History gives us perspective on a Canucks rebuild

Dec 19 2017, 9:20 pm

Whether Canucks management wants to say the words or not, they are in a rebuild.

That’s what you call a team that sheds itself of veterans in the name of getting younger.

Say what you will about how they’ve gone about it, but the Canucks have done just that over the last three years under Mike Gillis and Jim Benning.

Cory Schneider, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler, Jason Garrison, and Kevin Bieksa have all been moved for future assets.

They would have been better off shedding more veterans sooner, and you would have liked a better return, but that’s a story for another day.

Today’s topic is how the Canucks can dig themselves out of this mess.

When you’ve had a season like the Canucks have had, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But as we’ve seen in years past, if you have the right young players in your system, a dramatic turnaround can happen quickly. The Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the fifth year in a row in 2007-08. Members of that team included Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dustin Byfuglien, and Andrew Ladd.

Two years later, they won the Stanley Cup.

How many of the right players do the Canucks have in their system? We’re about to find out.

Retired Canucks Dave Babych and Kirk McLean have seen a lot in their career.

“My first year in Winnipeg, I think we were out before Christmas” said Babych. “We went 30 games without a win. In Winnipeg there were people wearing bags on their head.”

The Winnipeg Jets went 9-57-14 in 1980-81, 24 points lower than the next worst team in the league.

“When we won our first game it was against the Colorado Rockies… We won, I believe it was 3-2, and it was a huge celebration. People were going crazy, all the bags from the people that were right at the glass were throwing them on the ice. Our owner at the time invited all of us (7 rookies at the time) to his place and we were drinking Dom Perignon, swear to god.”

The Jets were rewarded for their failure that season and got to select future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk first overall in the 1981 Draft. Four years later the Jets had the fourth-best record in the NHL.

Today’s Canucks aren’t nearly as bad as those Jets were. If the Canucks can find a Hawerchuk of their own in this year’s draft (Auston Matthews???), a similar turnaround isn’t out of the question.

Kirk McLean was a member of some very good Canucks teams in the early 90s, but had to go through growing pains first.

“When I first arrived here in ’87 we weren’t very good for the first two years until Pat (Quinn) arrived and was able to work his magic and mould the team that he wanted” recalled McLean.

McLean was thrown into the fire that season, probably before he was ready. Having played only six-career NHL games prior to being traded to Vancouver, the Canucks made him their number one goalie. He had an 11-27-3 record and a .875 SV%. Two years later, he was a Vezina nominee.

Bo Horvat and Ben Hutton impressed at times this season, but like McLean, they were cast in roles that they weren’t ready for.

“It’s a tough thing, but the bright side of it is that the young players are really getting an opportunity to show what they have and understand what it takes to play in the league. It doesn’t come easy to you, as they’re finding out, but it is exciting because they’re a good crop of young players.”

That’s the silver lining for the Canucks this season. They may not have intended to play as many young players as they did this season, but they’ll be better off next year for it.

Of course Vancouver won’t and shouldn’t clear the deck fully. It’s important to have young players supplemented by some key veterans to show the next generation how to be a professional.

Things went off the rails for the Jets in 1980-81, in part because they had the wrong veterans.

“Because they were all journeymen guys, I think they were just trying to hang on for a job. You played as hard as you could, but the problem with that is once you accept losing, it gets real contagious and it’s real tough to get rid of. Hopefully that’s not what’s going on here because it’s a real tough situation to be in.”

Lucky for the Canucks, they’ve got two great professionals in the Sedin twins.

“If those guys weren’t here, god, it would be ten times worse” said Babych. “They’re just great professionals, they’re real good people. They work hard. If someone works harder than them, I’d like to see it.”

The Sedins believe they’ll get another chance at a Stanley Cup in Vancouver. Given that they’ll turn 36 before next season starts, many people have their doubts about that.

“It’s going to be a long run. They do have some good young players, they really do. I think you’ve got to keep the Sedins around as long as possible, because I truly believe they can play five more years or more. But they just need the support to take a little pressure off them.”

And that will be the key for the Canucks. If the Sedins can be ageless wonders in their late 30s while the next core group of young players emerges, then Vancouver will have a chance.


I spoke to Kirk McLean and Dave Babych shortly before they added their signatures to this crazy big goal goal light outside of Rogers Arena, courtesy of Budweiser.