Despite falling short of the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks earned a certain degree of optimism from their fanbase. After a dreadful start to the season, the Canucks played significantly better under new head coach Bruce Boudreau, climbing up the standings from the basement.
For some fans, the Canucks showed enough for them to believe that minimal changes need to be made in order to make the Canucks a playoff team next season.
There’s definitely some justification for that view. The Canucks were 32-15-10 after Boudreau took over as head coach, which is a 106-point pace over a full 82-game schedule. That is definitely good enough to be a playoff team — in fact, 106 points would be good for second in the Pacific Division this season behind only the Calgary Flames.
That opinion might not be shared by the Canucks’ new management team headed up by president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin, who spoke to the media on Tuesday after the conclusion of the 2021-22 season.
On the Canucks' zone exits: "One of the worst in the league."
Rutherford, in particular, was blunt in his assessment of how the team performed down the stretch. When asked if they changed his view of the team, he flatly said, “No,” even as he praised the team for performing to their “highest level” and playing some “exciting” hockey.
“We'd like to see our team play a more structured game and not depend on our goalie as much,” said Rutherford. “We depend on our goalie a lot. And we’re very fortunate we have a terrific goalie — all good teams have to have a goalie like Demko to win a Cup.
“At the same time, we’ve got some work to do here. We have a number of players to add. We’d like to stay with our same plan when we add players — keep them in their mid-twenties or younger, so the team can come together in the next year or two.”
When asked for specific issues with the team’s structure, Rutherford was equally blunt.
“Our exits from our defensive zone are not good — probably one of the worst in the league,” he said as one example, though he was clear that was just one area among many.
Keep in mind, while 106 points is definitely a playoff-caliber team, it would be the 11th-best record in the NHL this past season. The goal for the Canucks under Rutherford and Allvin has been clear. They don’t want to just make the playoffs and hope for the best — they want to create a perennial contender with a long window to win the Stanley Cup.
“It’s nice when individual players have record seasons and all that but, at the end of the day, we don’t want to sit here next season. We want to get better,” said Allvin. “You can ask all the players that have their jerseys up in the rafters if they would take it down and change it for a Stanley Cup banner, I think that’s what matters.”
On the Canucks' cap situation: "Probably a little more complicated than we'd like."
That doesn’t mean the optimism is entirely unwarranted. Rutherford does see a path back to the playoffs in a hurry.
“In this league, if you lose the wrong couple of players, you can take a step backwards,” he said. “But if you add the right couple of players, you can take a step forward. So, I think it's fair to say adding the right couple of players that we can be a playoff team pretty quick.”
Canucks fans saw how losing the wrong players hurt the team after their 2020 playoff run. Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom, and Tyler Toffoli all left in free agency and were not adequately replaced, with the leadership of Tanev and Markstrom particularly missed by the team’s younger generation in the locker room.
Adding the right couple of players won’t be easy. Beyond the scouting challenge of identifying the right players, the Canucks face some difficult challenges with the salary cap. Allvin admitted that clearing cap space in the offseason will be a priority, but not the only one.
“I don’t think you just want to create cap space. We want to get better too,” said Allvin. “We’re always looking to improve our team.”
“It’s very complicated, probably a little more complicated here than we’d like,” added Rutherford. “But that’s our jobs. We have to figure out how to do it… How do we figure out how to get this player? Are we going to be able to move this cap space here in order to bring this new player in and hopefully improve the team? It’s complicated, but it’s doable.”
On Bruce Boudreau: "He knows we want him back."
Perhaps the most surprising moment of the press conference was when Rutherford said the Canucks won't sign Boudreau to an extension. Boudreau has an option year in his contract that either the Canucks or Boudreau himself could choose not to exercise.
Rutherford was clear: if Boudreau wants to come back to coach the Canucks next year, it will be under the terms of his current contract.
“He’s done a good job since he got here,” said Rutherford. “He’s a player’s coach. He motivates and he got as much out of players as he could get. So, I liked the job he’s done.
“He knows we want him back. He was told that before the season was over, so he knows our position. He did a terrific job but he didn’t coach a whole season here. We would like to see him back and work with him on a few things — everybody working together to make it better.”
That’s an interesting statement. Combined with Rutherford’s earlier comments about wanting the Canucks to play with more structure and not have to depend on their goaltender, it provides some clarity about why he might be hesitant to sign Boudreau to an extension.
“I can talk about all zones, I could talk about a lot of things, but I’ll just make this one point,” said Rutherford when he was discussing structure. “Defencemen are getting in trouble all the time — there’s puck pressure, puck pressure, puck pressure. I’m not saying we have the best defence, by no means, in the league, but we have defencemen that are certainly capable of playing better if they had that structure.
“When they’re in trouble, what am I supposed to do with the puck instead of just bang it up the boards and they keep it in the zone, bang, it’s in our net…It’s something that’s very fixable but it’s something that the Canucks are going to have to do if we’re going to be a consistently good team and not have to rely on our goalie for most games.”
In other words, the Canucks very much like the way Boudreau motivates the players and gets them to buy in but might not be as big a fan of how he coaches the X’s and O’s and want to work with him in that area to improve the team’s structure. Rutherford specifically said he wanted to give Boudreau a chance to coach the team right from the start of training camp.
All of this lends some credence to the reports from a month ago about the Canucks being unsure about whether Boudreau would return next season. Even if the Canucks want him back, Boudreau might be less enthused about returning without an extension and with outside input on how he coaches. In addition, with the way he turned around the Canucks’ season, Boudreau would likely have suitors among other NHL teams.
If Boudreau doesn’t return, that might test the optimism among the Canucks fanbase.
"In our agreement, both sides have till June 1, so he can take whatever time he wants," said Rutherford. "The longer you leave things, these types of things start to fester a bit because then they become more emotional. But we have to make sure in our job, that we don't let it become emotional."
"Our talks with him have been very positive," he added. "He's well aware that we appreciate and respect the job he's done. Explained to him why we're doing it the way we're doing it, and why we want him back, but also with the understanding that continue to do the job you're doing — it doesn't mean this is your last year in Vancouver."
Rutherford suggested that contract extension talks could happen partway through the season, mentioning he did the same thing with Mike Sullivan with the Pittsburgh Penguins, even after back-to-back Stanley Cup wins. He also make it clear that even without an extension, he wouldn’t see Boudreau as a “lame duck” coach, one who might not be listened to by the players knowing he might not be with the team long-term.
“That won’t happen,” said Rutherford. “The players who start not listening to him will be gone before him.”
On the Canucks' young stars: "It's time for them to step up."
A month ago, Allvin turned some heads when he said the Canucks don’t have a “superstar,” with Elias Pettersson immediately erupting with 10 goals and 19 points in 11 games after his comments. Allvin clarified that he was referring more to a superstar who would “take all the money this offseason” rather than no superstars at all.
“I do think we have a lot of good players that have a potential to get to a superstar position in the league — Demko, Quinn Hughes, and Elias Pettersson,” said Allvin. “I’m happy for Elias that he was able to take a step here but I believe there is more to come. I think he needs to have a really good summer here. I think he’s 23, turning 24, I do believe there’s even more potential. And the next step for all young players is to carry it into the playoffs.”
“I have a higher expectation on those particular players coming into next season,” he added. “It’s time for them to step up and be ready to play 82 games.”
On off-ice plans: "You've been in the locker room — it's outdated."
Along with the on-ice questions, Rutherford spoke to some of the team’s off-ice plans, which include some major renovations to what is affectionately referred to as the “bowels” of Rogers Arena.
“This will be the last time we have a press gathering in this room, you're going to get a new room, nice new room,” said Rutherford, which will please the media but not necessarily have a major impact for anyone else. The other changes, however, will definitely have an impact on the team.
“This whole area from here all the way to Gate 9 is going to be totally renovated,” he said. “The locker room's going to be totally done. It's going to be changed in a more workable way for the medical staff and coaching staff and where the players work out and all that.
“We're going to do some things in Abbotsford. Unfortunately, there's not as many things we can do there because you’ve got to blow too many walls out and whatnot, but we are going to refresh their dressing room and make it a little bit better.”
The last major renovation of the Canucks’ dressing room was back in 2009. Even small changes can make a difference when it comes to the atmosphere for the players off the ice, which can make a difference to how they perform on the ice.
“You've been in the locker room — it's outdated and it certainly needs to be updated,” said Rutherford. “It helps in recruiting and, more importantly, it gives the present players here just a better feel when they're in the building and the more the present players like it here and spread the word on what it's like to play in Vancouver, it really helps recruiting a lot.”
Rutherford also spoke about their other major off-ice push.
"The other priority — and we're gaining momentum on it — is the practice rink,” he said, saying that it’s one of the main priorities for Michael Doyle, the Canucks’ president of business operations. “Getting down to two, maybe three different sites and very close to making a decision on the site.”
A separate practice rink would allow the Canucks to design a facility that best meets their needs and also alleviate the need to occasionally hold practices in Burnaby when Rogers Arena is unavailable. Other teams that have built separate practice facilities have suggested it will help in attracting free agents, who know they will be treated well.
The Canucks initially planned to build their practice rink as part of the Plaza of Nations redevelopment but that plan fell through last year.