The Vancouver Canucks don’t need to be blown up and rebuilt from the ground up.
At least, not according to president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford. On an appearance on the Bob McCown podcast, Rutherford was clear: there’s work to do but the team is not that far from contending.
“We're certainly not starting from scratch. There's a lot of good players there,” said Rutherford before dismissing the idea of a full-blown rebuild.
“If you look at the teams that did a total rebuild, it's nice to see those teams doing well now but everybody forgets about the four or five years they had to go through of tough years to get there,” he said. “I would like to think, with the players we have, that this team can be retooled.”
Rutherford suggested that it would take a two-year period to make the moves for the team to be a Stanley Cup contender, though he admitted that there are no guarantees. Instead, there’s an element of luck to every move a team might make: some players work out with a team and some don’t.
No more win-now shortcuts
Laying out a clear timeline is an essential part of setting the vision for an organization. It’s something that was an issue under Jim Benning, as his actions rarely matched what he said.
For instance, Benning laid out a timeline after his second year suggesting that the Canucks would be elite by the end of the Sedins’ final contracts. Instead of making moves that coincided with that three-year timeline, Benning made a series of win-now moves, such as trading Jared McCann for Erik Gudbranson and signing Loui Eriksson to a crippling contract.
In his seventh year, Benning suggested the team could contend in two more years, then went out in the offseason and made more win-now moves, including trading a top-ten draft pick. In that same press conference, Benning made the infamous statement, “We live day-to-day,” which about summed up the team’s long-term planning during his tenure.
So, what will be key for Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin is that their actions match this proposed timeline. Trades, free-agent signings, and other moves need to be designed to help the Canucks contend in two years and beyond — no win-now shortcuts.
"We can guarantee guys spots on the team."
It’s a difficult task, made more difficult by the empty prospect cupboards and no room under the salary cap. To fix the former, the Canucks will be looking both overseas and in the States.
“We need to build up the depth. And one of the areas we want to look at — it was really something we did in Pittsburgh — is college free agents and European free agents,” said Rutherford. “And I think that we're going to have a good chance of doing that. Patrik's well connected in Europe.
He also suggested the Canucks will have a clear advantage in that market.
“Our sales pitch to those people is that we can guarantee guys spots on the team,” he said. “It's not like we're coming off going to the Finals. We're a team that's still trying to build the team up and when we say to those free agents, you're going to be on the team, our word is good — they're going to be on the team.”
Now, that’s interesting. Guaranteeing college and European free agents a spot on the Canucks roster is a bold move. Hockey fans have certainly seen plenty of European free agents struggle once they reach the NHL — the highly-hyped Fabian Brunnström lasted just 104 games in the NHL before he returned to Sweden — but a guaranteed roster spot is certainly a compelling offer.
"When a name is thrown out there...it takes on a life of its own."
As for creating cap space, Rutherford played down the rumours that the Canucks could move a big name at the trade deadline.
“We don't start those rumours, okay,” he said. “And then when a name is thrown out there, especially in Canada, it takes on a life of its own. So, I don't think that the names that are out there, people should automatically think that they're going to move. We do have to make some kind of moves to get some flexibility cap-wise, but it doesn't necessarily have to be with our top players.”
Downplaying the urgency to trade a top player is a smart move for multiple reasons, but the biggest is that there’s really no rush for the Canucks to move their biggest names, in particular J.T. Miller.
As much as the Canucks might get a better return at this trade deadline for Miller than if they waited, if the trade offers are not up to snuff, Rutherford and Allvin can afford to wait and make exactly the right deal. Miller is signed through next season, as is Bo Horvat. Tyler Myers is signed through 2024, Conor Garland is signed through 2026, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson is signed through 2027. If the Canucks want to move one or more of them, it doesn’t necessarily have to be at this trade deadline.
"They're giving everything they've got."
There’s another aspect to waiting: the Canucks are still in the playoff hunt.
“I give these players a lot of credit to work their way back in the race. And I know it's against the odds that we make the playoffs, but it's still possible,” said Rutherford.
There are still six weeks before the trade deadline and the Canucks will play 18 games in that time. That’s a lot of time and opportunity for the standings to shift around a paint a clearer picture of the Canucks’ chances.
While remaining optimistic, Rutherford was also realistic about the Canucks’ hot start under Bruce Boudreau.
“The schedule was favourable early on, where we were getting the number two goalie playing against us instead of the number one and a few of those things and getting the right breaks,” said Rutherford. “But the players and Bruce and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit, because you can always win a couple of games, but they put together a string of games there and they're giving everything they've got right up until this last game at the All Star break.”
That’s the balancing act of hockey operations: making the players believe in the team and that they can win it all, while simultaneously remaining objective about how good the team really is and what needs to change. Sometimes, that objectivity can actually make you more optimistic. Rutherford came into the job with preconceived notions about the quality of the team and many of those initial opinions have changed over the last two months.
“It's a little different, watching a team from 1500 miles away compared to getting right in there and getting to know what's going on,” said Rutherford. “But I was impressed with how a lot of players went about their business and the work ethic from this team through some troubled times when we had some key players out with COVID or injuries and whatnot, and this team gave everything they had on the ice.
“Now with that being said, we all know that we're going to have to make changes at some point in order to get better and have a contending team.”