By: Greg Makarov, Sports Writer
After a lackadaisical season riddled with COVID-19, injuries, and underwhelming play, the Canucks needed change. During a busy and aggressive offseason from former general manager Jim Benning, star players Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were re-signed and seven other depth forwards were brought on. Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were acquired by the Canucks in exchange for their highly coveted first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Defensive specialist Brad Shaw was also brought on as an assistant coach to heighten defensive play.
With a much stronger top-six forward group and improved top-four defensive core, the Canucks looked like contenders for a playoff spot. However, once they began to play, many were surprised to see a team with seemingly no structure or passion to win. With a newfound focus on their defensive game, the team’s offence completely dried up.
The penalty kill plummeted to an abysmal 60%, the worst in NHL history. By the end of head coach Travis Green’s (8–15–2) tenure, the team looked frustrated, and desperate for change. The last straw came after a demoralizing home defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins that included chants to “fire Benning” and “sell the team.” Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini decided to clean out management. General manager Jim Benning, his assistant general manager John Weisbrod, head coach Travis Green, and some of his staff, were let go, introducing a new era for the organization.
Under the leadership of veteran head coach Bruce Boudreau, the team experienced a surge of adrenaline otherwise called the “new coach bump,” winning their first six games and tying the record for most wins in a row for a new coach. During this time, the Canucks power play has been above 30%, while the penalty kill has been operating at 83%. Forwards such as Brock Boeser, who was in a goal drought, scored in consecutive games. Across the board with an (8–0–1) record, the team’s confidence has surged, backstopped by Thatcher Demko, the third star of December, with a stellar 0.940% save percentage.
Ultimately, this has been a lesson in organizational dynamics and how a winning culture is equally as important for the players as it is for management. To build a new leadership group and identity for the team, changes had to be made and senior staff were removed. This shift in direction is reflected in the morale of the players, especially the leadership group including captain Bo Horvat and leading goal scorer J.T. Miller.
Sporting the league’s fifth worst goals against the previous season, Green attempted to convert the young and skillful Canucks to fall back and backcheck — a total mistake. Whereas, the new management accepted that the Canucks will never be a defensive-minded team. Taking advantage of stellar goaltending, Boudreau encouraged the Canucks to shoot and stop making dangerous stretch passes for quick offensive rushes. The success of the team trickled down from the faith in management and belief in the young talent to play their game.
Albeit occasionally falling into their old habits, the Canucks are climbing in their division, and are still in the picture for playoffs which is something that fans could only dream of three weeks ago. The team will face its greatest test in the month of January with a game every second day, starting with the Florida Panthers.