There has been all sorts of buzz surrounding potential problems in the Vancouver Canucks locker room of late.
There are rumours of rifts in the room and it was hard to ignore the long pause and significant look from J.T. Miller when he was asked if everyone on the team is buying in. As general manager Jim Benning said, they’re a “fragile team” right now and the players have been looking more dour and glum as the season has progressed.
The culture around the Canucks isn’t pretty right now and it’s not surprising that would extend into the locker room. So, what’s the cause? Is it entitled young players, a lack of leadership, or Miller’s cantankerous personality? Has the head coach lost the room? Is everyone upset that Bo Horvat didn’t go to the team’s Halloween party?
While it’s likely the rumours are overblown — it’s my understanding Miller and Horvat get along just fine, for example — there’s a much easier explanation for any locker room dysfunction: they’re not winning games.
A “bad room” is frequently blamed when a team struggles, but it’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation — which came first: the bad room or the team’s struggles?
All sorts of disparate people can get along just fine when things are going well. You can rest assured that not everyone on the 2010-11 Canucks were best friends but they were winning games, so everything was hunky-dory.
When things are going poorly, however, the cracks start to show. It’s only natural to look for the cause of the problem and that’s when fingers get pointed: someone must not be pulling their own weight, so-and-so had a terrible giveaway, that guy has a bad attitude, the stars aren’t scoring, the veterans aren’t killing penalties, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Losing heightens the attention on every minute detail, including plenty of things that don’t matter at all.
The trouble is that it’s a cycle or, worse, a downward spiral. Losing can create a lack of confidence, not just in yourself, but in your teammates. It can also cause infighting within the room and all sorts of other tensions. And all of that can lead to more losing.
There’s a reason why the players have frequently talked about staying positive and not dwelling too much on past games. There’s a reason why the team tried to keep the mood light at practice on Thursday after their 7th loss in the last 8 games.
The best solution to locker room tensions and a losing culture is simple: just win, baby. And to win, you need the right leadership, the right coaching, and a well-constructed roster.
The Canucks have tried to manufacture a winning environment and winning culture in Vancouver but it can’t be created ex nihilo.
That was Benning’s reasoning behind acquiring so many expensive veteran players over the years: to create a winning environment.
“Our goal is to develop young players in a winning environment, to make the playoffs, and ultimately we want to compete and win the Stanley Cup,” said Benning back in 2015 after falling to the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to add core prospects ‘on the fly’, as you’d say.”
“We have a good team, but we want to develop those young players in a winning environment,” Benning added. “You can have a lot of good young players, but if they don’t learn and understand what it takes to win and [if] they [don’t] have older players showing them the right way to play and how to win, you end up with a team full of real good players that never wins anything.”
The Canucks proceeded to miss the playoffs for four-straight seasons. So much for developing young players in a winning environment.
When Travis Green was hired as head coach in 2017, it was with similar rhetoric.
“He has an excellent understanding of where we are as an organization and we're confident in his ability to help build our team and develop a winning culture,” said Benning.
There are many ways to build a positive culture in an organization. Unfortunately, there’s only one sure way to create a winning culture and that’s by winning.
The Canucks haven’t done enough of that.