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Retool or rebuild — actions matter more than words for Canucks

Jim Rutherford said "major surgery" is needed on the Canucks' roster but it remains to be seen what that will look like.
Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford speaks to the media on Monday, January 16, 2023.

The truest thing Jim Rutherford said in his extensive media availability on Monday was that he severely misjudged just how much work needed to be done to fix the Vancouver Canucks.

“When I came here, I knew it was going to be a big challenge,” said Rutherford. “I thought, we're going to have to do minor surgery. Well, to answer your question, have I changed my position? Yeah, we have to do major surgery. 

“Between now and the start of next season, we're going to have to make some changes, some won't be very popular, some will be popular. But we're going to have to really do some things that I didn't think we would normally have to do when I first got here.”

That “major surgery” won’t be a rebuild, however, as Rutherford was quick to shoot down that word, saying that he would “rather call it a retool.” The truth is, it doesn’t matter what he calls it. The actions the Canucks take will define whether this is a rebuild, a retool, or just treading water. 

Canucks actions haven't looked to the long-term

The previous regime refused to use the word rebuild for multiple years but even when they finally uttered the word, they never really rebuilt. The actions they took every offseason could only be understood if the plan was, “Let’s do whatever we can do get back to the playoffs this season.” 

There was never any hint of a longer plan beyond using the few draft picks they had remaining after trading so many away to draft some good young players. That constant short-term thinking not only hurt the team in the long term but didn’t even lead to short-term success.

Under Rutherford, there’s still no hint of a long-term plan, not just in his press conference on Monday but in the actions he and general manager Patrik Allvin took in the offseason.

Re-signing J.T. Miller was an obvious own goal, foregoing the long-term benefits of trading him at the peak of his value because they couldn’t see past how much they liked the player. Trading a second-round pick away to get rid of Jason Dickinson’s contract continued the previous regime’s habit of bleeding draft capital. Signing Ilya Mikheyev — a good player, but not one in a position of need — put constraints on their cap flexibility that could hurt their ability to fix their long-term issues.

But that’s the past. What matters now is what they do in the future now that Rutherford has accurately surmised that “major surgery” is needed.

"This was never going to be a quick fix."

If the Canucks’ actions follow from Rutherford’s words, however, they could be in real trouble, because his words suggested there is very little in the way of long-term thinking in the Canucks’ front office.

For instance, when asked what “major surgery” would look like, Rutherford said that it wouldn’t look much different from what they’ve already done.

“What it looks like to me is what it's looked like all along — the trades that we make is trying to get players 26, 25 years or younger and bring this team together within the next year or two,” said Rutherford. “This was never going to be a quick fix. There's a long game here. But I don't want to sit here and preach, ‘Patience, patience,’ because I know the frustration of the fans and the media. And everybody wants it done sooner than later, just like I do.”

There are many trouble parts to this quote but let’s focus on the most frustrating part: Rutherford seems to believe that bringing the team together in one or two years is a “long game” and not a “quick fix.”

Fixing a team in one or two years — particularly this Canucks team with its myriad issues — would be remarkably quick. That wouldn’t be a long game at all. It shows a complete disconnect — it seems like we’re not even talking the same language if our definitions are that far apart.

Consider a later moment when Rutherford asked The Athletic's Thomas Drance for his definition of "quickly" and seemed almost taken aback when Drance responded, "Three years."

"I'd like to think it's quicker than that," said Rutherford.

"We have to go about this in a way that it's not a long-term rebuild."

The Canucks’ actions have backed up Rutherford's words, so there’s at least some consistency. The Canucks have acquired players who are 26 and younger, whether by trade or in free agency: Andrei Kuzmenko, Travis Dermott, Dakota Joshua, Ethan Bear, Lane Pederson, Riley Stillman, and Jack Studnicka are all 26 or younger.

Some of those players have been good, while others are the worst players on the Canucks, but you have to admit, they’re all 26 or younger. 

Will acquiring more players like Kuzmenko, Bear, and Stillman fix the Canucks in one or two years? That seems to be the plan, as Rutherford suggested the Canucks won’t be aiming for draft picks when they make bigger deals as part of their “major surgery.”

“My preference is when we make these deals is not necessarily for draft picks that may come in and help the team four years from now, five years from now,” said Rutherford. “I'd prefer to get younger NHL players that maybe didn't work out in their entry-level contract, and, you know, bring them in and give them a second chance. 

“We'll still try to acquire some draft picks. But we have to go about this in a way that it's not a long-term rebuild.”

Again, this shows a disconnect. Canucks fans are begging for some long-term thinking, begging for the team to think about how they’re going to improve “four years from now” rather than just next year. 

Canucks' focus on NHL players over draft picks is a red flag

But the real issue is that this seems a lot like Homer Simpson’s line about money and peanuts. Picture it this way:

Rutherford: “Draft picks? I wanted NHL players!”
Brain: “Draft picks can get you many NHL players.” 
Rutherford: “Explain how.” 
Brain: “Draft picks can be used to pick future NHL players or traded for current NHL players.”
Rutherford: “Woohoo!”

Let’s say that the Canucks look to trade Bo Horvat at the trade deadline. It’s already come out that the Canucks are looking for “more of a hockey deal” for Horvat rather than trying to acquire picks and prospects. 

A contending team is not going to trade away a potential star that is 26 or younger for Horvat. Those are the types of players that they’ll keep because they need them for their current playoff run.

Those teams are typically willing, however, to trade away draft picks and prospects for a veteran rental like Horvat, sacrificing part of their future for a better chance at short-term success. If Rutherford and his management group is aiming for NHL players in a Horvat trade, then they are looking for a “quick fix” rather than playing the “long game.”

Even if the Canucks are looking for young, impact players, trading for draft picks is likely the best way to get them. 

Draft picks don’t just have to be used to draft prospects — they can also be valuable trade chips. A “hockey deal” might not be possible to acquire an impact NHL player in the age range the Canucks are looking for but a team might be willing to part with such a player for a draft pick.

The Canucks have a perfect example from last season. They traded Travis Hamonic to the Ottawa Senators for a third-round pick and then turned around and traded a third-round pick for Travis Dermott from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s extremely unlikely that the Leafs never would have accepted a one-for-one trade of Hamonic for Dermott. But the Senators were willing to offer a third-round pick for Hamonic and the Leafs were willing to accept a third-round pick for Dermott. Call it a proof of concept.

Hypothetically, the Canucks could acquire picks for Horvat, and then move those picks for the young NHL players they’re looking for.

But all of this is hypothetical. This Canucks’ regime won’t be judged on the hypotheticals but on what they actually do. Perhaps they can pull off the one or two-year retool that the previous regime was unable to accomplish.

As troubling as some of Rutherford’s words may be — “The cap’s going to keep going up and up” seems like a red flag — Rutherford’s regime won’t be judged by their words but by their actions.