It’s no secret the Vancouver Canucks are struggling to start the season; in fact, it’s probably the biggest storyline of the young NHL season. After the team similarly struggled to start last season, they fired then-Head Coach Travis Green, replacing him with Bruce Boudreau. Post-coaching-change, the team went on a sensational run to finish the season, nearly securing a playoff berth. Despite the turn around, many believed the organization would look to make some rather substantial changes to its core, centered around trades of Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller. Instead, both players were extended and remain with the team.
The outlook for this season appeared questionable, as the group didn’t seem like a basement team or a Stanley Cup contender. However the 0-4-2 start, which included a record-breaking four straight losses after having a multi-goal lead to start the season, was unexpected and has created plenty of frustration in Vancouver among players, coaches, management, media, and fans alike.
Last night after the Canucks’ 5-1 loss at home to the Buffalo Sabres, Canucks President Jim Rutherford appeared on Hockey Night In Canada to discuss an array of topics, but most notably, the state of the Canucks. When asked whether the organization was “steadfastly opposed” to a rebuild, Rutherford said:
“Well, I think people have to realize how long rebuilds are. You look at some of the teams that went through it, and we look at how good they are now, but there were a lot of tough years. We may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we’re going. But, ideally we’d like to transition this team on the fly.”
Rutherford’s comments are quite interesting as they seem to give a genuine answer, but one that is at the same time, not very clear as to what exactly that means or where the organization sees itself going, points out ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski.
Looking closer, in onsense, a rebuild on the fly could look something like the Dallas Stars, who transitioned from a team lead by Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, and Ben Bishop, featuring up-and-comers like Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, Miro Heiskanen, and Jake Oettinger, to one that’s now lead by Robertson, Hintz, Heiskanen and Oettinger, featuring veterans like Benn, Seguin, and Joe Pavelski, as well as top prospects like Wyatt Johnston, Logan Stankoven, Mavrik Bourque and Riley Damiani. The Stars transition was made up of teams that were rarely non-competitive and at its height, included a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Vancouver, much like those Dallas teams has, and has had, plenty of talent up and down its roster.
Another way of looking at the ’on the fly’ rebuild is a team like the New York Rangers, who chose to hold on to a few key building blocks like Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider, but deal a majority of their veteran players for young players and draft picks. Instead of taking a drawn out approach, the team went after top free agent talent, primarily Artemi Panarin, counted on the development of prospects they already had or were able to select with their returns, namely Igor Shesterkin and K’Andre Miller, and admittedly got somewhat lucky with players like Adam Fox choosing them and the draft lottery helping them select Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. But, unlike Dallas, the Rangers quicker approach involved trading top talent and a few very lean years in the standings. It also involved, ironically when looking at the current Canucks, trading J.T. Miller.
Worth considering when it comes to the Canucks as they stand right now, is transitioning on the fly isn’t as clear as it is for other teams. For the Rangers, the writing was on the wall that the long-term future of the franchise was not J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Derick Brassard, or Kevin Hayes. Those players were taking a substantial portion of their salary cap and for some, getting close to hitting the free agent market. In Dallas, Benn had struggled, Seguin had injury woes, and Klingberg seemed to be a luxury they one-day couldn’t afford, but their young players all seemed to be developing as well as expected – it appeared it was merely a matter of time.
After the above quote on the state of the franchise, Rutherford continued:
“We do have some core players, some young players, that are really good. We just have to keep working and try to work through this. But we will continue to try to add younger players to this team and bring it together here in the next year or so.”
In Vancouver, the pieces rumored to be on the go the most were Miller and Boeser, who were both extended this offseason. The future of Bo Horvat, the team’s captain, was up in the air, but an extension seemed forthcoming after Boeser and Miller, however Horvat remains unsigned with free agency looming this coming offseason. There appears to be another young core coming, just like there was in Dallas, with Elias Pettersson, Vasily Podkolzin, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko, but it’s that core that is starting to take shape in Vancouver, along with Miller, Boeser, and Horvat, that has gone through two consecutive rough starts.
The continuation of Rutherford’s words indicates his confidence in moving forward with that young core. But, notably, the team does not have the rich farm system a team like Dallas did. Forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki, Vancouver’s first-round pick in 2022, is the team’s first opening round selection since Podkolzin back in 2019.
All of this to say, the Canucks are still 0-4-2. Six games into the season, the team is not remotely close to being out of playoff contention. Last year’s Canucks, who started 8-15-2 appeared to be in a much more bleak position when Green was fired than they are now, and that team barely missed a playoff spot. That said, although a rebound is quite possible, Vancouver is still in a precarious position. One bit of Rutherford’s comments, separated from the rest, does appear to give an element clarity, at least depending how this story continues to unfold: “We may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we are going.”