BOSTON - The Vancouver Canucks aren’t entirely winless on their road trip. They beat the blizzard that slammed into New England on Wednesday.
The Canucks chartered to Montreal after the previous night’s 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. For those left behind, let’s just say there was a run on sled dogs and snowshoes here.
Everything was encased in snow and ice and nothing moved amid the chill. So it was a lot like the relationship between former Canuck coach Mike Keenan and general manager Brian Burke in 1998, which was the last time before this week that a Vancouver coach said something that could be construed as critical of his boss’ roster.
During the final months of that dysfunctional marriage between coach and manager, Keenan, impatient for Burke to trade Pavel Bure, who had walked out on the team in the hope of one day having his jersey retired, told reporters a couple of times there was only so much he could do with the players the GM provided him.
To publicly illustrate his desperation, Keenan pulled his goalie halfway through the third period of a game the Canucks trailed by a couple of goals. Had it not been against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens, maybe no one would have noticed.
But the Leafs noticed, and when Keenan did the same thing a second time, Toronto scored a joke empty-netter in 5-1 victory. Burke, however, remained calm in the press box and instructed his assistant, Dave Nonis, not to react to the embarrassing goal “because every camera in this place is on us right now.”
Burke discreetly fired Keenan a couple of months later.
But don’t expect current GM Mike Gillis to fire coach John Tortorella, who said Monday the team needs to address its lineup, because their relationship is nothing like the short-lived partnership between Burke and Keenan.
Tortorella and Gillis have been as unified as a two-man luge team since the coach was hired in June.
So when Tortorella said after Monday’s 2-0 loss in Detroit that “we need to change the complexion of our hockey club, either with our play or with different people,” it was nothing Gillis didn’t already know and agree with.
“We’re absolutely on the same page,” Gillis said Thursday. “In terms of communicating, we discuss every issue on our team. Every day the conversations we have are about how the team is performing. But you have to keep things in context or we’d trade every player who has a bad game.”
So far this season, Gillis has traded one player off his National Hockey League roster: fourth-line winger Dale Weise on Monday.
Tortorella’s comment and Gillis’ support of it doesn’t mean the Canucks’ long-standing core is going to be blown up this season – or possibly at all – despite chatter in some places that the team is about to start rebuilding in mid-season.
Asked if he is planning a rebuild, Gillis said “no.”
Neither the league, this year’s artificially-suppressed salary cap nor the contracts of the Canucks’ core players are structured for a quick and massive overhaul. If substantive changes occur, they’re far more likely to be in the summer, measured and deliberate.
Apart from the contractual necessity for the Canucks to work potential deals with the cooperation of players who possess no-trade clauses in their contracts, when is the last time Gillis did anything hastily or rashly? OK, that $20-million-US offer to Mats Sundin was 5½ years ago.
The Canucks do need some change. Gillis should have orchestrated more of it last spring and summer. As with Keenan, Tortorella inherited a lineup that has gone stale and the coach is encountering many of the same problems that plagued Alain Vigneault.
“I said we were going to reset the team, and the first stage of that was changing coaches, which was a difficult decision” Gillis said. “The second stage was getting into compliance with the salary cap. The third stage was to come into this season with John and evaluate where our team is at.”
Gillis said that is difficult to do amid the Canucks’ worst run of injuries since he became GM in 2008.
Among the Canucks’ top six forwards, the oldest are Daniel and Henrik Sedin at 33. They’re also the only ones with no-movement provisions accompanying their no-trade clauses. The oldest top-four defenceman, Kevin Bieksa, is 32. The Canucks still have a lot of bullets in their gun – to use another Burkieism – so there is no need to panic and start over.
It is significant that Tortorella voiced his concern about the lineup on his first day back from a 15-day suspension, which allowed him time and space to view his team at arms-length, physically detached from players.
“It’s a whole different perspective,” Tortorella explained in Boston. “Although I wouldn’t recommend the way it happened, it’s not a bad thing to do. I tried to use my time that way to evaluate.
“I was honest (in Detroit) about what I felt about situations. At this time of year, quite honestly, it’s happening with a lot of teams. You have to look at your club. All teams are looking to try to get better. All teams have to make decisions on which way they go. It’s the lay of the land right now. But it’s not a situation, as everyone has turned it into, of coach-against-general manager.
“All teams are going to try to get better. All teams have to sometimes make a decision on how you get better. All teams are talking about that. That’s what I was saying.”
Gillis did not travel to Detroit or Boston, but is in Montreal, where the Canucks play the Canadiens Thursday night. After five straight regulation losses, Vancouver’s longest pointless streak since the season Keenan was fired, the team did not practise on Wednesday.
The Canucks are 4-11-3 since Dec. 29.
“It’s not an aberration,” Tortorella said.
Nor was his view of the Canuck lineup a fleeting one.
“He’s been here long enough now to see things and what he thinks is the problem, so you have to pay attention to what he says,” captain Henrik Sedin said. “We’ve had the same core for a while. Again, I believe we have the group to do it. But there’s only so much patience from people above you.”
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