Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Canucks Nation.
That’s not exactly Randall Terry’s famous saying, but it’s close enough.
So here we are again Vancouver, for the second year in a row: the Canucks residing in the nether regions of the NHL standings, toiling for the best odds in this summer’s draft lottery.
And while many fans will be pleased with what’s unfolding – the surest way back to the top is to embrace the pain of a full-on rebuild – they should realize this wasn’t the plan.
In fact, this tire fire of a team was a massive failure for those in charge.
At some point Trevor Linden and Jim Benning have to be held accountable for not delivering what they promised.
Upon being hired as GM in 2014, Benning told those assembled at the press conference, “This is a team we can turn around in a hurry.”
While Vancouver did rebound from the John Tortorella debacle with 101 points the following year, the run came to an abrupt and early end against an inferior Calgary team as Willie Desjardins was outcoached in the playoffs.
Prior to last season, TSN’s Bob McKenzie asked Benning if he thought the Canucks could be a 100-point team again.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Benning. “We’re going to be faster and harder to play against this year.”
When pressed to expand on the 2015-16 edition of the team, he said: “What I like most about our team is I think we’re faster. We’ll be a harder team to play against.”
See, he believed it so strongly he had to say the same thing twice.
Unfortunately, that “faster, harder” team finished with 75 points, ranked 28 out of the 30 NHL teams.
This season, Trevor Linden spoke in November about the team’s ability to compete.
“We knew if we saw some performances from some guys from a goalscoring perspective, we could compete for a playoff spot,” he said.
“We think it’s there and we’re going to get it.”
With five games left in the season, Vancouver’s sitting at 69 points – good enough for 27th in the league.
If you listen to Linden or Benning now, you’ll hear that what’s happening currently was all part of the plan.
“At every point we tried to improve this group by getting younger and adding more skill and developing a bigger prospect pool,” Linden said after the trade deadline on March 1.
“That’s always been our goal.”
Now let’s be clear: getting younger and more skilled was one part of their goal, which, you must agree, they have done slowly – though many believe they could have done it better. The other goal was to play competitive hockey.
To see proof of that, you need look only as far as the moves the team has made.
Until this season’s trade deadline, when management finally accepted the team’s ineptitude, they were trying for marginal, short-term upgrades, rather than moves that could move the needle for the future of the team.
It started in 2014 with the trade of a player who was one of the best Canucks at the time – Ryan Kesler – a trade which should have been the start of the rebuild.
Instead of quality prospects, Benning wanted roster players, so he got Luca Sbisa and Nick Bonino, who was dealt for Brandon Sutter, and two draft picks. The first pick, Jared McCann, projected at the time to be a future top-six centre, was traded for Erik Gudbranson, a player who was brought in to help the current defence core.
The second pick was flipped for Derek Dorsett – another move where Benning traded future upside for current depth.
Those original win-now moves continued with the trade of a second-round draft pick for Linden Vey.
Their free agent signings of Ryan Miller for three years, Radim Vrbata for two, and Loui Eriksson for six – all with no-trade or no-movement clauses that make the assets much harder to move – have supported the compete-now agenda.
The critical thing to note is that the Canucks have not improved or remained competitive.
Last season, not only did they finish third last in the standings, they had the worst goals-scored differential of all 30 teams (they scored the second-least goals and were scored on eighth most).
This season they’re ranked 26th in goals-scored differential, only marginally ahead of New Jersey and Arizona.
Point is, the missteps by Linden and Benning have added up and reached such a critical mass that it’s no surprise the Canucks are in the situation they find themselves now.
Take a task as simple as transitioning goaltending from the experienced but expensive Miller through the better-valued Jacob Markstrom to Thatcher Demko – they can’t even get that right.
“Ryan Miller is our number one goalie,” Benning said in September 2016.
“Let’s make no mistake about that first and foremost.”
Then two days ago, Benning told TSN 1040 radio the plan was to transition from Miller to Markstrom all along: “We wanted to get [Markstrom] in 35-40 games this year.”
While that 1a-1b idea would’ve been a great plan, it certainly was not the one they charted out – Benning said so himself.
With Markstrom playing lights out near the end of December, the opportunity was there for Vancouver to start him more. They didn’t, and with season end approaching, Miller has started 52 games, Markstrom 23.
And we are no closer to knowing if Markstrom is ready to be an NHL starter.
So here we are in April 2017: the Canucks finally on the brink of a rebuild that should have begun in earnest three years ago.
While management would have you believe it’s all going as planned, fans haven’t forgotten what Linden and Benning promised as recently as three months ago.
You have to wonder if the Canucks’ owners will have shorter memories.
And if they’ll really want to take the chance of being fooled three times.