VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) After missing the playoffs a third time in four years, the Vancouver Canucks looked in the mirror last spring and finally came to terms with a reality that was clear for almost everyone else to see.
The team is rebuilding.
Having bottomed out with a 29th-place finish that came on the heels of 28th-place showing, the Canucks really didn’t have much choice.
The core that got to within a game of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup – save for Henrik and Daniel Sedin – was mostly long gone, but management had been loath, for whatever reason, to use the term ”rebuild” in describing its path forward.
That changed when Vancouver fired head coach Willie Desjardins in April and replaced him with Travis Green, a former NHL player who led Vancouver’s AHL affiliate the last four seasons.
It was assumed that the shift in rhetoric, coupled with a rookie coach, would result in a number of the club’s promising youngsters getting fast-tracked into the lineup.
Then the Canucks threw many for a loop by diving head-first into free agency this summer, signing veteran forwards Sam Gagner and Alexander Burmistrov, along with defensemen Michael Del Zotto, before adding winger Thomas Vanek right before training camp.
But while those moves seem counter-intuitive to a rebuild, the Canucks insist it’s part of the plan to allow prospects like Olli Juolevi, Elias Pettersson, Jonathan Dahlen and Thatcher Demko to develop as long as possible elsewhere until they’re deemed ready.
”When you’re rebuilding you’re saying, `You need to get better, you need to try to infuse some youth into your lineup,”’ Green said. ”In doing that, you’ve got to make sure your youth is ready. If they are, you have to find a way to play them. If they’re not, you’ve got to make sure they’re developed the right way so that when they do play, they’re ready to help you – not just help you play in the NHL, but help you win.”
By signing those veterans, the organization hopes it has bought itself some time.
”We’ve tried to rebuild our organization,” general manager Jim Benning said. ”We could have between eight and 10 players – kids – playing in (the AHL) this year that we think are going to be NHL players.”
Brock Boeser, who had four goals in nine games for Vancouver last spring, impressed this pre-season, as did fellow former first-round pick Jake Virtanen. Other than those two forwards, however, it seems unlikely any ”kids” will be with the Canucks when they open the season.
Coming off a miserable year highlighted by a slew of injuries, a case of the mumps that tore through the locker-room, and an offense that produced a franchise-worst 178 goals, Vancouver’s veterans are, perhaps not surprisingly, on board with where the rebuild stands.
”We’re further ahead than I thought we would be,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who along with twin brother Daniel turned 37 last week. ”Our depth is so much better than it was over the past couple years.”
Among the few bright spots for the Canucks when they dispersed in the spring was the emergence of center Bo Horvat, who became the first player other than a Sedin to lead the Canucks in scoring since 2006-07.
Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, Troy Stecher and Ben Hutton are also part of a young core already established in the NHL, while Jacob Markstrom looks set to finally shoulder the majority of the goaltending load after Ryan Miller moved on.
”We haven’t had the greatest past two years, but we’ve made some great additions,” said Horvat, who agreed to a six-year, US$33-million contract before camp. ”They’re going to bring a lot of depth and energy.”
A healthy lineup, the resurrection of a horrendously unimaginative power play that ranked 29th, and a vastly improved penalty kill that was only slightly better at 28th will all be keys for the club to even be within shouting distance of a playoff spot.
And the Sedins, who are about to start what could be their final season in Vancouver, need to recapture at least some of the offence that abandoned them in 2016-17 when Henrik registered just 51 points, and Daniel had only 44.
”We’re going to have to be better,” Daniel said of the twins’ production. ”If that’s the case we’ll see how good we are. We’re going to find that out pretty quick.”
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