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How Bruce Boudreau Can Rescue the Canucks

The Canucks are extremely disappointing but not lacking in raw talent. Boudreau's specialty: unlocking players' potential.
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Want to play a game? Let’s try to identify two mystery NHL franchises.

Team A sits last in its division, trailing even the new NHL expansion team, and holds the 28th-best points percentage in the NHL at .360.

Team B boasts a talent-rich lineup that includes 11 players selected in the first round of the NHL draft, including five drafted in-house.

Team A and B, of course, are one and the same. They’re both the 2021-22 Vancouver Canucks. Why the trick question? It’s intended to illustrate just how wide the chasm is between what the Vancouver Canucks have accomplished in the past two nightmarish seasons and what they should be accomplishing based on the raw skill they possess. How can a team with Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Vasili Podkolzin, Nils Hoglander, Conor Garland, J.T. Miller and Thatcher Demko struggle so badly?

The Canucks finally appear to be asking that question. Making sweeping changes over the weekend (unfolding in, ahem, a strange order), they axed GM Jim Benning, assistant GM John Weisbrod, head coach Travis Green and assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner.

"First, I want to sincerely thank Jim, John, Travis and Nolan for their passion and dedication to the organization and our community," said Canucks chairman and governor Francesco Aquilini in a team statement released early Monday morning. "We are grateful for everything they have done for the Canucks during their tenure, and we wish them nothing but success in the future. These are difficult decisions, but we believed we would have a competitive group this year. As a result, I'm extremely disappointed in how the team has performed so far. I'm making these changes because we want to build a team that competes for championships and it's time for new leadership to help take us there.”

Focusing on the coaching side of the leadership for the sake of this particular article: what went wrong under Green, exactly? This season, it was everything. The Canucks sit 27th in goals per game, 23rd in goals-against per game, have the league’s 22nd-ranked power play and, at 64.6 percent, have the worst penalty-killing in the NHL…ever. The sample size is only 25 games old, but, if 64.6 percent were to hold, it would stand as the worst rate of any team in NHL history since the league began tracking the stat in 1977-78.

Preventing goals and chances under Green has been a constant bugaboo, one Benning never found the proper defensive personnel to remedy. Since the start of 2019-20, a stretch that includes Vancouver making the playoffs, only one team has a higher 5-on-5 expected goals against per 60 than the Canucks. They allow the most scoring chances, second-most shots and fifth-most high danger shot attempts per 60 at 5-on-5. This season, with the defensive woes still significant and the offense evaporating, the Canucks have had little chance to compete.

They’ve tabbed Bruce Boudreau as Green’s replacement. While Boudreau hasn’t won a Stanley Cup or reached a final yet, he owns the third-highest points percentage in NHL history among coaches with at least 500 games, trailing only Scotty Bowman and Jon Cooper. Boudreau hasn’t broken through as a playoff winner, but his track record of regular-season success is undeniably excellent.

Boudreau has a history of rescuing bad teams and unlocking their potential. When he took over the Washington Capitals in 2007-08, they were 6-14-1, not yet showing any success with budding stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They went 37-17-7 the rest of the way and made the post-season. Boudreau inherited a 7-13-4 Anaheim Ducks team in 2011-12 and, while he couldn’t drag them into the playoffs, they improved to 27-23-8 the rest of the way before Boudreau led them to four consecutive Pacific Division titles. How about the 2016-17 Minnesota Wild? He took them from an 87-point team the season before to a franchise-record 106 points. Boudreau has rapidly and significantly improved his teams upon taking over every time in his career thus far. So how does he do it?

I remember interviewing a few Wild players during that 2016-17 breakout season, and the recurring theme was Boudreau’s ability to find the right way to use each of his tools, to recognize the good in his players and extract the most potential from them.

Here was Eric Staal at the time:

“I had great candid conversations with Bruce over the summer, and he told me he’s going to give me every opportunity to play the way he knew and I felt like I could play.”

Staal was coming off a depressing 13-goal campaign. Under his first two seasons with Boudreau, he scored 28 and 42 goals in his age-32 and age-33 seasons.

Here was Mikael Granlund:

“He’s been right from the beginning just letting me play my game. He’s been especially offensively letting me play my game. He still wants me to play defense and do all the right things, but offensively there’s freedom. I can really play with my instincts. I think that’s been a big reason for me being more productive offensively.”

The 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns were easily the best of Granlund’s career. He set career highs with 69- and 67-point campaigns while playing on an elite two-way line with Jason Zucker and Mikko Koivu.

Here was Wild captain Koivu at the time:

“He really keeps his players accountable, and that’s what players respect. As a team, that’s what you need. When you see everyone is on the same page and he holds everyone accountable, in the long run everyone wants to prepare and do their job as good as they can. It’s been fair. That’s the word. If there’s something that needs to be fixed, we fix it, and it’s not always an easy thing to do for players, but at the end it’s good for the team and the individual player. That shows that coach cares for you, cares for the team, and that’s a positive thing.”

Koivu had his best two finishes in the Selke Trophy vote in those first two seasons under Boudreau: third and fifth.

Those Wild examples represent just one case study, Boudreau has mined career-best seasons from many of his players. In Washington, it was Ovechkin and Backstrom, and, sure, that was easy given it was two stars entering their primes, but how about the relatively unheralded Mike Green? What about Alexander Semin, who did little else once he left Washington? In Anaheim, Ryan Getzlaf finished as the Hart Trophy runner-up in his age-28 season under Boudreau, and that Ducks core came within one game of reaching the final, falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the 2014-15 Western Conference final.

So perhaps Boudreau, a relatable player’s coach with a history of accentuating his players’ best traits, can mold the Canucks clay into something special. There’s certainly a lot more raw talent to work with than he ever had in Minnesota. The question will come down to whether Boudreau can repair the Canucks at both ends of the ice.

There’s no doubting Boudreau’s ability to build high-octane offensive clubs. Across the 10 seasons in which he’s coached a team’s full schedule, he’s iced the league’s No. 1 offense twice and a top-three offense four times. His teams have ranked in the upper half of the league seven times. It stands to reason that Boudreau should find a way to get the Canucks scoring again. He arguably hasn’t coached a team with this much pure skill since the young-Ovechkin Capitals teams.

The defensive side of the puck is where the Canucks need the most help, of course. Boudreau’s Capitals teams never played great defense, but his Minnesota teams did. Per naturalstattrick.com, Across his final three full seasons coaching them, the Wild had the lowest expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 in the NHL. No team allowed fewer scoring chances or high-danger chances at 5-on-5. He obviously had different personnel, and the Canucks don’t have a Suter-Spurgeon-Brodin-Dumba top four to thwart chances on defense, but there’s at least hope that Boudreau can spur a turnaround.

Does that mean the Canucks will miraculously rebound immediately? Of course not. But don’t be surprised if, at the very least, some of their best talents start finding their games under him – starting with their most disappointing star, the extremely gifted Elias Pettersson.

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