Every year we make our predictions on the Sportsnet preview show and every year I predict the Canucks will be there and will contend for the Stanley Cup. It was easy to be an optimist. In the last 10 years the Canucks have won their division six times and finished second last year with 101 points.
I liked the team at the start of the year, but like everyone else worried about their depth. Moving Kevin Bieksa was good for his career, but left the Canucks in a position where their remaining six had to stay healthy. Had Brandon Sutter stayed healthy the young guys could have been eased into more responsibility and their roles could have been more defined. I do not want to get into what ifs and buts. As a famous former Canucks player said many times “it is what it is.”
So if a playoff spot doesn’t materialize, where does the team go from here?
Jim Benning has been forced into using Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann in key positions. Linden Vey has played as either a number two or number three center and on most power plays. Bo Horvat, now in his second year, is one of their go-to guys. Ben Hutton has been thrown into the first pairing and has played incredibly well. The Canucks have had more players play their first games this season than any other team in the league. They are trying to rebuild on the fly and we will see how it goes but there are no guarantees.
There is no blueprint that says if you get a top five pick for two or three years in a five year period, you will be back to being a dominant team. Edmonton is the obvious example. They have missed the playoffs for nine straight years. In those nine seasons they have had the number one choice four times and a top ten in three other seasons. How has that worked for them?
As I write this they are five points behind the Canuck and have played four more games. The Calgary Flames have missed the playoffs five of the last six years and had a resurgence last year because their fourth pick from the 2011 draft taken 104th overall, Johnny Gaudreau, came in and had an impact. The people who say look at the Chicago Blackhawks: that is how you build a team. To a certain extent I agree, but you have to be patient and you have the ability to judge the combination of character and talent and you have to be lucky. Duncan Keith was drafted in 2002 and did not play a playoff game until the 2008 season. Pavel Datsyuk was chosen 171st by Detroit and Henrik Zetterberg 210th and they are why the Red Wings never miss the playoffs. The draft works for the Red Wings, but have they ever had to as some fans and radio hosts are hoping they tank it?
The Canucks are in a position now where they should get a top 10 pick. Will he work out? Who knows, but never think that the players are trying to lose to get a better draft choice. I have been on bad teams as a player and we did our share of losing, but you do not get to the NHL unless you have that edge, that drive, that desire to win. You watch the guys play ping-pong or soccer or even golf and you see that competitive fire. It never goes away and if it does you will not be playing in the league. You may not have the size or the same talent as your opponents, but you can always have the same effort.
Management may look at a player like Connor McDavid and make moves to weaken the roster to increase their chances of getting a franchise player. The Buffalo Sabres traded their goalie last year because he was winning too many games, but what good did that do and did it matter to the guys who go out on to the ice and compete? Every team I played on had the same motto and I am sure the Canucks do too: “you’re in it to win it.”