Dayal: Canucks fans deserve a long-term rebuild plan they can actually believe in

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VANCOUVER — The Canucks and Jets shared a few similarities going into this season.

Both teams were coming off a disappointing 2021-22 campaign where they fell short of the playoffs. Questions were raised in both markets about whether the existing core needed to be dismantled, especially as Pierre-Luc Dubois reportedly communicated his desire to test free agency in 2024 and as Mark Scheifele questioned his own future at the end of last season.

Both clubs took a high-leverage gamble to double down on their core without making many splashy renovations.

On paper, Winnipeg and Vancouver shared a gifted, electric top six, a questionable defence group and an elite goaltender heading into this season. Both teams needed to make the playoffs to justify their offseason decisions, and in training camp, most had the Canucks and Jets right on the bubble of qualifying for the postseason.

The divergence between the two clubs could not be starker just two months later. Winnipeg’s long-term plan is still uncertain because of Dubois, but the Jets are justifying their roll of the dice in the present moment. Winnipeg can point to its 20-9-1 record, which slots them second in the Central Division, and sell fans on the idea that this group can win now. They can defend their decision not to blow things up and build for the future. That’s the minimum threshold the Canucks needed to reach to rationalize a summer where the club extended J.T. Miller, signed another big-ticket contract in free agency, re-signed Brock Boeser and traded a high draft pick away to dump Jason Dickinson’s contract while not making any trades to get younger or acquire draft capital.

The Canucks aren’t offering their fans hope. Vancouver’s 13-14-3, not good enough to contend now and probably not bad enough to collect the type of top-five pick that could land them a star in a loaded 2023 draft class. There aren’t any blue-chip prospects ready to make an immediate impact, and the club’s cap flexibility to upgrade the roster in the offseason isn’t going to go far.

Vancouver didn’t even look like it belonged in the same league as Winnipeg during Saturday’s 5-1 drubbing. This wasn’t a game against the Avalanche, Lightning or Hurricanes — how could the Canucks look so far apart from a club that was right there with them in the bubble playoff conversation heading into this season?

The obvious answer is Elias Pettersson’s absence due to illness. With Pettersson and (and to a much lesser extent) Boeser out, the skeleton of Vancouver’s top nine looked fragile. Vancouver’s normally dominant power play looked dysfunctional when it mattered, only scoring late in the third when the club was already down 5-0.

But then you look across at the Jets and they entered this game without Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Mason Appleton, Nate Schmidt and Logan Stanley. Ehlers has arguably been the Jets’ best forward not named Kyle Connor the past two years and he’s played in just three games all season due to injury. Wheeler’s been an important piece with 26 points in 29 games in addition to a better two-way game. Appleton’s another top-nine piece, Schmidt’s one of their top-four defenders, and Stanley’s another everyday contributor on the back end.

Pettersson couldn’t have salvaged the Canucks’ performance by himself anyway.

Vancouver couldn’t transition up the ice, lost nearly every meaningful puck battle and was constantly scrambling to contain the Jets’ speed off the rush.

The Canucks’ flaws on the blue line are an evergreen topic, and yeah, the back end wasn’t good enough again, but Saturday night’s performance was a reminder that the responsibility for Vancouver’s defensive woes can’t solely be pinned on the defenders. Bad defensive habits have infested most of the forward group too. Santa could gift the Canucks the perfect top-pair right-handed defenceman that this market has been salivating for and the club would still struggle defensively because of how poorly the forwards defend.

Winnipeg opened the scoring on the power play thanks to Connor. The Canucks were short-handed for that goal because of Tyler Myers’ penalty, and the kneejerk reaction would be to blame him for an undisciplined interference. But let’s watch the shift that directly resulted in the penalty.

Ilya Mikheyev was under pressure with the puck in the defensive zone corner. He sent a pass into Miller’s skates, and he had two Jets players draped on him and couldn’t clear the puck out of the zone. Myers made a good play to break up the cycle, giving the Canucks another chance to break out. Miller tried to slide the puck up the wall but turned it over. Miller regained possession for the club’s third exit attempt when Myers won a battle and made a backhand pass to nobody. The Jets drew the Myers penalty just seconds later.

(Sportsnet)

Canucks forwards struggled time after time to make the neutral-zone plays necessary for establishing offensive zone time. In the play below, for example, Quinn Hughes does an excellent job to evade the forecheck, but once he hits Conor Garland in stride, the latter turns the puck over. He’s slow to react defensively and can’t even make the stop on Cole Perfetti to deny the Jets’ zone entry.

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The Canucks were starting to get some more offensive zone time in the second period. That momentum ended up when Andrei Kuzmenko turned the puck over. Vancouver’s defenders skated up ice, but Nils Höglander couldn’t corral the outlet pass cleanly, turning it over to the Jets. That gave Winnipeg the chance to reset momentum and transition into the Canucks’ end, and less than a minute later they eventually scored.

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Vancouver’s forwards also lost an alarming number of board battles. Here’s an example where Myers picked up the puck in the defensive end after Garland lost a neutral zone battle. Garland received the puck in the neutral zone for a second attempt — lost it again — and if it wasn’t for Cole Perfetti missing the empty net it would have been a goal against.

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My notebook was filled with plays like this. How can a team that defends this irresponsibly up and down the entire roster win a playoff round let alone eventually a Stanley Cup?

It’s time for management to go back to the drawing board, which brings us to some of Elliotte Friedman’s reporting on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Friedman noted that the Canucks don’t want to rebuild or tear things down. Whether you want to call the Canucks’ next steps a rebuild or a retool, the important thing this market’s begging for is a plan that doesn’t make short-term competitiveness or a quick fix the top priority. There’s no way the organization can afford to look at this core’s third consecutive year of failing, face the possibility that Bo Horvat’s days as a Canuck are likely numbered, and somehow conclude that there’s an expedited solution. Quality top-six centres are nearly impossible to acquire via trade or free agency. How can the Canucks expect to contend anytime soon if Horvat departs and leaves a massive 2C vacancy, especially in the wake of Miller’s struggles down the middle?

Management’s top priority has to be to end the club’s obsession with short-term results. Zoom out and craft a blueprint that prioritizes building a long-term contender. Show Canucks fans that a bright future is on the horizon, that this club will build the right way even if it might take a long time. Show that there’s going to be a long-term prize for the fan base’s patience and not just a half-baked, play-it-by-the-ear operation that spins its tires year after year. Give fans hope for the future, because right now there’s very little optimism for the present or the long term.

This market can accept pain and losses. What it won’t tolerate anymore is a lack of long-term vision.

(Photo of the Jets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois and goalie Connor Hellebuyck looking on as the Canucks’ Andrei Kuzmenko battles with Neal Pionk for the rebound in the first period Saturday: Bob Frid / USA Today)



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