Kuzma, willes, botchford_ canucks season was a disaster, but is this rock bottom_

If you look at the Canucks’ record, and nothing but the record, this is the team’s worst season since the end of the 20th century.

So, have the Sedins and their teammates hit rock-bottom? Is it all up from here, or could it get worse? Today, Province sportswriters Ben Kuzma, Jason Botchford and Ed Willes offer different perspectives on the disastrous 2015-16 season — and what the future might look like.


This is how it often works.

Miss the playoffs or get punted aside in short order and there is a level of accountability. And it’s usually the head guy standing behind the bench who walks the plank. It happened to Alain Vigneault after the Canucks were swept in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. It happened to John Tortorella after a one-year reign of error and no postseason in 2014.

You could argue that despite a vote of confidence from president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, the same fate should await Willie Desjardins after a calamitous fall from a 101-point season.

However, this wasn’t any ordinary season. This was theatre of the bizarre. You couldn’t script this stuff. It’s not the coach’s fault that a retooling club crippled by injury — nine regulars were sidelined at one point — and forced to play as many as seven rookies, had to lean harder on sophomore centre Bo Horvat. Or that rookies Ben Hutton, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann had to grow up in a hurry to adjust to the speed of the NHL and never-ending scrutiny in a hockey-mad Vancouver market. Nine rookies made their NHL debuts this season, which meant development pain with the hope of long-term gain.


“We expected to be very young this year and we’ve handed Willie a real challenge with several rookies on any given night, and I think he has performed well, ” Linden said when issuing the vote of confidence. “Our group for the most part has played hard and he gets the most out of them. There’s no reason for us to consider a change. ”

But perhaps Desjardins isn’t without fault. After all, the Canucks were just three points out of a playoff spot on Feb. 9. Yes, that night in Colorado, veterans Brandon Sutter and Alex Edler were lost for the season to injuries, but that still doesn’t explain why the club would win only six of its next 23 games.

The nine-game losing streak amid that mess prompted both Henrik and Daniel Sedin to question the team’s commitment — especially the rookies — to maintain the right culture in the room. That’s great leadership.

But was is it just the shock of a season gone so off the rails that had the Sedins, who are usually so careful about what they say, sounding like they, and not the coach, were taking control of the situation?

Desjardins isn’t one to rant and rave and he gave the leadership group enough rope to keep players focused. And humour over the hammer can be effective because everybody wanted to win this season, and nobody more than the coach.

He’s also amiable and accountable and hard not to like. And he knew pouring gas on the tire fire that was this season wasn’t going to help him or the players.

“I look at our guys and I can’t imagine many occasions where you should have to go in and yell at our room, ” said Desjardins. “We have a veteran room and they’ve got to want to win. Me yelling at them doesn’t make them want to win more. I expect them to bring the attitude. ”

Line deployment, asset management, understanding 3-on-3 overtime, too much loyalty and too little toughness when it came to scratching under-performing veterans were burning issues. So was a lack of scoring and a pop-gun power play.

And while assistant coaches work into that mix, somebody has to ultimately call the shot and sign off on strategy.

Desjardins liked to roll four lines regardless of the game situation. He preferred to spread out scoring rather than become a one-line club by not aligning the chemistry-consumed Radim Vrbata with the Sedins. But Vrbata didn’t score in his first six games and a 13-goal season marred by injury and indifference hurt the club at the trade deadline — the winger had a limited no-trade clause and had just one goal in his previous 15 games — and will hurt his leverage in free agency.

After an initial 0-7 run in overtime outcomes, there was widespread concern in the hockey operations department about whether it was a personnel problem or performance issue. The five-minute segment became a five-alarm migraine because it stood to reason that giving the Sedins ample time and space was going to drive the opposition crazy. But it drove the Canucks nuts. They pressed to score and gave up easy goals in transition.

Following a 2-1 overtime loss at Los Angeles on Dec. 1, in which they failed to generate a shot, a flustered Henrik Sedin suggested: “Maybe we’ve got to get it to a shootout and go from there and maybe win one and build off that. ” The summation was stunning.

It eventually led to deploying the kids and letting speed kill. But why did it take so long? Was Willie late to that dance? It is debatable.

It wasn’t just a learning year for Desjardins, it was one for the entire hockey operations department. There’s always pressure from above to make the playoffs and pressure from within to be on the same page and do what’s right for today and especially tomorrow. Being on the same page means there has to be that symmetry between Linden, general manager Jim Benning, assistant John Weisbrod and Desjardins.

The vision has to be clear. There can’t be mixed messages about players or staff. There has to be a consensus about the coach that goes well beyond loyalty and maintaining stability within the organization.

Desjardins deserves a healthy roster next fall. He deserves a couple of free-agent wingers, the off-season maturation of rookies and a few training camp surprises.

If he gets all that, then the first quarter of next season will be a better barometer to see if he’s really the guy to guide this ongoing and tough transition to a higher level of competitiveness and consistency.


Granted, it’s a big ask, but let’s for the moment ignore the inconvenient truth about their place in the standings and review some of the things we’ve learned about the Vancouver Canucks this season:

1. Jacob Markstrom is an NHL goalie who could develop into a legitimate No. 1.

2. Rookie Ben Hutton is an NHL defenceman who could develop into a top-four blueliner.

3. Sven Baertschi is a 20-goal scorer and could be more.

4. Rookie defenceman Nikita Tryamkin is ready for regular duty next season. He’s also 6-foot-7 and weighs 245 pounds, which is all you need to know about his upside.

5. 2014 second-round draft pick Thatcher Demko has emerged as an elite goaltending prospect.

6. 2015 first-rounder Brock Boeser has emerged as an elite forward prospect.


There have been other positive developments. You wouldn’t exactly call the rookie seasons of Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann an unqualified success, but they survived a full NHL campaign as 19-year-olds and demonstrated some promise. Bo Horvat, who just turned 21, was forced into an expanded role because of injuries and still looks to be the Canucks’ next captain.

And no matter what else this season brings, it will fetch at least a top-five pick in this summer’s draft — and if the ping-pong balls are kind to the Canucks, they could move into the top three.

So add it all up and you can argue this has been a successful season for the Canucks, even if that damned record tells you otherwise.

Admittedly, applying any positive spin to this Canucks year requires a number of broad assumptions. But one of the central themes of 2015-16 has always been that the win-loss ledger is of secondary importance to the development plan of the organization.

Now, we can have a long conversation about the Canucks’ intentions at the start of this season — anyone remember Brandon Prust? Adam Cracknell? Chris Higgins? Yannick Weber? — but through some combination of their own design and a devastating injury pandemic, the brain trust was forced to play a largely young, largely untested lineup.

On that basis, the results in the standings were predictable. But what of the Canucks’ future? Does this season represent a jumping-off point for a bright new era, or is it the start of a long and dreary rebuild which promises nothing?

The answer, of course, is somewhere in between. It’s illogical to assume all the Canucks’ kids will step into the lineup next season and emerge as bona fide NHLers ready to contribute to a playoff run.

But it can be assumed there will be a broad base of improvement and development within the organization which, in time, will result in a competitive team.

You can easily make the case, in fact, that the current crop of players aged 23 and under is the most exciting group of recruits in Canucks history. There’s still a long way to go before that group matures, but look at the bright side: The journey will make for fascinating viewing.

As for this season, if there’s one thing the organization has been culpable of, it’s the misrepresentation of the team’s objectives. Back in October, the Canucks maintained they could pull off this rebuild while conceding nothing in the standings. It was a fanciful notion and it was repeated right up until the point where it lost all credibility.

But it also ignored the reality of the team’s place in the hockey universe. Rebuilds, resets, restructures, whatever term you care to apply, are messy and unpredictable by their very nature. The exercise requires replacing known commodities with unproven neophytes, and that process, even when it’s successful, requires time and patience.

Over the last couple of years, you can identify 11 NHL teams who’ve gone down this road and, this season, one of them has emerged as a playoff team: the Florida Panthers.

From 2010 to 2014, the Panthers also picked third, third, 22nd, second and first in the draft and they came together this year with 72-year-old Jaromir Jagr in the lineup and 64-year-old Roberto Luongo in goal. Or something like that.

Given that, it’s impossible to know how long the Canucks’ rebuild will take. But it had to start somewhere and the least you can say about this season is that there are some encouraging returns.

As to what lies ahead, let’s make a date. Let’s reconvene in three years’ time, when Markstrom and Demko are sharing the net; when Hutton is 25, Tryamkin is 24; when Horvat, Baertschi, Virtanen, McCann, Boeser and this year’s first-rounder have established themselves in the world’s best league.

Can’t say where that team will finish, but it offers hope. And if you can’t sell wins, that’s the next best option.


This would be such a reassuring story if it pointed out the Canucks’ vast injuries, some encouraging moments by their youngest players and, well, plain old bad luck. Torturous season, to be sure, but good things to come in the not-too distant tomorrows.

Unfortunately, this is not that story.

Because as dreadful as this season was for the Vancouver Canucks, it can get worse. Much worse.

The Canucks have a problem and it’s a troubling one, the kind that keeps general managers and owners awake for days on end. They are short on stars — in the present and in the near future.


And by that I mean they’re short on elite talent. In the NHL, you do not win without elite talent, not in any meaningful, lasting way.

They may get a star in this draft, if they’re lucky or incredibly shrewd or both, and that would be wonderful.

They may skilfully develop one or, let’s say, three of their recent draft picks into stars. It’s a long shot, but there’s a chance. It may not, however, be enough. Not for next year, or the year after or even the year after that.

And not if what Henrik and Daniel Sedin have done in the second half of this season is a harbinger of their decline.

For years, the Canucks’ regular season records have been artificially propped up because of the Sedins’ excellence and consistency.

As bad as it was anywhere else in the lineup, they had a first line, and one of the best in the NHL at that.

But with the Sedins turning 36 before next season, and having each played more than 1,200 NHL games, including post-seasons, there are questions about injuries, general wear and, of course, age.

Do they have enough left to carry this group back to decency? How much can you reasonably expect from them in 2016-17 and beyond?

Much like two years ago, the Canucks’ terrible second-half tailspin coincided with a lack of production from the Sedins.

This year, they spent much of the season after January being out-produced by Bo Horvat. To paraphrase former coach John Tortorella, that’s great news for Horvat, but not for the Canucks.

Yes, the Sedins were injured. Yes, they got little help in terms of secondary scoring. But now, truer than ever, as the Sedins go, so do the Canucks. When they stopped scoring, so did the team, and it sunk the Canucks to the bottom of the pit in league scoring.

Could it happen again? Of course it could. Carrying this organization is a heavy load for a couple of players heading into their sunset years, but there is no one else here ready for the limelight.

They are the only protection this franchise has from having several years in a row that are just like this one. No pressure, right?

If all was right with the organization, there would be a succession plan to the Sedins. There would be forwards emerging now as NHL powerhouses, ones who could support the twins when they’re flying and cover for them when they’re not.

But there is no one close. Not yet.

Horvat has the makeup of a future captain but remains years away from being a dominant top-six centre, if he can even climb that high.

The defence has a couple of decent players, but there is no one dynamic enough to pull the sled.

The goalies played well enough to make this team look better than it was this year, but even that wasn’t enough to keep Vancouver from being the worst team in the league in 2015-16’s final chapter.

The Canucks will make some changes this summer. They will bring in new players. They will have excellent training programs for their current players. They may even change the coach.

None of it will guarantee this season was rock bottom.

The only thing that can do that is a bounce back from the Sedins, one that lasts all of next season, the one after and probably the one after that.

For two players who have already done so much for this city and this team, it’s a monumental ask.

But, at this point, there doesn’t appear to be an alternative.

bkuzma@postmedia. com | ewilles@postmedia. com | jbotchford@postmedia. com