner and can’t make that call. So now we hope for the best. If Benning drafts well we’ll be ok – even better than ok.

  • Leon von Kreutzer

    Well-considered and accurate analysis. Agree with Mr Reality that JD (or others) have shown an understanding of how the rebuild is being done under the constraints of existing contracts while holding on to fan interest. The Sedins and Edler can’t be traded so a complete tear-down isn’t possible, and isn’t palatable to most fans. Realistically Van still has a long way to go to make the playoffs but I expect them to be more competitive this season but still have a very high draft position next year.

  • Interesting article. The direction from ownership appears to be clear. Compete for the playoffs, play entertaining hockey, and sell seats. Aquilini group is spending top $$$s to accomplish this. Say what you want, a good owner spends to the max, and Francesco Aquilini is doing that.

    Management has a mandate to ice a competitive team, while keeping an eye on the future. Draft well, and introduce young players to our current core. Build from the back to front. Drafting defensemen isn’t sexy, but necessary as they need more time to develop. Forwards can be added next draft.

    I have no problem with our current direction, and look forward to how this season unfolds.

  • detox

    good article. it would be useful to review what folks thought of the canucks last rebuilds at the same point in time we are now. the way I recall it there were a lot of doubts early on about the players who ultimately emerged as the cores. maybe more than there are today.

    for example, the sedins were maligned early and often, especially in their second and third years. a lot of people doubted they could ever be first liners and saw them as support for a first line. kesler came with low expectations and was initially not expected to be more than a third line checker. until everything clicked, a lot of folks doubted the canucks had a plan.

    there was also a lot of doubt about bertuzzi when he was acquired, with a lot of similarities to the hodgson-kassian trade in terms of what was said about bertuzzi having potential but being stubborn and lazy. there were very low expectations for naslund who was initially seen as a soft seagull. both bertuzzi and naslund took a couple of years to look like keepers. during that time it looked like the canucks didn’t have a plan. and even after the team emerged, cloutier and
    morrison were always doubted by many.

    • Taylor Perry

      Thanks everyone. And krutov raises an excellent point. There is lots of evidence when going back that suggests there were many doubts about each of these players at the time of their respective trades. Most pundits figured the Canucks would select Tambellini over Kesler. From 2003: “The knock on Kesler is that he’s not offensively gifted and needs to get stronger. He doesn’t think that will be a problem.” Of course, we are using a number of different metrics today to evaluate the probabilities of future success than back in the 90s, which results in a different kind of debate.

  • ManicSt

    I’m 35, so I can remember the last tear-down/rebuilt cycle pretty well. If we consider the Linden trade in 1998 as the beginning of that, and the Luongo trade of 2014 as the beginning of this rebuild, then we could compare the Canucks of 2000 to this version.
    The early consensus of the Bure/Jovonovski trade was mixed – I didn’t like it at first, but warmed to Jovo. While Naslund had become a 30 goal, 60ish point player before 2000 and Bertuzzi had just had 25 goals, neither had hit their max potential, and both had struggled in their first few seasons. Morrison hadn’t had a chance to prove himself over a full season. The Sedins took until after the lockout to really establish themselves, although they showed a lot of promise in the first couple months of the 2000-1 season.
    Horvat is definitely ahead of where the Sedins were at age 21, but he’s not a guy who’s ever going to score 100 points. And I think that’s the real difference between that era and this.
    If we compare Virtanen, Gudbranson, Sbisa, Baertschi, and Sutter to Bertuzzi, Morrison, Jovanovski, and Ohlund, we don’t have the same upside potential. Brock Boesser has some goal-scoring skill for sure, and Virtanen does have the ability to be an impact player, but is Baertschi the next Naslund? I doubt it. It’s hard to compare two eras in too much detail, but I think the difference is that now, a GM has to really maximize his draft picks – Burke threw away 2nd rounders on players like Vadim Sharifjanov and Drake Berehowski, and it didn’t hurt him too much. But losing 2nd rounders in the Sutter and Gudbranson trades takes Benning’s greatest asset away: drafting.
    I have hope for this rebuild, but it’s a whole lot more likely that our next core will come from the draft than from trades and free agency, which is why Benning needs to find a way to keep those picks, and to trade for new ones, while still keeping ownership content with a team that at least looks like it has a shot at the playoffs.
    Not an easy task.

  • ManicSt

    Great article – I actually love reading summer articles because the staff has more time to dig deep.

    Two thoughts:

    – I like the goal to be competitive and make the playoffs each year because that means that the organization is trying to be in the top 50% of the conference. That isn’t an incredibly unrealistic goal because of how congested the middle of the pack is – only a few points separate the playoffs from nonplayoff teams.

    – Analysis of trades can only be done at the time the trade is made, with the information available at that time. Waiting 5 years and until you see who was drafted with the picks or how the prospect developed is unfair and applies chrystal ball thinking to trades.

    If later you find out more information that was known at the time to mgmt, fine.

  • TheRealPB

    This is a great two-part series, and starts to do what I’ve long wanted/wondered — what does a rebuild look like and how is one successful at it?

    You’ve asked when the Benning-rebuild began and I think you’re right to peg it to 2014. Similarly I’d ask when the 1990s rebuild began in your mind? I’d suggest in 1998 with the Linden trade. It’s interesting that you include Mogilny in that “core” group; arguably we would have been better off with Mike Peca (who we gave up for Mogilny) rather than Morrison and Pedersen (who we got back from him) especially since Mogilny’s goals were wasted here.

    At any rate if the rebuild starts in 1998 with the Linden trade and 2001-2002 is when they return to prominence, one other interesting parallel is that much like the current regime they didn’t get a whole lot of help from their predecessors. The rebuild drafted the two obvious generational players in the Sedins, a core player in Bieksa and some solid NHLers in Allen, Chubarov, Umberger, and Ruutu, but not much else (but I suppose if you hit a home run with the Sedins that makes up for a lot). But Ohlund is pretty much the only core player drafted before the rebirth begins with the Sedins. Even Gillis gave us more.

    I’d love to see some analysis of an actual purposeful teardown. The only ones I can think of in the current era are Buffalo and Toronto, purposefully trying to lose to get better draft position, icing barely NHL teams, trading away vets for picks after signing them and inflating their value. In the past I remember Pittsburgh trading their best player at the time (Randy Carlyle!) to be able to draft Mario, but I don’t know of any other specific intent to do this. This is different from trying to win and being terrible like the Bruins, Blackhawks, Kings and Oilers have done (with only three of them being successful).

  • detox

    “…the Canucks have been slowly commencing the rebuilding project for some time now. The important question is exactly when did it begin? ”

    I want to say you are either pregnant or not, in a rebuild, or not.

    but I think the rebuild has been completed in the sense that now JB is just managing the roster with an eye on signing the odd ufa, while continuing to draft and develop.

    we saw a lot of roster change in a short time and now beyond making a move for the winger he covets or consolation prize lesser ufa, he will let it play out with players competing for spots at camp.

    in one of his interviews, I believe JB said he hoped to start keeping more pics in future drafts. if this is so, I think it is now more about managing than rebuilding.

    hopefully the club can be competitive, if we struggle we will see if he is patient or not..

    I have no idea how core players are defined.

    Could a 2nd pairing dman like Hutton be described as a core piece?

  • ManicSt

    Rebuild? What rebuild? At least 4 or 5 of the key parts of this team are over 30 and most around 35. How does that constitute a rebuild? Who are the the young pieces that will be the future of this franchise for years to come? Borvat for sure, but who else? Virtanen, maybe. A couple of unproven US college players, maybe. Sutter, Baertschi, just role players. The twin towers anchoring the defense? Just when the league goes speedier, the Nucks go bigger.
    The next couple of years will be interesting for sure.

  • Dirty30

    You could as logically state that a rebuild lasts until you win the SC and starts again the moment you fail to win it again.

    There hasn’t been a back-to-back or dynasty team in a long time, and one can look at Chicago to see wholesale personnel changes to stay competitive, or LA to see how fast teams can fall from contention.

    The big change in hockey has been, and here’s showing my age, that few players last a lifetime with one team..

    Bobby Hull was recently vilified in an article for moving to another team for a better salary, and Pocklington only recently not booed for selling Gretzky to the highest bidder.

    The Sedins may be one of the few exceptions since the Ray Boutque — move me to a contender — era began, to play their entire career for one team.

    One trait JB seems to demonstrate is an unwillingness to watch a player develop if he doesn’t see other aspects reveal themselves (the Sbisa exception notwithstanding).

    The speed with which players are acquired and retired through waivers, trades, buyouts or directions to the nearest door is astounding at times. But it also demonstrates that the rebuild on the fly has taken flight and if ownership is willing to keep writing the cheques, JB will keep tweaking the roster until it is successful.

  • detox

    I’m fascinated by the concept of a tear down, as I think only two occasions when a team has really tried to do that (Pittsburgh and Leafs), whereas other teams just really sucked over a period of time and eventually got good (Chicago). As I recall, the Pens had massive ownership issues and were getting rid of anyone good to get a new owner, whilst at the same time begging for public money for a new stadium.

    Chicago has always had talent, in Toews draft year they had Keith, Seabrook, Sharpe, Havlat. Bad coaching, bad luck, injuries – I don’t think the team was purposely trying to tank to get Kane. I don’t think there was a “plan” to be terrible over a few years.

    The Oilers, the Oilers have thought they were going to make the playoffs every year since they made the finals. Year in and year out, they have simply tried and failed under Lowe’s watch. Are you telling me that Lowe is smart enough to architect a rebuild? I don’t see them having a planned tear down either; they are just comically awesome (see Hall for Larsson).

    As far as the Leafs…..well they are on their third 5-year plan. What they did last year was shameful, but understandable.

    My meandering point is that I don’t think teams purposely do tear downs. Outside a few examples, I think teams just use the excuse of a “tear down” when they have a sucky year because of bad coaching, management, and underperforming players.

  • ManicSt

    Being a Canucks fan for so long now, I am used to losing. The Sedin years have spoiled us. But the great thing about hockey is that it is such a multi faceted game. It still is I think, but before perhaps even more so. Dont get me wrong, losing always sucks, and winning is always fun, but I think in yesteryears GMs could sell seats by attracting fans to different parts of the game. Someone would “take liberties” or cheap shot your guys, and then Tiger Williams, Gino Odjik, or Donald Brashear would genuinely get pissed (or psychotically smiley in Odjik’s case) and go stand up for his team. And it wasnt a formal hugfest as most fights are today, but they still had their code.

    We know more now about the long term effects of concusions and such, and I, personally, do not like anyone to get truly hurt, but I loved seeing a team being that passionate about being part of a team, and on losing nights, that was my win. You cared about them because they cared about each other, and when they did make a bad news bears style run to the finals, it was so good.

    I guess we have to let go of the era of bit hits and punch up rivalries, but Hockey needs to find it’s new consolation prize in the modern era, a reason to watch beyond the scoreboard, or maybe WE do.

    Maybe you will see me downtown in a pub one night drinking a pint at the bar yelling “WOOO! Did you see how positionally sound that dude was!?” or maybe “THAT was the smoothest line change EVER *high five*”

  • Leon von Kreutzer

    Excellent article on rebuilding. As a Canuck fan who now-and-then saw Hull, Howe, etc vs the hometown ‘original six’ team at MLG, a couple of notes.
    1. “Inflating their value” means veteran free agents were signed, played well, and then were traded for futures. Several such vets were important in the finals for the Pens and the Sharks in 2015/16. The Laffs needed prospects/picks after being terrible for over a decade. It’s called rebuilding.
    2. Try telling Mike Babcock to his face that the most hated team in Canada (certainly in Vancouver, just can’t grow out of it can we) deliberately tanked last year.
    3. The Canucks were made to look foolish by the visiting Laff team in 2015/16 (one sad power play never got over the defending blue line), but neither looked to be tanking. Both are rebuilding – one with a far longer way to go.
    4. Canucks are well on the road back after a very, very short (in comparison) decline, and all going reasonably well (Sutter, Horvat, Gudbranson, that huge Russian guy who can move, etc) should challenge for the playoffs again this year; and then as they say, ‘who knows?’
    5. Can’t wait for Demko. Cheers.