As frustrating as it is to hear, there’s logic in Jim Rutherford’s desire for a retool
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
15 days ago
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat.
If you’re a Vancouver Canucks fan reading these words, and you’ve been a fan for longer than a few years, then you’ve got every right to be frustrated right now.
You’ve heard the head honchos of the home team claim that there was no need for a rebuild, and that a two- or three-year “retool” would suffice, for almost a decade running now.
Obviously, that strategy has yet to work out.
And yet, here we are in the year 2023, and President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford is calling a state of the union presser and boldly making the same claims.
Specifically, Rutherford once again rejected the notion that the Canucks need a true rebuild, used the term “retool” as if it was something that fans hadn’t already heard a million times, and employed some seriously specious reasoning in defending his plan.
Here is Rutherford, a decade past the beginning of the Jim Benning Era, laying out a strategy that has already failed a dozen times over as if it’s something new.
And you know what the wildest part of it all is? Rutherford might be right on this one.
Now, don’t get it twisted. This team needs a lot more than just a “retool.” Even Rutherford himself alluded to this when he said in that same presser that the Canucks would need “major surgery” in the days to come. Had he been more cogent of recent team history, Rutherford probably would not have and should not have used that term.
But the actual strategy that he described? The one in which he wants to target young players that are ready to make an impact on the roster sooner rather than later, as opposed to far-flung future draft picks? There’s definitely some logic there now, where there really wasn’t any before.
The reasons usually trotted out for supporting a retool over a rebuild are still, of course, nonsense. The idea that Canucks fans are too impatient or short-sighted to support a full teardown rebuild is silly, unless you’re talking about one very special fan in particular. If fans have stuck around through the last decade of Canucks hockey, they’re obviously comfortable with bad teams playing poorly, so what’s the difference if it’s intentional?
It’s also been said before that the Canucks don’t need a rebuild because they have a solid or even good foundation. That is very clearly not the case. The rot in Vancouver goes very nearly down to the baseboards, and, again, even Rutherford seems to get this, what with his mention of core players needing to be moved on from.
But if Rutherford is both making the same old arguments and refuting them in the same presser, what’s he really saying? What’s the real plan?
We think we might have an idea, and it has to do with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
There’s no real debate to be had that Benning’s own comments about retooling were incorrect each and every time that they were made. But Benning’s situation and the one now faced by Rutherford and Patrik Allvin are different, as similar as they may seem. When Benning used to talk about retooling around a strong foundation, he was talking about a foundation of Olli Juolevi and Bo Horvat. A team with that sort of core is obviously in need of some serious rebuilding, but Benning deluded himself into thinking otherwise.
Even when Pettersson and Hughes entered the scene, they did so at a very young age, and so rebuilding toward their prime years still made the most sense. Again, Benning tried to take a shortcut, and the entire organization paid the price.
But now, in the year 2023, Pettersson and Hughes are both firmly within their prime years. And that means that the clock is already ticking on two of the most talented players to ever put on a Vancouver jersey, and that means that a retool timeline suddenly has a much more logical basis.
In the end, it comes down to a vital question: what are you building around? And for the Canucks in particular, that question becomes one of “are Pettersson and Hughes good enough to build around?”
The answer to that question is still “yes.”
Sure, there are better players out there to build around. And if the Canucks could somehow guarantee that they got their hands on, say, a Connor Bedard, then shifting back to a rebuild timeline would absolutely make sense.
But the Canucks’ own recent history proves that there’s just no way to guarantee that. A team can slip all the way to the bottom of the standings and still walk away with nothing to show for it; or worse, a Juolevi to show for it.
Somehow, despite that, the Canucks got lucky. They managed to select Pettersson at fifth overall and Hughes at seventh overall.
How many other centers have the Canucks had in their entire franchise history that were as good as Pettersson is now? Exactly one.
How many other defenders have the Canucks had that are anywhere close in talent to Hughes? Exactly zero.
So, the Canucks could choose to rebuild from the ground up today, and shift their timeline away from the ongoing prime years of Pettersson and Hughes. But if they do that, they’ve got to accept that it could be literal decades before they obtain players anywhere near the equal of Pettersson and Hughes.
A bird in the hand, they say, is worth two in the bush. And the Canucks have two most excellent birds in their hand.
That’s why, as headache-inducing as it may be to hear the word “retool” again after all this time, such a plan might actually make more sense than it ever has before.
To be clear, the focus should still be on acquiring young, future-based assets, and the further focus should be on those assets being of extremely high quality. Nobody wants to see a return to the days of players like Linden Vey and Luca Sbisa being targeted as key pieces.
But a preference for players either recently drafted or about to be drafted, as opposed to those who will be drafted in the years to come? There’s definitely some sand to that.
How much longer will Pettersson and Hughes’ collective primes last? Pettersson is 24 and Hughes is 23, so one has to think that the Canucks can count on them continuing to be high-value franchise centerpieces until at least the year 2030.
A 2023 draft pick? Sure, that player has a good chance to hit the NHL roster and make a positive impact before the year 2030. The same could be said for a 2024 pick, and one definitely hopes that the Canucks are not turning down any such offers.
But picks later than that definitely run the risk of arriving on the scene a little too late.
Now, in saying all this, we have to acknowledge that actions speak louder than words, and that some of Rutherford and Allvin’s actions are not in line with the vision we’ve outlined here, and hew uncomfortably close to Benning era mistakes. Extending JT Miller is one example of this, as is expending valuable draft capital for players like Riley Stillman. Recent reports of the team wanting “NHL players” in return for Horvat are definitely worrisome.
All we’re really saying here is that, if what Rutherford really means by calling for a retool or a rebuild is focusing specifically on those assets likely to hit their own primes within the next five years or so, that we can see the logic in that.
It’s all about building to a point where the team can be competitive around Pettersson and Hughes, while those two are still as effective as they can be.
We’re not saying we believe the Canucks will achieve this, or even that they’re on the right path toward it.
We’re just saying there’s a chance, and that it probably makes more sense now than it ever has before.
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