What do Canucks fans have in common with a doctor on the verge of bankruptcy? To get through the next few years, they’re going to need a bunch of patients. Vancouver’s rebuild is already way behind schedule, the need for reconstruction only just acknowledged.
Even now, it’s unclear how far into the crumbling foundation management is willing to dig, but at least they’ve stopped calling it a “retool.”
So how long can we expect Rogers Arena to be covered in a proverbial big blue tarp? Good question. It depends on a lot of variables: the vision for the team’s identity, the patience management has for the road ahead, and the emergence of some meaningful draft depth.
But know this: the managers, the coaches, and the players all want back in the playoffs. They want it yesterday. This business is fickle and no one has the luxury of taking their time. That’s a shame.
With that in mind what sort of timeline can we expect? Let’s check out the rebuild process of a few other teams. There are a ton of angles to consider, but I’m going to focus on the draft, and on teams that were once in Vancouver’s shoes: floating near the bottom of the standings for years on end.
The paragon by which all other rebuilds are measured, Chicago successfully shifted from near last in the league to top of the class in dominant fashion. After a playoff appearance in 2002, the Blackhawks slumped to the bottom of the Western Conference.
During their window of irrelevance, they must have purchased a Prospect Predictor 3000 because they drafted better than anyone.
The nabbed Duncan Keith in the second round in 2002, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Dustin Byfuglien in 2003, Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer in 2004, Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2005, and finally Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2006 and 2007.
One cannot overstate how badly Chicago stunk during those years. But they patiently assembled a solid core, capped off by some true franchise players and also Jonathan Toews.
A sign of how ridiculously good Chicago’s draft record has been? Just take a look at the players they’ve offloaded. Byfuglien, Brouwer, Bolland, Brandon Saad, and Kris Versteeg to name a few. All pretty talented NHLers, but all replaceable (with inexpensive components) due to Chicago’s supreme depth.
Turnaround time: six seasons.
If Chicago is the paragon, Edmonton is the cautionary tale. They’ve had four first overall picks in the last decade, yet they just seem to be turning the corner now.
After surprising everyone by rolling into the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, the Oilers finally ran out of gas against Carolina. They've failed to make the playoffs each year since.
Their draft history is a lot more checkered than Chicago’s. There were a few underwhelming hits (Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner), and quite a number of misses (Magnus Paajarvi, Riley Nash, Alex Plante.) Then in fantastically tanky fashion, the Oilers scored three first overall picks in a row, selecting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. Things were looking up, right?
Hah. Hall and Nugent-Hopkins developed into fine players, but neither had the skill to singlehandedly turn the franchise around, particularly without a strong supporting cast.
Only after selecting Leon Draisaitl in 2014 and phenom Connor McDavid in 2015 (and trading away cornerstone players like Hall to shore up the defence), did the Oilers seem to round the bend.
Turnaround time: 10 seasons.
The Capitals orchestrated their rebuild in reverse order from Chicago: they acquired a franchise talent and built out from there. After trading away veterans like Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar in 2004, the Caps finished second worst in the NHL.
However, that landed them the first overall pick. They selected Alex Ovechkin and the rest was history. He arrived in 2005-06 with a splash, winning the Calder as the NHL’s best rookie and tallying 52 goals.
Soon another 2004 first-round pick, Mike Green, rounded into a top defender. (Note that in 2004 Washington had three first round picks. It's almost like stockpiling works.) To centre their star winger, Washington selected Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall in 2006. They also picked up Karl Alzner in 2007, and John Carlson and future Vezina-winning goaltender Braden Holtby in 2008.
After the arrival of head coach Bruce Boudreau things really turned around for the Caps; they’ve been perennial President’s Trophy threats since.
Turnaround time: 4 seasons.
There are other examples. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders or the Columbus Blue Jackets could all make this list. (And they would, but I'm one lazy dude.) An argument could be made for the Calgary Flames or the Toronto Maple Leafs, though I think they’re a bit shaky to be considered true success stories.
A common thread runs through each success story, whether done smoothly a la the Blackhawks or in bumpier fashion as the Oilers. Acquire high draft picks, develop them into the backbone of your team, sign them long term, then surround with an affordable supporting cast.
Note: you do not sign supporting cast members to expensive contracts. No! Bad! When role players seek big money, you trade them for cheap, young replacements and picks.
Where does that leave Vancouver?
They don’t have a paddle, and the creek they’re up, well let’s just say it is not picturesque.
I mean... Washington acquired the best goal scorer since Mario Lemieux, and it still took four years to contend again. Chicago took six!
The truth is the Canucks are looking at just that. Four to six years if we’re being optimistic.
This is why the speedy retool lingo makes me furious. Why bother mortgaging the future for a short-term fix? "I acknowledge this bathtub is broken, so I'll just build a replacement out of papier-mâché!"
Could you argue that they’re already a year or two into reconstruction? Sure! I’d rate Vancouver as having a pretty solid supporting cast to build on. Young, talented defenders in Nikita Tryamkin, Troy Stecher, and Ben Hutton. Good, young forwards in Markus Granlund, Sven Baertschi and Brendan Gaunce.
A few promising prospects could develop nicely into big roles: Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and goalie Thatcher Demko, to name a few.
But Vancouver is missing a gamebreaker. The big franchise player to orbit around. Bo Horvat looks like one heck of a player, but I’m not yet convinced he’s “the guy.” Fingers crossed.
Best case scenario? Bo develops into a true top centreman. Vancouver lands a high pick in 2017 and selects another franchise forward. Juolevi becomes a first-pairing defender, and Demko becomes a hybrid reincarnation of Canucks goalie greats; we shall call him Kirkberto McLuongo.
As for the rest, they develop into a competent group, and the Canucks accumulate buckets of draft picks.
Does that plan get them to the promised land next season, or the season after that? History says not a chance. After hitting rock bottom, four seasons seems to be the minimum timeline for an appreciable turnaround.
You heard it here first. Circle it on your calendars, folks; 2020 can’t get here fast enough.