Canucks President of Hockey Ops Jim Rutherford was the first guest on Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours with Scott Oake and John Garrett last night and had to face the immediate music of the Canucks’ 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. But if fans were looking for answers on how the front office plans to fix their 0-4-2 team, they probably won’t find satisfying ones here.
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that what the Canucks are experiencing is more than just a cold start, it’s a full-on collapse. And Rutherford pointed back to the preseason, during which the Canucks won just two of seven games, for setting the wrong tempo.
“We didn’t have a very good camp, and it’s carried over into the season,” Rutherford said. “We have a lot of bad habits, and I thought the last two road games we were starting to cut down on those and starting to trend in the right way. But when you’re losing, you find ways to lose and that’s what we’re doing.”
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As far as short fixes go, Rutherford was cautious not to promise any major shakeups.
“Whether you’re winning or losing, you’re always looking to make your team better, and if something comes our way that we feel is going to make the team better we’re going to do it,” Rutherford said. “We’re being cautious in how we go about that.”
“I’m the same as the fans and everybody, it’s getting frustrating. It’s hard to watch, and we’ll just have to be careful as to what our decisions are. I don’t think we can make panic decisions at this point in time.”
The biggest roster issue continues to be on defence, and it was on full display against the Sabres. With Quinn Hughes out of commission due to an injury, the weak blue line was fully exposed, allowing Buffalo 18 high-danger scoring chances, including nine in the third period alone.
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Rutherford attempted to reassure fans that the team had made an effort to bolster their defence, but also questioned the work of the forwards in their own end.
“We tried to address it in the summertime, and in fairness to our defence, we’ve had injuries there. We haven’t played with our full defence. We know we have to improve it,” Rutherford said. “But when we talk about defence, it’s not just the guys that play defence. It’s a team defence, and those guys aren’t getting enough support.”
But Rutherford didn’t stop there, and in closing, seemed to take a small parting shot at fans for their understanding of the NHL trade market.
“I know that there were some defencemen moved this summer. But it’s not that easy. We don’t play fantasy hockey, we got a cap to deal with,” Rutherford said.
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“We’ve got contracts that maybe we’d like to move that we can’t move, your hands kind of get tied a little bit. But we’re well aware that that’s an area that we need to improve.”
One other area of concern is behind the bench. The magic of Bruce Boudreau’s arrival in Vancouver has entirely worn off, and when given the opportunity to defend his coach Rutherford all but yanked away the life preserver.
Perhaps the biggest revelation Rutherford dropped last night was how he had been given the original impression that Boudreau’s contract didn’t extend past last season. Boudreau’s contract, along with its’ second-year option for the coach, had been signed by Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini roughly a week before Rutherford’s arrival.
“It was my understanding that he was going to get a contract for just last year. He got a contract really for two years, and so he’s still got his contract. It wasn’t that we extended him one year, it was that we just lived by the contract he had,” Rutherford said.
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“As I look at it now it was the right thing to do. He’s got to work through this with his team. And at the appropriate time, we’ll talk to him about what his future is.”
As if that wasn’t enough evidence of a divide between the coach and the front office, even with all the injuries plaguing the team, Rutherford refused to use it as an excuse for why the team is losing.
“When you have injuries you gotta have the next man up, and you have to be ready to go. And I believe if our team has a real strong structure, you can play through those things,” Rutherford said.
“When you start talking about injuries, you’re just making it easier. You’re admitting you’re a losing team. I don’t like it, I don’t like using that as an excuse. We all have to be better. We have to use the players we got and we have to play within a stronger structure to make that game easier for all our players.”
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Eventually, the final frontier was broached. The ‘R-word’ that the franchise has all but refused to allow in their lexicon for the last decade — ‘rebuild’ — was brought up as a potential outcome if things don’t turn around. But much like his predecessors, Rutherford seemed cagey about committing to one, even if matters get worse.
“Well, I think people have to realize how long rebuilds are, and you look at some of the teams that went through it, and we look at them now how good they are. But there were a lot of tough years. I mean, we may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we’re going,” Rutherford said.
“But ideally, we’d like to transition this team on the fly. We do have some core players, some young players that are really good. These guys just have to try to work through this at this point, but we will continue to try to add younger players to this team and bring it together here within the next year.”
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Considering how long the last ‘on the fly’ retool is taking, it’s hard to imagine Canucks fans couldn’t stomach the nuclear option if it were offered to them now.