The Canucks’ front office has had one of it’s best stretches in recent memory, receiving excellent returns for veterans Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen at this year’s trade deadline, and hiring a progressive, up-and-coming coach in Travis Green.
They also lost one of their most promising young defensemen to the KHL and dropped three spots in the draft lottery. But the bar isn’t exactly set high. Finishing in the bottom-three in two consecutive years has a way of lowering expectations.
Especially when the team’s President is finally willing to use a term the franchise has deliberately eschewed since the summer of 2014.
That’s right, Trevor Linden has finally uttered the “r” word, and it’s earned him a great deal of good will over the past few weeks.
How quickly people forget.
Remember when the #canucks were going to retool on the fly but they didn't and now its a rebuild?
— Ryan Hank (@Always90four) April 13, 2017
When Jim Benning was named General Manager prior to the 2014-15 season, his stated goal could not have been more clear: The Canucks were going to rebuild this roster on the fly, and remain competitive while developing youth. By every conceivable metric, they’ve failed to deliver on that vision.
Serving two masters is a difficult task. The common refrain in pro sports is that attempting the so-called “rebuild-on-the-fly” is a fool’s errand from the start. But that doesn’t mean it was impossible. The Canucks could have traded some of their veterans while they had the chance. They could have signed Jonathan Marchessault (something I advocated during the offseason), who’s 30 goals would have led all Canucks last season.
I could go on citing suggestions I’ve made in the past about the course the Canucks should have charted, but at the end of the day, I’m a hobbyist with little to no experience or expertise in the field of managing a professional sports team. So instead, I’ll appeal to the authority of an actual NHL team employee: Cameron Lawrence of the Florida Panthers, who charted a course for a Canucks rebuild-on-the-fly in the spring of 2015:
I’ve argued that the Canucks need to be aggressive and proactive to be successful in their plan. They need to move veteran players immediately while they still have value and receive draft picks in return. They need to fill in vacant roster spaces with shrewd free agent signings. And finally, they need to identify talented young prospects that can form the core of a contending team in the future…
Here are some of the actions Lawrence advised:
- Selling off veterans Radim Vrbata, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Chris Higgins, and Shawn Matthias.
- Signing cost-effective, proven veteran defensemen to short-term deals, citing Barrett Jackman, Zbynek Michalek, Cody Franson, and David Schlemko as options.
- Signing cost-effective, proven veteran forwards to short-term deals, citing Justin Williams, Joel Ward, Eric Condra, Sean Bergenheim, and Brad Richardson (who was already in the organization) as possible targets.
- Utilizing the Prospect Cohort Success model (RIP) to identify first-round draft targets, suggesting Evgeny Svechnikov, Filip Chlapik, Anthony Beauvillier, Nick Merkley, and Jansen Harkins.
- Utilizing the Prospect Cohort Success model to identify mid-to-late round draft targets, suggesting numerous options.
It should go without saying that this exercise was purely hypothetical and highly speculative. Still, the fact remains that an amateur hockey writer with no professional experience in sports charted out a reasonable course for the Canucks that likely would have yielded much better results than what the Canucks’ front office has delivered.
The jury is still out on the draft targets — especially considering the trajectory Brock Boeser has been on since being drafted by the Canucks organization — and Cam makes a couple of errors in his contract estimations. However, the point is that there was no shortage of options in free agency to keep the Canucks competitive in the short-term.
Instead, the team paid top dollar for Brandon Sutter, Erik Gudbranson, and Loui Eriksson, in some cases giving up significant assets as well as money and term to do so.
If this is how this team evaluates veterans, who’s to say they can do any better at evaluating youth?
Even the draft, an area of relative strength, has been a mixed bag so far under Benning. The Canucks have unearthed some gems in the later rounds (although two of those players are now no longer with the organization,) but their first round picks have been more coolly received. In fact, one could make the case that the next forward taken after the Canucks’ selection in three successive drafts has turned out to be the better player, if only in the short-term.
— Cyrus Ray Cyrus (@Johnny_Perogy) May 5, 2017
Even if you’re of the view that Jake Virtanen or Olli Juolevi will prove to be better than the players selected after them, it’s important to remember that up until about two months ago this team was dead set on competing in the short term. And instead of selecting plug-and-play forwards, they opted to go with long-term projects. The Canucks could be icing a top-six forward group that includes William Nylander, David Pastrnak, Travis Konecny, and Matthew Tkachuk this season. Even without the inclusion of Brock Boeser, the crown jewel of the Canucks’ rebuild, that’s a much stronger forward core than they currently possess, and they could have had it without surrendering a single asset.
That may seem like hindsight, but the truth is that each of those players was advocated for either in this space or in other publications before the time of the draft. While Benning’s reputation as a scout is well-deserved, he’s yet to prove he’s significantly better than the competition, specifically in the first round. The process behind three of these four picks may have been sound, but this is ultimately a results-based business, and after three years, this front office hasn’t done enough to inspire confidence among the fans.
In other words, if it’s easy to make the case that the Canucks front office has bungled the course they charted for themselves three years ago. If the goal was to be competitive and rebuild at the same time, it’s impossible to say that they’ve succeeded on either front. So why give them another chance?
Well, there may actually be a reason for optimism. That may seem like an odd thing to read considering the source, but the truth is that when the Canucks have made moves in the vein of a “classic rebuild”, they’ve done so very much in the manner Canucks Army would advocate.
(I’ll let you debate whether or not that’s a good sign.)
Praise has been heaped on “Tuesday Jim” Benning for the deadline the Canucks had, and deservedly so. I don’t think anyone could have drawn up a better-case scenario for trade returns on Burrows and Hansen. As much as the Canucks and the blogosphere may seem out of step, Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin are exactly the type of players stats bloggers would advocate for acquiring. The same could be said for Sven Baertschi and Linden Vey, too, although the latter didn’t exactly work out the way anyone had hoped. Even claiming Reid Boucher shows a willingness to stray from the beaten path in the name of building a future contender.
Every General Manager will occasionally make good decisions. What makes Benning’s good decisions so interesting is that they’ve generally all coincided with acquiring young players. Sure, Adam Clendening didn’t exactly work out, but for the most part, the Canucks have done a reasonable job of acquiring good young players. It’s the veterans and the stop-gap players that have failed him miserably.
Maybe the problem was that this direction was doomed to fail from the beginning. Maybe with the green-light to undergo an actual rebuild finally, the Canucks front office can prove all the doubters wrong.
MVP of the tournament. William Nylander. pic.twitter.com/yo87kKEJDf
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) May 21, 2017
— Reddit Sports (@redditsportsbot) May 14, 2017
Then again, maybe not.