Sometimes it feels like the Vancouver Canucks are engaged in a decade-long war with reality.
What sort of franchise, after all, employs three different head coaches in 13 months, aside from a club in complete denial about the quality of their assembled roster?
On Sunday, in the latest skirmish, new head coach Rick Tocchet flanked general manager Patrik Allvin and president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford at an introductory press conference at Rogers Arena. It was Allvin who kicked off the proceedings.
“As of this morning,” Allvin began, “I decided to do a coaching change here with the Vancouver Canucks.”
It was an unconvincing beginning, which was underlined further when Tocchet noted that he’d had a conversation with Henrik and Daniel Sedin on Saturday.
Everybody knows that the decision to fire Boudreau wasn’t made on Sunday. This has been obvious and well reported and inevitable for a while. Why not own that?
Because while Boudreau may have been formally relieved of his duties on Sunday morning, from the public’s perspective — and from Boudreau’s, and from the perspective of Canucks players too — he was effectively fired in slow motion across multiple “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts and Insider Trading segments over the past two weeks.
“Part of the reason the coaching change is being made now is that maybe the players who’ve under-performed, maybe that’s just what they are. But maybe you see some improvement,” says Jim Rutherford. #Canucks
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) January 22, 2023
The way this situation was handled caused an unprecedented scene over the past week, one that had Canucks players walking on eggshells and distracted on the ice — by their own admission.
On Sunday, Rutherford took some accountability for the pointed criticism that he’d delivered about Boudreau’s performance over the course of this season.
“Nobody takes great pride in this,” Rutherford said. “I’ve known Bruce for a long time and he’s been a friend and I feel very bad about it. If I’ve offended anybody in the process, I apologize personally and on behalf of the Canucks.”
That was a strong moment. It should’ve been left there.
Instead, the immediate follow-up from the press gallery touched on how damaging the dragged-out Boudreau situation had been to the club’s reputation around the NHL.
Is Rutherford concerned that he’s stacked the deck against his incoming head coach? Is he nervous about how players and agents and rival executives feel about the organization in the wake of this mess?
“First of all, it’s played out in a way that’s out of our control,” Rutherford said. “We can only do our business the way we see fit. We can’t change our business based on speculation.
“So there’s all kinds of speculation out there, it’s not any different than most situations in professional sports where a team isn’t winning as much as people would like and there’s speculation that there’s going to be changes.”
This is where Rutherford’s commentary flipped into the incredible. Canucks players, experienced media members, talking heads around the league, even Boudreau himself (who has been relieved of his duties on three previous occasions) would all readily agree that nobody has ever seen anything quite like what transpired this past week.
No one in this business can remember a scene like the one that unfolded at Rogers Arena on Sunday night, where an outgoing head coach tearfully waved at fans after a home loss that everyone knew marked his final game with the club.
“If you go back to the last time there was going to be a coaching change here,” Rutherford continued, “there was speculation about it, and the owner was talking to Bruce about coming here before there was a change made.”
It’s fair to note that speculation raged around Travis Green’s job security as his tenure in Vancouver wound down, with names like Claude Julien and Scott Walker surfacing in the leadup to his dismissal. We were extraordinarily critical of the organization for mishandling it then, too.
That really was speculation though. This was different. When Green was fired, it wasn’t confirmed and telegraphed by the most prominent insiders in the game for a week ahead of time.
When the Canucks lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins at home in Green’s final game, there was a sense that change could be coming. There wasn’t certainty about it. We didn’t know the identity of his ultimate replacement (and the incoming assistant coaches).
In any event, what occurred in December 2021 around this team was an unholy mess. What occurred this past week was somehow worse.
Citing the similarities between this process and the abject panic that caused the organization to hire Boudreau before formally making a president of hockey operations hire, and that caused the organization to promote Stan Smyl for four days only to demote him again (and then promote him once more to a different job a few weeks later), and that caused Canucks ownership to publicly launch an exhaustive search to find a new chief of hockey operations only to hire Rutherford inside of a week — is something of a self-own.
The Rutherford era was supposed to represent something a lot more polished than whatever that was. Defending the ugly, emotional, distracting process of flipping from Boudreau to Tocchet by comparing the process of replacing Green with Boudreau last season is a line of defence worthy of this season’s Vancouver Canucks.
As for Tocchet, he was in an impossible spot on Sunday. There was little he could do after the events of the past 10 days to restore confidence in this marketplace. He did his best and sounded the part.
Asked what success would look like over the balance of the season, he discussed individual player improvement rather than making a playoff push. It was made clear that Tocchet isn’t expected to turn things around short-term (although he probably will).
Tocchet should probably check Sidney Crosby’s average ice time, but otherwise much of his commentary was grounded and self aware and modest.
What was perhaps most notable, however, was his tepid defense of J.T. Miller, which rested on the idea that Miller was pacing himself.
In a season full of remarkable moments, we should add to the list that the media asked pointed questions about a face of the franchise player whom the club signed to a $56 million extension less than five months ago, a contract which won’t kick in until July. To a man, current management and the incoming head coach accepted the premise of those questions across the board.
All of which brings us to the crux of the matter: the subject of where this club goes from here and how quickly they can arrive there.
Make no mistake, even if it wasn’t the direct focus, the rebuilding question hung over this entire availability. These days it hangs around all Canucks-related matters, and it isn’t going anywhere.
Pacing yourself, eating an elephant one small chunk at a time, the process, “it’s not going to be a quick fix.” The organization can dance around the fundamental question of this club’s overall direction however they like, but it’s present, lingering and never quite fading entirely into the background.
It’s the partially eaten elephant in the room.
The club’s last decade of existence is effectively a case study in whether you can contend in the contemporary NHL by taking shortcuts, or whether a slower, more holistic approach is required.
It’s taken a while to get here, but hockey fans in Vancouver are prepared for patience. There is basically consensus on this outside of the organization.
The Canucks, however, refuse to reach the most logical conclusion about the quality of their team and the distance they likely need to travel back to contention. They’re intent on continuing to try to microwave a five star meal.
Rick Tocchet, Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford meet the press.
Patrik noted that he made the decision to replace Bruce Boudreau “as of today” and that met with him this morning and “thanked him” for his contributions… pic.twitter.com/A9u5HE2jhP
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) January 22, 2023
Which is why the smart money is on Bo Horvat being dealt at the trade deadline for NHL-ready (or nearly NHL-ready) pieces rather than raw, uncut futures.
It’s why the club is widely expected to extend Andrei Kuzmenko and exercise a buyout (or two) on comparable, younger players who play the same position.
It’s why Tocchet will be in tough, if not this season, then in the years to come, when he’s asked to qualify for a playoff spot with a low-ceiling roster weighed down by years of short-term thinking.
Toward the end of Sunday’s press conference, Allvin was asked about the dissatisfaction of the Canucks fanbase with the overall direction of the club.
His strongest portion of the availability by far was when he was discussing the day-to-day, the habits required to build the team he envisions. When the discussion entered that arena, you could tell that he was passionate and not nearly as restrained as he typically is when speaking publicly. He had a point he wanted to convey with urgency.
Within that discussion, Vancouver’s general manager noted that when he looks up at the rafters at Rogers Arena, he doesn’t see any banners and he wants to build a culture that helps to put a championship banner up above the ice.
For Canucks fans, that’s all they’ve ever wanted. Just one, while they’re still around to see it.
Winning matters. The Stanley Cup matters.
There are other things that have to come first though. Things like credibility, integrity and a coherent plan. Things like treating people the right way.
These are the building blocks of getting a skeptical fanbase back on board with the direction this club is heading after a week of dysfunction.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality we didn’t hear club leadership really grapple with on Sunday afternoon.
(Photo of, from left to right, Rick Tocchet, Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press via AP)