Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder – USA TODAY Sports
The Canucks haven’t been a particularly good team for the better part of the past four years. For that reason, the team getting a point in nine of their last ten outings has offered a brief respite from what’s otherwise been a rather dreary four and a half seasons. Unfortunately, it’s also been ultimately damaging to the long-term health of the franchise, and not for the reasons you may think.
Fans and pundits have spent countless hours discussing the topic of tanking, the merits and drawbacks, and whether or not it compromises the integrity of the game, so much so that the NHL felt the need to change the draft lottery odds to dissuade teams from purposefully icing a sub-par lineup.
All that has really served to distract from the larger picture of what it means to be in a rebuild: it’s not so much a race to the bottom as it is the ability to recognize when your team will be in its competitive window and planning accordingly. Obviously, a top five pick helps matters along, but it’s more of a means than an end. The true goal remains to assemble a competitive team.
Ask anyone throughout the hockey world, and they will tell you the Canucks’ best days are three or four years down the road. That’s not the Smylosphere talking — you can hear Ray Ferraro drive that point home a couple of times a month on TSN 1040. That’s what makes the team’s recent hot streak potentially damaging to their long-term goals. It can be exceedingly difficult in a market like this for the front office to keep their eyes on the future, with an apathetic fan base, an ownership group that desperately wants playoff revenue, and a GM that was brought in on the pretense he could turn things around in a hurry.
The Canucks currently sit just one point back of a wildcard spot in the awful Western Conference. That’s cause for comfort if you believe in the team’s stated mission to compete for the playoffs while building for the future, but it’s ultimately misleading. The Canucks have played more games than any of the teams in direct competition for that wildcard spot, and currently sit 21st overall in points percentage and 24th in ROW.
Perhaps just as importantly, they’re a bottom-ten team in score-adjusted Corsi, score-adjusted Fenwick, shots for, shots against, goals for, goals against, PP%, and PK%. If you’re not a supporter of advanced shot metrics, that’s fine, because the Canucks don’t need them to look bad. The mainstream stats do a fine job of painting that picture.
But this situation isn’t exactly rare, or noteworthy. Bad teams get lucky and move out of the top five in the draft almost every year. It’s the team’s mindset that creates concern over what the team’s accomplished over the past few weeks. Jim Benning and Trevor Linden have been at the helm for almost three years now, and they’ve given us a window into their thought process over that time. Based on their actions and public statements, it appears to be, at times, an incredibly reactive one, prone to quick shifts based on however the team is playing this week.
This is a team that saw six playoff games of Nick Bonino and Radim Vrbata and decided they weren’t in their future.
A team that, upon the realization their defence was lacking, traded for two defensemen, signed one in free agency, and brought another over from the KHL, forcing them to demote the best of the crop to the AHL briefly.
A team that wanted to trade for a 20-goal scorer, just months after sending a promising forward prospect to Florida, and letting a veteran goal-scorer walk for nothing in free agency. (Vrbata, by the way, has just one less goal than Loui Eriksson, for about 16% the money and term, but nobody saw that coming.)
A team who’s president questions the idea that the Canucks can be turned around in a hurry; an idea that was put forth by his own general manager.
You’ll have to forgive me if I remain unconvinced that this team makes decisions in a patient, calculated manner.
So, how does a reactive front office behave when the team is two points out of a playoff spot? Anyone dreaming the Canucks will do the right thing, and trade veterans for futures at the deadline can put those hopes to bed right now. They couldn’t even get deals done for Dan Hamhuis and Vrbata when it was evident they weren’t making playoffs. If they’re still in contention by the deadline, there’s no way they’ll jeopardize that by shipping out Jannik Hansen or Alex Burrows.
So, the team will most likely enter the NHL entry draft with five picks. They’ll enter the expansion draft with three players likely to be claimed by Las Vegas if left unprotected in Hansen, Sven Baertschi, and Markus Granlund, but the space to protect only two of them.
That’s assuming they don’t buy at the deadline, which, crazy as it sounds, is a distinct possibility, if we look back at other teams that have been in similar situations.
Just seven teams have been in the bottom ten by score-adjusted shot shares and made the playoffs since 2012-13: the 2012-13 Leafs, the 2013-14 and 2014-15 Canadiens, the 2013-14 Avalanche, the 2013-14 and 2015-16 Wild, and the 2014-15 Flames.
Those teams all have one thing in common. First, they all suffered major setbacks following their run to the playoffs. The Leafs fizzled out en route to an epic collapse to close out 2014-15, followed by a 30th place finish the next season. The Canadiens fell apart without Carey Price, the Wild fired their coach and lucked into the 8th seed in the Western Conference, and the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames became poster children for PDO. Calgary, Montreal, and Minnesota all appear to have righted the ship, but not without first collapsing and making some serious changes. (Or, in Montreal’s case, getting their star goaltender back.)
Second, they all bought. If not at the deadline, then in free agency. Troy Brouwer, Mikkel Boedker, Jarome Iginla, Thomas Vanek, and David Clarkson are all testaments to what happens when a front office gets an inflated sense of where they are in their competitive window.
Rookies didn’t staff these teams. Brian Burke, Brad Treliving, Chuck Fletcher, Marc Bergevin, Joe Sakic, and Dave Nonis all have years of experience in the game of hockey. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that Jim Benning and Trevor Linden are somehow immune to this type of shortsightedness.
So, when Benning goes on the radio and tells Bro Jake the team has zero intention of asking it’s veteran players to waive their no-trade clauses, it’s enough to give you serious reservations about whether or not this team can ever be a cup contender under this regime.
We’re midway through our midterm prospect rankings at the moment, and one thing above all else has become apparent during the process of reviewing, ranking, and profiling those prospects: the Canucks have a severe lack of talent coming up through their system. Outside of their top three prospects, most of these players are huge long shots that wouldn’t crack the top ten or fifteen in many teams’ systems. They desperately need to get talent into the system, regarding both quality and quantity, and this run of good luck is directly hampering their ability to do so.
Each minute the Canucks remain in the hunt is another moment the front office continues to believe their direction is sound, the plan working, that they can retain their veterans and lose them for nothing, and everything will be okay if they keep on doing whatever exactly it is that they’re doing. Not to mention the effect it’s having on their lottery odds.
If history has taught us one thing, it’s that this house of cards will come tumbling down eventually, if not now, then soon. In many ways, the Canucks better hope their luck lasts long enough to get them into the postseason because I’m not sure this market will stand for two straight seasons outside the playoff picture, with a dearth of picks and prospects, no direction, and nothing to show for the time they’ve invested.
That’s the worst case scenario. The optimistic take is to hope the Canucks stay lucky and end the season with a surprise berth in the playoffs and a first-round exit with which to hang their hat.
But luck always runs out, eventually.