Canucks slow talk of playoffs, stress need to grow, develop over quick fixes
VANCOUVER — After the hype and subsequent burnout of the Vancouver Canucks 2022-23 season, management is playing it more cautious this NHL season.
Former coach Bruce Boudreau said at the start of last season that failing to make the playoffs would "be a disaster for us."
Vancouver finished the season 38-37-7, good enough for sixth in the Pacific Division, with Boudreau fired and replaced midseason by Rick Tocchet.
Tocchet is the third bench boss for the Canucks in three seasons.
This year, the message from management is one of patience and growth.
"There's still work to be done. We haven't even qualified for the playoffs yet and we're trying to clean up some things," said president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford in September. "To be very to the point: the changes that we made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right."
Everything going right will rest on the performances of new captain Quinn Hughes and a retooled defence.
"As everybody knows, we had a number of shortcomings last year. We feel we've improved some of the areas," said Rutherford, adding that the team's penalty kill was a sore spot.
The Canucks had the worst penalty kill in the NHL at 71.6 per cent.
"We changed our defence, and the defence will be harder to play against," said Rutherford.
"Overall we put ourselves in a stronger position, which wasn't hard to do. We were coming off an off-year, we still have work to do. We're not sitting here saying we're where we need to do be, we still have work to do."
The Canucks signed defencemen Ian Cole from Tampa Bay, Matt Irwin from Washington and Carson Soucy from Seattle in the off-season as well as acquiring Filip Hronek from Detroit late last season as the team added veteran presence and experience to their blue line.
There will be an adjustment as newly-signed players as well as the roster from last year get used to a new penalty kill style, said Tocchet.
"We have a lot of bodies now that can penalty kill. They have the attributes that I think you have to have a good penalty kill," he said.
"It's going to be a work in progress, right from the beginning."
Tocchet said the team worked on five-on-five systems throughout training camp, with consistency and effort the main concepts he wants to instil in the players.
Hughes, who was named the 15th captain in franchise history at the start of September, is the first defenceman to hold the honour for Vancouver since a three-player rotation during the 1990-91 season that included blueliner Doug Lidster.
He replaced Bo Horvat who was dealt to the New York Islanders last season.
The American defenceman served as an assistant captain for the first time during the 2022-23 season, during which the 23-year-old recorded seven goals and 69 assists in 78 games.
"We need guys who are really competitive, want to win and hate losing," said Hughes about the team's makeup this season.
Rutherford, general manager Patrik Allvin and Tocchet have all stressed the importance of drafting and developing young players to fit into the roster.
"In order to ultimately get to where you have to get to, you have to develop your own players … you have to draft right," said Rutherford.
He pointed to the players the team had competing in the NHL Young Stars tournament in Penticton, adding that it shows younger players are eager to push for a roster spot.
But looming in the background is discussion about Elias Pettersson's future in Vancouver.
The 24-year-old bagged 39 goals and notched 102 points last season, a career first 100-plus point season.
The Swede is in the final year of a three-year $22.05 million deal, leaving him a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
But he and the Canucks have maintained that the focus for the centre is the upcoming season, not contract negotiations.
"I'm happy now, but I just want to focus on the season," Pettersson said during training camp.
Allvin said the Canucks front office and Pettersson's representatives are in near-constant communication.
"Elias wanted to focus on having a good summer," said Allvin. "At some point, we will definitely pick it up here again but as I said I have a good agent with Elias and his agent and I feel good about the situation."
Contract negotiations are open for discussion, Allvin said.
Unlike his predecessor, Tocchet said he's not as concerned with a fast start for the Canucks, rather one where the team can build from.
"The start is a big thing around here," he said. "I told the guys … one step at a time, one brick at a time."
The Canucks open their season in Vancouver on Wednesday as they play host to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. They then head to Edmonton for a quick rematch on Oct. 14.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2023.