Tonight, the Vancouver Canucks are embarking on one of their most important seasons in recent memory: it’s playoffs or bust.
That’s clear from general manager Jim Benning’s offseason, which was as aggressive as he promised it would be. Benning used every tool available to him — buyouts, trades, signings — to reshape the roster to get the team back into the postseason.
The end result? A confident Canucks squad that fully believes they can be one of the top teams in their division.
“I think that this is probably the best roster we’ve had in my three years here,” said defenceman Quinn Hughes after signing his new contract. “I think Jim did a really good job this summer.”
Those improvements came at a price. For the second year in a row, the Canucks didn’t have a first-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft, as they traded it away as part of a deal for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland. That got the Canucks the top-four defenceman and top-six forward they needed but at the expense of a long-term asset.
It’s as clear a signal as you can possibly get: the time to win is now. Rebuilding teams don’t typically trade away first-round picks — contending teams do.
There’s also plenty of pressure from both fans and ownership. After all, the Canucks have made the playoffs just once in the last six seasons. That one playoff appearance saw them get tantalizingly close to the Western Conference Final in 2020, but instead of building on that success last season, they faltered, falling well short of the playoffs.
There were mitigating circumstances — a difficult schedule, an injury to Elias Pettersson, and a brutal COVID-19 outbreak — but it was still a disappointing season. In order to put it behind them, they’ll need to win early and often. If the Canucks start the season by losing 11 of their first 17 games like they did last season, the writing could be on the wall for Benning and Travis Green.
Green is heading into his fifth season as head coach of the Canucks, with just the one playoff appearance. If this is the best roster he’s been given as Hughes suggests, what is he going to do with it?
As for Benning, he’s entering his eighth season as GM of the Canucks — most GMs with a track record like Benning’s don’t make it to eight seasons.
Adding to the pressure, the Canucks already have potential replacements for Green and Benning in-house.
The Canucks signed Brad Shaw this offseason as an assistant coach after he was let go by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Long considered a potential head coach around the league, Shaw is taking on a larger role with the Canucks than a typical assistant. He won’t be limited to just coaching one aspect of the game, like the forwards, defence, or special teams; instead, he’ll have a hand in it all.
It’s not a stretch to think Shaw might step behind the bench as head coach if things go sideways.
Meanwhile, the Canucks brought in Daniel and Henrik Sedin to the management side this offseason after a few years away from the game. They’ve spent the early months on the job absorbing every aspect of front office work, with the expectation that they’ll grow into larger roles in the future.
If all goes wrong, maybe they’ll step into those larger roles sooner than expected.
There’s nothing but optimism heading into the season, of course, and all of this could be a moot point. The Canucks look like a better team on paper than they were last season; now we’ll see if they’re a better team on the ice.