The Canucks are off to their worst offensive start in franchise history. They aren’t just awful, they’re historically awful.
of those 18 teams, 5 of them were seasons by the Washington Capitals right after expansion (74-75, 75-76, 77-78, 78-79, 81-82)…
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) November 11, 2016
After the team’s loss to Detroit, the Canucks became just the 17th post-expansion-era team to register two or fewer regulation wins in their first fifteen games. The list of other teams that have managed that feat is a veritable murderer’s row of the truly inept, featuring multiple appearances by the Ballard-era Leafs and post-expansion Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks. The last team to start their season this poorly was the 2005-06 St. Louis Blues, who finished the season with 57 points.
Suddenly the predictions by USA Today and EA Sports don’t look so ridiculous.
If the Canucks continue on their current pace, they’ll finish the season with roughly 60 points. I’d expect the Canucks luck to improve enough that they won’t finish quite that low, but the prospect of the Canucks being an above .500 team seems like absolute folly at this point in time. After all, this isn’t a team with strong underlying numbers and poor shooting luck. It’s a team with awful underlying numbers and abysmal shooting luck. Even if their ability to put the puck in the net improves, I don’t expect that will be enough to make them competitive on a regular basis.
Under different circumstances, that might not be such a bad thing. This market has been clamouring for a rebuild since 2014 and rebuilds generally entail spending a few seasons at the bottom end of the standings. The issue is that Jim Benning, Trevor Linden, John Weisbrod, and co. set a course in the offseason to try and make the playoffs, and thus far the Canucks aren’t just heading in the wrong direction, but doing so in grand fashion.
Trying to rebuild and be competitive at the same time can be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. The problem is that since Jim Benning and Trevor Linden took the reins of this organization, they’ve found themselves face-to-face with a number of opportunities to improve their team in the short and long term, and failed to do so at almost every turn.
Today, I’m going to identify the areas where the Canucks failed to meet the bar for a quick turnaround, not in the interest of patting ourselves on the back, but so that we can learn from their mistakes.
Here’s where they went wrong:
DRAFTING JAKE VIRTANEN
The draft has, for the most part, been an area of relative strength for the Canucks. Under Jim Benning, the scouting department has turned around very quickly, having already produced four players that have appeared in the NHL, and unearthing gems like Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko.
Unfortunately, it’s at the top of the draft that you acquire game-breaking talent. With their highest selection since Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Canucks brushed aside a number of players that projected to be elite offensive producers in favour of Jake Virtanen. Virtanen never really projected to be an elite, or even consistent producer of offence, and thus far he’s lived down to those projections. He’s still only 20, but he’s already beginning to look like a sunk cost
In contrast, Nikolaj Ehlers and William Nylander, two players selected just after Virtanen, have already quickly stepped into key roles with their respective clubs, scoring at paces of 0.57 and 0.7 points per game, respectively. That’s not a good look, even for Virtanen’s biggest believers. The Canucks, a team that’s had trouble scoring, passed on two players that are already contributing heavily to their respective team’s offensive output. Even if Virtanen can catch up to Ehlers or Nylander in terms of development, the selection has already cost their attempt to remain competitive.
What makes the situation doubly frustrating is that it appears the only people who couldn’t see this coming were the Canucks’ front office. Back in the summer of 2014, Former Canucks Army Managing Editor Rhys Jessop outlined why the Canucks were best off selecting Nikolaj Ehlers over Jake Virtanen:
Drafting Jake Virtanen isn’t just about getting Jake Virtanen in your organization. It’s also about passing up on the opportunity to draft some other guy who is the best available alternative to Virtanen. Based on what Gabe Desjardins findings described earlier (more points = more success), the best available player that we can compare to Virtanen (sorry, Willie Nylander) is Halifax Mooseheads forward Nikolaj Ehlers.
Ehlers is keeping some pretty elite company. His closest comparable is none other than Steven Stamkos, and his floor appears to be what we can infer is Virtanen’s most likely career outcome: a useful mid-6 complimentary forward like Derrick Brassard. Once again, Ehlers is probably as unlikely to reach John Tavares/Steve Stamkos levels as he is to only perform at his floor level, so we can say that his most likely career path is that of a very good 1st line forward.
Another way to look at it is that you have the choice between selecting one random player from Jake Virtanen’s bin or one random player from Nik Ehlers’ bin. If you’re a rational person, you’re going to choose from Ehlers’ bin 10 times out of 10. There’s a larger chance of finding an elite player, a lower chance of finding an outright bust, and the average player you select will be better than the average player from Virtanen’s bin.
But it’s not like Rhys was the only one who felt this way. ISS, TSN, ESPN, Dobber Prospects, The Hockey News, Hockey Prospect, and Future Considerations all had both Ehlers and Nylander ranked higher than Jake Virtanen. Even the Canucks own scouts didn’t want to select him. The North American scouts were bullish on Ehlers, while their European scouts lobbied for Nylander. Unfortunately, those voices all fell on deaf ears, and it’s cost the Canucks thus far.
Another area the Canucks have had trouble with is extracting value from their assets before they depreciate to zero. This can be a delicate thing, as sometimes an organization may want to retain a player past the trade deadline, either with the hopes of re-signing him, or to help the team on a playoff run, as was the case with the Vancouver Canucks and forward Shawn Matthias.
It’s harder to justify when it comes to some their other expired contracts, though. Had they dealt Vrbata at the 2015 draft, they could have netted a first round pick, and they were reportedly offered Marko Dano and a 1st for Dan Hamhuis — among other packages. Perhaps most egregiously, they were also offered the 9th overall pick at the 2015 draft for Ryan Miller, which they turned down in favour of trading Eddie Lack.
We know that the single best way to have success at the draft table is to have more picks than your competition. Adding up to three picks in a single draft could have been a huge boon to this team’s organizational depth, especially considering all three picks would have been in the first round, where the best talent is available.
If you think it’s impossible for a team to acquire picks and remain competitive, consider that the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that’s expected to be a contender this year, that finished 2nd in the Atlantic last season, and that reached the Eastern Conference final, had ten picks in last years draft. So far, the Canucks have five in 2017.
IGNORING THE WAIVER WIRE
For all the heat he’s taken in this market, Willie Desjardins has coached a very modern system during his tenure in Vancouver. His ideas about roster composition remain very traditional, however, and that sentiment appears to be consistent with the views of his superiors based on how Jim Benning has constructed his last three rosters.
Most organizations have their blind spots, but for a team that needs to get younger and faster, dressing players like Derek Dorsett and Jack Skille on a regular basis probably isn’t a luxury they can afford, especially when there’s such a slim margin for error.
The fact is, better players have been available to them on waivers on a number of occasions. Ryan Biech already explored the waiver wire in depth, so I won’t revisit the subject for too long, but it’s puzzling that the Canucks didn’t so much as make a single claim on any of Seth Griffith, Teemu Pulkinnen, or Sven Andrighetto. These players all offered much more in the way of upside than, say, Brandon McMillan, who is the only player to date that the Canucks have claimed off waivers in Benning’s time with the club. Considering the Canucks have been willing to give up assets for other young players in similar situations, it’s odd that the Canucks wouldn’t want to add one for free.
NEGLECTING CHEAP FREE AGENTS
Free agency is traditionally the worst way to improve your team. By and large, you’re paying not for what a player will accomplish, but what they already have accomplished. This usually results in the teams that paid big in free agency being left wanting by the time the contract they signed is up.
This offseason was a little different, though. A number of talented young players weren’t tendered qualifying offers, and players that were right in the age range the Canucks were looking for were made available for nothing other than money and a contract slot. The team had an opportunity to make a number of low-risk, high-reward bets on young players, but stayed put after signing Loui Eriksson.
Instead, other teams decided to take those bets, and they’re paying off thus far. Back in June, I wrote an article profiling a few of the young free agents that the Canucks ought to have been interested in. Of the five players I profiled, two have over ten points, one is leading his team in scoring, and another leads his team in points by a defenseman.
Brandon Pirri, Jonathan Marchessault, and Patrick Wiercioch were all available on July 1st for pennies on the dollar, and all three would lead their respective positions if they were on the Canucks. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team most pundits predicted would have a very difficult time putting the puck in the net.
NOT GETTING LUCKY
In Jim Benning’s defence, it’s not as though he’s never made a good move. It’s just that he’s failed to extract value on few, if any, of the decent bets he’s placed. A good portion of this is due to misfortune more than anything else. There was no reason to believe Loui Eriksson would sputter nearly this much out of the gate. Trading for Sven Baertschi was an excellent move, but he’s struggled to produce early in the season. Linden Vey and Adam Clendening were also good process moves that gave the Canucks a probabilistic advantage compared to the assets they gave up to get them. Neither really paid off. You could make the same case for Philip Larsen too.
The team was also expecting Anton Rodin to help contribute to this team’s offensive attack, and instead he re-aggravated a nagging injury. So you could easily dismiss some of the Canucks’ struggles to successfully execute this rebuild-on-the-fly as a lack of good fortune. That being said…
COUNTING ON UNPROVEN PLAYERS
It’s generally unwise to pin your hopes on players that are unproven at the NHL level. How many players that couldn’t crack an NHL roster have the Canucks turned to over the course of the last two years to save their awful powerplay? Larsen, Clendening, Vey – all these players serve as reminders to why it’s important to have a backup plan.
Most of us could see this team was going to struggle unless all of Horvat, Baertschi, Granlund, Rodin, and Larsen stayed healthy and progressed in a linear fashion. That’s an awfully large leap of faith for a team that’s supposed to be competing for the playoffs. Even if you believe strongly in all of those players, why not add somebody like Brandon Pirri or P.A. Parenteau as insurance, especially when it costs you next to nothing?
It’s an unfortunate truth in hockey that the teams that attempt to compete and develop at the same time often succeed in doing neither. It’s far from impossible, though. Teams like the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and New York Rangers have been able to transition successfully from one generation of players to the next. Heck, even the Canucks managed to do this more or less between the West Coast Express era in the early-2000s and the Sedin-led teams that followed.
Believe it or not, the Canucks actually set themselves up reasonably well to accomplish this feat in the early stages of Benning’s tenure. They had two pretty strong drafts, were able to shed some salary, and they injected youth into a lineup that desperately needed some. Unfortunately, they hamstrung themselves with a couple of awful contracts to Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett, and it’s been pretty much downhill ever since.
For the past calendar year or so, this front office has been a textbook example of chaotic, reactionary, and shortsighted mismanagement. Almost every concern raised by fans and media alike has basically come to fruition. It’s pretty telling when the peanut gallery has more foresight than the front office of a multi-million dollar sports franchise.
At this juncture, it’s looking more and more like the Canucks’ attempt at “retooling” or “rebuilding-on-the-fly” has been a catastrophe on both fronts. They’d better figure out what they’re doing, and quick, lest they spend the better part of the next decade looking up at the Leafs and Oilers in the standings.