The Canucks have limped along the past couple seasons, trying to contend and build for the future at the same time. It hasn’t worked. Time to blow it up.
One of the all-time great scenes in one of the all-time great TV series sums up everything the Vancouver Canucks have done wrong since GM Jim Benning took the reins in 2014.
In season 3 of Breaking Bad, Walter White, not yet fully realized as a methamphetamine kingpin, debates the fate of his volatile partner Jesse Pinkman with Hall of Fame henchman Mike Ehrmantraut.
Jesse’s plotting a murder, and Walt wants to stop it by getting Jesse arrested. Their employers, represented by Mike, hate the idea. They want Jesse dead. And Mike makes one of the show’s best speeches in an appeal to Walt’s sense of reason. The topic: half measures versus full measures. Mike tells a cautionary tale from his cop days about the danger of not fully committing to eradicating a problem. He spared a horrible criminal, who ended up committing his worst crime yet just days later. Mike got punished for not doing everything in his power to stop him. “No more half measures,” Mike warns Walt.
Half measures are exactly what we’ve seen from a Vancouver Canucks squad trying to straddle the line between playoff contender and rebuilder for the past few seasons.
Benning’s tenure started off looking like he was committed to full measures. He dealt veteran center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks on draft day 2014 for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and an additional selection in the first round. In the first 36 picks of the draft, the Canucks loaded up with right winger Jake Virtanen, center Jared McCann and goaltender Thatcher Demko. Having drafted Bo Horvat the year prior using a pick acquired for Cory Schneider, the Canucks appeared committed to starting things over and building the franchise the right way.
But what looked like a full measure was revealed as a half measure just days after the 2014 draft, when the Canucks completely contradicted their team vision in free agency. They dropped $10 million over two years to ink right winger Radim Vrbata, and they threw $18 million over three years at goaltender Ryan Miller.
And so began a series of odd, conflicting decisions over the next few seasons. I won’t list them all, as I’ve done it before, but when the same team (a) re-signs Derek Dorsett long-term, (b) trades Kevin Bieksa, (c) trades for Brandon Sutter, (d) trades Eddie Lack, (e) trades Zack Kassian, (f) trades McCann, (g) keeps youngsters like Virtanen in the NHL and (f) does not trade Vrbata or Dan Hamhuis at the 2016 deadline, then also doesn’t re-sign them…wow. Just wow. See a pattern there? You shouldn’t. There is none. It’s virtually impossible to understand the franchise’s plan. Making things worse this summer: signing coveted unrestricted free agent right winger Loui Eriksson to a six-year, $36 million contract that extends to just before his 37th birthday.
It was an especially troublesome deal because, at least to those outside the Canucks organization, this ship had a massive hole in its hull. Most media outlets, including us, picked the Canucks to contend for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Their strange mix of aging veterans, such as Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and not-ready-for-prime-time kids like Virtanen just wasn’t working. Adding an anchor in the form of Eriksson’s contract was a disastrous move. The Canucks were the last team that should’ve pursued such a deal.
What’s happened here is an internal conflict: an organization nowhere near ready to contend for a Stanley Cup has a GM evidently making moves to keep the team just competitive enough to save his job. Vancouver’s 2014-15 playoff appearance was almost a curse in that it perpetuated the misguided idea that this team was going somewhere. You can’t be truly competitive and remake an organization properly. The Toronto Maple Leafs took years to figure this out. They were a laughing stock at the end of John Ferguson Jr.’s tenure as GM and for much of Brian Burke’s and Dave Nonis’ reign. Only when they stopped trying to limp along with veterans did they start building something other franchises can actually envy. It was the “pain” coach Mike Babcock talked about. Trading away Phil Kessel, the franchise’s best player for close to a decade? That’s what you call a full measure. The reward was a terrible season, more lottery balls than any other team, and Mr. Auston Matthews.
Think of the Vancouver as Toronto just before Brendan Shanahan took over and decided to blow everything to rubble. The Canucks lost nine consecutive games before winning in Manhattan Tuesday, and even if the skid was partly the result of bad shooting luck, their struggles have been a blessing. They could expedite major changes behind the Canucks bench and in the front office. With all due respect to Benning and coach Willie Desjardins, it just isn’t working out.
Time for a full measure in Vancouver. What might that entail? Pain. Serious pain. Full measures aren’t supposed to be easy. That’s why it’s so tempting to hedge one’s bets. Pain could include convincing Eriksson he made a mistake signing with the Canucks and trying to work out a trade. Difficult, but not impossible. It’s not like Eriksson is an overpaid, washed-up albatross right now. The number of years left on his contract are a turnoff, yes, but he’s still a front-line NHLer who could help a contender for several years. So perhaps the Canucks find a taker, even if they have to eat a chunk of his salary. Yep, a chunk of his salary for six years. Like I said…pain. A full rebuild requires it.
More of a no-brainer move, of course, is finding a home for pending UFA Miller. The Canucks should swallow as much of his cap hit as necessary if it means parlaying him into a trade for handy draft pick. The goalie market isn’t hot right now, but injuries happen, as we’ve seen with the L.A. Kings.
The move that best suits the Breaking Bad metaphor: doing something about the Sedins. It feels sacrilegious to even ponder trading them. But having Henrik and Daniel in the lineup every night might prevent Vancouver from bottoming out, which it needs to do. Would the Sedins ever consider waiving their no-movement clauses? Dealing them would be among the most complex maneuvers in NHL history, as they carry $7-million cap hits and would want to end up on the same team. It’s unlikely Vancouver management pulls it off. I know, I know – it’s hilariously far fetched. The more likely result is the Sedins never play for another NHL franchise. A more realistic version of a full measure would just be not re-signing the twins when their deals expire after 2017-18. The Canucks will never win a Cup with the Sedins. The window has closed. It’s time to move on.
All Canucks fans can hope for now is that the team keeps losing and saves itself from more denial and bad personnel decisions. The reports Vancouver wanted to trade for 20-goal scorer, which might require giving up a prospect, are ulcer inducing. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported some teams are circling Benning with offers for Olli Juolevi and Brock Boeser. It’s telling that other GMs think they can even ask the Canucks about such an idea. Dealing away top prospects should be the exact opposite of this team’s game plan. It’s time for Benning and team president Trevor Linden to relent. It’s time to stop the half measures.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin