When it comes to NHL hockey, it’s rarely a good idea to rush to judgement about a team.
Take the 2010-11 Canucks, for example. That was the best team in Canucks history and went on to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the regular season and come one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. They also lost five of their first seven games of the season and had just 10 wins after 20 games.
The Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy again in the 2011-12 season. Again, they started that season slowly, losing four of their first six games, and again only had 10 wins after 20 games.
Those two teams show that sometimes a mediocre or even bad start to the season doesn’t mean the entire season is a wash. Even the best teams in the NHL, like those two teams were, can get off to a bad start.
This season’s Canucks are definitely off to a bad start. After 13 games, the Canucks are 5-6-2 — 25th in the NHL in points percentage. They particularly struggled on their seven-game homestand, winning just twice while playing in front of their home fans for the first time in over a year.
The wise approach to this start would be patience. The season is still young and there are 69 games remaining to play. The Canucks showed some signs of life towards the end of the homestand, defeating the Dallas Stars handily and largely outplaying the Anaheim Ducks in an overtime loss.
It’s entirely possible the Canucks will turn things around as they had back out on the road or even a little later in the season. Elias Pettersson has to awaken from his slumber at some point, the penalty kill will surely stop conceding goals at a historical rate, and the power play has the potential to be a true difference-maker.
The Canucks aren't even the only team struggling out of the gate who had higher expectations for themselves, as the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche have been surprisingly powerless and have an even worse points percentage than the Canucks.
So, patience makes sense and should be rewarded, right?
It’s very hard to be patient, however, when the Canucks have been so mediocre for so long under general manager Jim Benning.
The second-longest tenured GM in Canucks history
Entering his eighth season as GM of the Canucks, Benning is now the second-longest tenured GM in Canucks history, behind only Pat Quinn. Under Quinn, the Canucks made the playoffs in 7 of his 10 seasons, winning a conference title, two division titles, and making one trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Under Benning, the Canucks have made the playoffs twice — once in his first season as GM and once more in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season when 20 teams made the playoffs for a qualifying round.
Once there, the Canucks managed to come one game from the Western Conference Final thanks to some outstanding goaltending but it’s hard to ignore how fortunate they were to be there in the first place. They had lost 5 of their last 7 games when the season was cut short. Would they have still made the playoffs in an 82-game season? Maybe. Maybe not.
All that is to say is that Benning hasn’t given Canucks fans much reason to be confident in his ability to put a winning team on the ice. It’s fair to wonder after another slow start if this will be yet another season out of the playoffs under his management.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
"I think Jim did a really good job this summer."
Benning went all-in this offseason to get the team back to the playoffs, trading a first-round pick and shedding three bad contracts to acquire a top-four defenceman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and a top-six forward in Conor Garland. The long-term consequences of Ekman-Larssson’s contract could be painful but the short-term benefit was clear.
Benning spent big to buy out Braden Holtby and Jake Virtanen to ensure the team had the cap space to re-sign Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, as well as shore up the team’s defence with Travis Hamonic, Tucker Poolman, and Luke Schenn and add a veteran backup goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. He traded for a pair of bottom-six centres in Jason Dickinson and Juho Lammikko, to improve the team’s forward depth.
The offseason changes had the Canucks believing in themselves, even if the pundits and analytical models predicted mediocrity.
“I think that this is the best roster we’ve had in my three years here,” said Hughes after he signed his contract. “I think Jim did a really good job this summer.”
“This year, especially with the guys we added...I think we've got a really good core group,” said Bo Horvat during training camp. “I think we should set our expectations at making the playoffs. That's what we want to do and that's how we have to play right off the bat.”
Like a Nickelback single, is it just the same song again?
Of course, the Canucks were singing the same tune heading into the 2020-21 season.
“People always say, 'the future, the future, the future,' but I think we're there, almost,” said Hughes before last season. “We can play with those really elite teams in the NHL.”
“We know we have a great hockey team in here,” said Horvat.
“We believe that we can be the top team in the division,” said another Canuck. “Our goal is to win a Cup. Every team says that, but we believe in our room that we have a great team and we can become a really big powerhouse in this division.”
They didn’t become a powerhouse and didn’t come anywhere near the top of the division. Instead, the Canucks crashed and burned, finishing well out of the playoffs and earning a top-10 draft pick that they then traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Ekman-Larsson and Garland.
Maybe this season will be different. Maybe patience will be rewarded. But every year under Benning, it's getting harder and harder to keep patient as the team flounders.