Jim Rutherford on fixing the right side defence, Horvat contract talks, and setting a new course for the franchise
1 year ago
Canucks President of Hockey Ops Jim Rutherford is no rookie when it comes to the start of an NHL season. But the 73-year-old still gets the standard adrenaline rush on the first day of training camp.
“It’s the start of a new year, and it’s important to start off right. We’ve got a lot of new people in the organization, we have a bunch of new players and, of course, good players that we’ve had here in the past with the Canucks, so we’ve got to bring it all together here,” Rutherford told Canucks Central during an interview on Thursday. “But yeah, I get excited about it.”
In his opening day talk with Sportsnet 650, Rutherford tackled some of the biggest questions surrounding the Canucks as they open the season, including the right-side defensive hole and Bo Horvat’s contract negotiations.
Getting off to a good start has been the talking point of the week for the entire organization. After last season’s disastrous first half cratered Vancouver’s chances at a playoff spot and earned the previous front office and coaching staff their pink slips, Rutherford has noted the impact the issues left before he arrived.
“Everybody knows it’s tough when you get in a hole. In the NHL season, it’s hard to make up ground,” Rutherford said. “The players recognize it, and they want to change it. But to the players’ credit, it appears that our group has worked really hard to prepare for the start of training camp, so that’s a good thing.”
On the ice, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the Canucks can consider themselves a serious Cup contender, and that fact isn’t lost on the team president. Figuring out how to manage Vancouver’s ever-precarious cap structure is going to be crucial in the coming years, but Rutherford isn’t too worried yet.
“We factor that in, in some of the things we look at. But we also have to factor in that we’ve had a setback as far as the cap goes over these last few years, and we got to have another couple of years to deal with it,” Rutherford said. “But certainly at some point in time here in the next two to three years, that cap is going to start to go up dramatically and keep going up. So when you look at that you have a little better feel for how much you’re putting into some of these core players.”
One of those core players is supposed to be Vancouver’s captain, Bo Horvat. An unrestricted free agent in the summer, Horvat and the Canucks have yet to agree to terms on a new deal, but Rutherford remains publically confident that it will be resolved.
“We’re hopeful. What Bo has said comes from his heart. He means that he’s been a Canuck his whole career, I think he’d like to stay that way, and we feel the same way. We would like to keep him, and hopefully, we can figure out a way to make it work for both sides,” Rutherford said about Horvat.
Horvat’s next contract will take him well into his thirties, and right on the heels of 29-year-old J.T. Miller signing a massive extension, some have questioned the logic behind devoting so much money to players likely heading towards their peak form sooner rather than later. Rutherford knows the importance of putting aside more cap space for younger talents but feels teams can benefit from a healthy mixture of both.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a concern, but it’s certainly a legitimate question that people have. Some players can play into their 30s and do very well, and we’ve seen other players that decline at a certain point. So it’s something we have to consider,” Rutherford said. “But when you look at Miller, he’s been the best player or certainly the best forward for a number of years. You don’t want to let your best player go.”
“Bo’s been a good player here. But one of the good things about having J.T. done is, we were really concerned about what would happen if we lost both of them. And so now with having one of them signed, it takes a little bit of the pressure off of the position that we’re in.”
As far as more present-day issues go, solidifying the right-side defence is likely at the top for the Canucks’ front office. And while Quinn Hughes began training camp skating on the right side next to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Rutherford admitted that the cost to bring in more permanent help might be steeper than fans are hoping.
“We certainly don’t want to get in to move a first-round pick because we’re trying to build up our younger assets. We would consider moving a pick for a right-shot defenseman, but when you talk about uncomfortable, maybe we get to a point that we end up trading a player we really don’t want to in order to strengthen our defence.”
“You look on our right side and we don’t have any young right-shot defenseman coming. So we’d like to do that, but we can only do it when somebody becomes available.”
But Rutherford is also confident that, if every single thing goes their way, the blue line is secure enough to make it into May. “If Poolman stays healthy and our defence stays healthy, I believe the defence we have can get the job done to be a playoff team.”
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can stay healthy and go with the group we got. Hopefully, we play with a little more structure that helps our defence. And we’ll continue on a week-to-week basis until we can make some of those changes.”
Playing more structured is a responsibility that rests solely on head coach Bruce Boudreau and his coaching staff. Despite entering 2022-23 with just one year left on the deal he signed midway through last season, Boudreau has complete faith from Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin when it comes to on-ice decisions.
“Bruce coaches the team, he sets the lines, he makes those decisions. But what we did do is we’ve improved our forwards, we got more depth there, we got more balance, we should be able to roll four lines at any time and feel comfortable doing that. Bruce is telling us he’s very happy with our group,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford already had plenty of praise for one of the new look lines in camp.
“It’s only one day, but one of the lines that was fun to watch today was the Pettersson line with Kuzmenko and Mikheyev. They really moved the puck around good and had a little bit of chemistry in the early going.”
But while Boudreau manages the metaphorical locker room, the physical one is something that the front office has been putting a lot of time into improving this offseason. Rutherford mentioned that along with new amenities for the players at both Rogers Arena and the Abbotsford Centre, the team is getting closer to securing a new long-term practice facility for the franchise.
“We totally have a new locker room for the Canucks. It’ll be ready for opening night. We’re excited about it, we know the players will be excited about it. We’ve also upgraded our locker room in Abbotsford which was important, and [Canucks President of Business Operations] Michael Doyle continues to work on the options for a practice rink, but it’s ongoing. As you know, in Vancouver it’s not easy getting the land. But I can tell you that we’re continuing to work on it and hopefully get to a point that we have a site and we can get a new practice rink.”
If this offseason has been about writing a new chapter for the Canucks organization, Jim Rutherford’s comments to open training camp are setting an early tone for candidness. Will a few months of new stable direction make enough of a difference to change the team’s immediate course?
We’re about to find out.
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