It is not normal for the president of hockey operations for an NHL team to repeatedly criticize his head coach in public. But that’s what Jim Rutherford has done to Bruce Boudreau.
The latest shots were fired in an appearance on Canucks Central on Sportsnet 650 but it started at the end of last season when Rutherford publicly ripped the team’s defensive structure, particularly their inability to exit the defensive zone with control.
“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.”
“Our exits from our defensive zone are not good — probably one of the worst in the league,” he added.
"I didn't like our training camp."
At that time, Rutherford was clear that he wanted to bring Boudreau back but that the management team wanted to “work with him on a few things” — presumably the structural issues that they saw in the Canucks’ game.
Now, after a 3-6-3 start to the season that has the Canucks among the NHL’s basement dwellers, Rutherford’s criticisms became even more pointed on Monday, taking aim not just at the system coached by Boudreau but at how the coach prepared the players for the season.
“At this point, I would have expected better. I didn’t like our training camp and we continued into the early part of the season the same way as our training camp was,” said Rutherford. “In order for us to become a better team, we have to play with a stronger system and really be more accountable for some of the things that some of the players are struggling with.”
Asked to clarify his comments about the team’s training camp by Postmedia’s Patrick Johnston, Rutherford didn’t mince words.
“You saw the games and the practices,” said Rutherford. “Not enough extra drive and tempo to prepare for a five-game road trip and have a structure to make it easier for the players to play in all situations.”
No vote of confidence for Bruce Boudreau
650’s Satiar Shah asked directly if the right coaching staff was in place behind the bench to put in place the structure and accountability he was talking about, Rutherford equivocated.
“I do believe that the style that the team played that had success in the second half of last season was a loose style and it was more on the offensive side and our goaltender played great in the second half and really helped win a lot of those games or bailed us out in wide open games,” said Rutherford. “I don’t believe that that’s the style of play that you can sustain over a long period of time if you want to contend for a playoff spot.”
If that doesn’t sound like a vote of confidence for Boudreau, that’s because it isn’t.
Let’s keep in mind — Boudreau is not Rutherford’s coach. Boudreau was hired directly by Canucks ownership prior to hiring Rutherford as the president of hockey operations and Rutherford was not even aware when he was hired that Boudreau had a two-year contract.
“It was my understanding that he was going to get a contract for just last year,” said Rutherford on CBC’s After Hours. “He got a contract really for two years, and so he’s still got his contract. It wasn’t that we extended him one year, it was that we just lived by the contract he had.”
Typically, a new management team likes to bring in their own head coach, one that coaches the style and system that the management team wants to see. Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin didn’t get that opportunity and it’s entirely possible that it’s out of their hands. With Travis Green still on the books after he was fired last season, it seems unlikely that Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is eager to be paying three head coaches at the same time.
Thus, the Canucks are left in an awkward situation — a lame duck coach with no contract beyond this season and a president of hockey operations that keeps lobbing grenades into the public sphere.
No accountability for Canucks management
With the way the Canucks have started the season, it’s understandable that Rutherford would be frustrated. In a certain sense, it’s refreshing to hear that kind of candour from the Canucks’ front office and for fans to hear that he’s as upset about the team’s record as they are.
On the other hand, it seems hypocritical to call for accountability while taking none himself.
If you listen to Rutherford, all of the Canucks’ problems are structural and have nothing to do with the personnel — the roster that he and Allvin have handed to Boudreau this season. Multiple times, Rutherford made it clear that he thinks the roster is not the problem, such as when he talked about the Canucks’ recent loss to the Nashville Predators.
“When you’re winning at home 3-0 in your own building and you have the goaltender that we have and the players that we have, we should not lose that game. And, unfortunately, we did,” said Rutherford.
While he’s right that the Canucks should not have given up a 3-0 lead, it’s the emphasis on “the players that we have” that seems interesting. In other words, Rutherford is saying that the roster is good enough to defend leads and win games.
But the defence is the biggest weakness of this Canucks team and one that Rutherford and Allvin did nothing to address in the offseason. Instead, they re-signed the team’s biggest trade chip, who could have been moved to address their defensive issues, to a potential boat anchor of a contract extension and spent what little cap space they had available on upgrading the team’s forwards.
The one change on defence they made heading into the season was to dump Jason Dickinson’s salary and pay a second-round pick for the worst defenceman on a bad Chicago Blackhawks team in Riley Stillman. More recently, the Canucks traded a fifth-round pick for Ethan Bear, which was a good move but hardly enough to fix the team’s defensive issues.
"There were always circumstances that meant we couldn't get them."
While Rutherford is more than willing to point the finger at the coaching staff, he only has excuses for the job the management team has done.
“I know that there were some defencemen moved this summer. But it’s not that easy. We don’t play fantasy hockey, we’ve got a cap to deal with,” said Rutherford on After Hours. “We’ve got contracts that maybe we’d like to move that we can’t move, your hands kind of get tied a little bit. But we’re well aware that that’s an area that we need to improve.”
Rutherford and Allvin did inherit a difficult situation from the previous management group but instead of loosening the knots around their hands, they only tied them tighter by re-signing J.T. Miller and spending to the salary cap in free agency to add a mid-tier winger in Ilya Mikheyev. They didn’t make any moves to clear cap space to give themselves more flexibility.
“When a defenceman comes along, like it did in the offseason, we were in on just about every one of those players that moved to another team but there were always circumstances that meant we couldn’t get them,” said Rutherford. “We either didn’t have the cap space or another team had a better player or players to give up for the defenceman.”
Complaining that “circumstances” prevented the team from making better moves when you were directly responsible for at least some of those circumstances is a little like shooting yourself in the foot and then complaining that you can’t go jogging the next day.
"It wouldn't matter who was on our defence."
More worrying is that Rutherford seems to think that the defensive personnel barely matter at all — the issue is entirely structural.
“If we were playing in a really strong structure, it would make it easier for our defence to play and it wouldn’t matter who was on our defence,” said Rutherford. “But right now, we don’t have that strong structure and we need to change the makeup of our defence.”
While a strong system can make it easier for defencemen to thrive, the idea that it “wouldn’t matter” which defencemen were on the roster is simply not true. There is no structure that can be put in place where any defenceman can thrive in it, particularly when some of those defencemen struggle with mobility, handle the puck like it’s a grenade, and can’t complete simple tape-to-tape passes on the breakout.
Maybe the Canucks do need better structure. Maybe a more systems-focused coach could wring a little more defence out of this group. But a big reason why the Canucks are struggling defensively is that the players are simply not good enough and some of the responsibility for that has to be placed on the management that looked at the defence corps this offseason and essentially said, “Eh, it’ll do.”
Is it hard to manage a hockey team and make the right moves to improve the team and set them up for success in the future? Of course. But that’s the job.
It's all the more frustrating because there's no clear sense of direction from this management group. The Canucks' struggles would be palatable if the team was clearly rebuilding for the future but they've instead doubled down on a flawed roster and traded away draft picks as if this was a team just a few moves away from Stanley Cup contention.
This team is looking the same as the past eight seasons — pushing for the playoffs year after year with short-term fixes instead of setting themselves up for long-term success.
Instead of accepting that the roster might not be good enough, however, Rutherford instead chose to attack the team's preparation in training camp and their structure on the ice.
Who is Rutherford trying to convince?
It’s exceedingly strange for Rutherford to publicly blast the team’s structure while taking no responsibility for his own part in the Canucks’ early-season struggles. It’s worth asking who exactly he’s trying to convince.
Is he trying to convince the fans that all the team needs is a systems adjustment and then they’ll start winning? Is he trying to convince the players to buy into the team’s structure? Is he trying to convince himself that he’s done enough?
Or is he trying to convince someone else — someone who he can’t criticize directly, who perhaps had a hand in hiring the coach he’s criticizing and is preventing him from firing?