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Retooling on the fly has led to endless mediocrity for the Canucks

"I think people have to realize how long rebuilds are. You look at some of the teams that went through it and we look at them now how good they are, but there were a lot of tough years." - Jim Rutherford
Jim Rutherford on After Hours on Hockey Night in Canada.

Fan frustration with the Vancouver Canucks came to a head on Saturday night at their home opener. 

After losing five-straight games on the road to start the season, the Canucks crashed and burned on home ice, falling 5-1 to the red-hot Buffalo Sabres. Fans responded with a chorus of boos, while some went as far as throwing jerseys on the ice in protest. That may seem extreme so early in the season, but it wasn’t just about the first six games — this has been building for years.

After the game, Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford was asked about the possibility of a rebuild and his answer seemed all too familiar.

“Well, I think people have to realize how long rebuilds are,” said Rutherford. “You look at some of the teams that went through it and we look at them now how good they are, but there were a lot of tough years. 

“I mean, we may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we’re going but ideally, we’d like to transition this team on the fly.”

Canucks fans have been hearing about retooling “on the fly” for years. The Canucks never once committed to a true rebuild in the last decade under former general manager Jim Benning, who traded away more draft picks than he acquired, including two first-round picks in back-to-back years to close out his tenure.

Frankly, fans don’t want to hear about how rebuilds are hard or take a long time — retooling on the fly has led to just as many “tough years” as a rebuild, with the Canucks missing the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons. The difference is, a team that has properly rebuilt will have a strong prospect pool and hope for the future after those tough years, while the Canucks seem stuck in the same pit of mediocrity in which they begun, with no prospect help on the horizon.

The other issue with Rutherford’s comments is that he’s wrong. Rebuilds don’t have to take a long time.

Just look at the team that ruined the Canucks’ home opener. After years of muddled efforts at rebuilding, the Sabres hired new management in 2020, then signalled a full-scale rebuild by trading Jack Eichel last November. Less than a year later, they have a young, exciting team that could make it to the playoffs this season.

The Los Angeles Kings started a rebuild in early 2019 when they traded Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs, then traded more veterans in 2020. They kept core veterans like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, but supplemented them with arguably the best prospect pool in the NHL, built with the draft picks they acquired in trades. Last season, just three years after starting their rebuild, the Kings were back in the playoffs.

Then there’s the New York Rangers, who formally announced their rebuild with a letter to their fans in early 2018. There were some rough patches along the way, but they went to the Eastern Conference Final last season, just four years after their rebuild began. Now they’re a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

That’s what fans want from the Canucks: true Stanley Cup contention. But the plan from Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin seems exactly the same as the previous management group: sneak into the playoffs and hope for the best. Instead of a new direction, they continued on the same tack and have quickly run aground.

A full tear-down rebuild may not be necessary at this point but the Canucks definitely need some course correction. Continuing down this path will lead to a lot more tough years than any rebuild.