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Hockey fans in Vancouver have gotten the changes they’ve been clamoring for.
Sunday night, reports emerged that the faltering Canucks have cleaned house at both the management and coaching levels.
According to Irfaan Gaffar of The Fourth Period, both general manager Jim Benning and assistant GM John Weisbrod have been shown the door. Sportsnet reporter Iain MacIntyre adds that the new interim management group will include long-time executive and former Canucks captain Stan Smyl, current assistant general manager Chris Gear, AHL Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson and former Canucks greats Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who were named special advisors to the general manager last June.
On the coaching side, Gaffar reports that head man Travis Green and assistant Nolan Baumgartner are out, while Bruce Boudreau and Scott Walker will step behind the bench.
The moves have been anticipated — by some, for years; by most, for the last few weeks.
After a 24th-place finish in the NHL standings during the Covid-shortened 2020-21 season, Benning undertook a major offseason roster overhaul and promised a revitalized squad that would contend for a playoff spot.
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Instead, after 25 games the Canucks are two points behind last season’s disappointing pace, with a record of 8-15-2. They’re last in the Pacific Division as of Sunday, 28th in a 32-team league, and owners of a historically bad penalty-killing unit.
Two of the team’s top offensive players have also been dramatically underperforming.
In his first two years in the NHL, Elias Pettersson scored at nearly a point-a-game level. Last year, he had 21 points in 26 games before he was shut down with a season-ending wrist injury.
After signing a three-year bridge contract that carries a cap hit of $7.35 million per season, Pettersson has just four goals and 12 points in 25 games this season. Recently, Green has been deploying the 23-year-old on Vancouver’s third line.
Similarly, Pettersson’s frequent linemate Brock Boeser has just four goals and 10 points. The 24-year-old is in the final year of a three-year contract with a cap hit of $5.875 million. He’ll be a restricted free agent at season’s end.
In his previous positions as head coach of the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild, Boudreau developed a reputation as a coach who could get the most out of offensive players — and who can turn around an underperforming team in a hurry and guide them to the postseason. He has been on the sidelines since he was let go by the Wild on Feb. 14, 2020.
Reports indicate that Boudreau’s agreement with the Canucks is for this season and next, the same term that Travis Green agreed to when he signed his contract extension with the organization last May.
Green departs in his fifth season with the Canucks, with an overall record of 133-147-34 in 314 regular-season games (.478 points percentage). His crowning achievement came in his club’s lone playoff appearance, when the Canucks came within one game of advancing to the Western Conference Final in 2020 playoff bubble in Edmonton.
While Boudreau’s arrival and Green’s departure should have an immediate impact on the club’s on-ice performance, Benning has been the main man in fans’ sights for quite some time.
Hired during the summer of 2014 after serving as an assistant general manager with the Boston Bruins and the director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres, Benning preached a draft-and-develop philosophy while promising that he could build a successful roster without putting the Canucks through a full rebuild.
Now, that plan can officially be pronounced a failure.
During Benning’s seven-plus seasons with in Vancouver, the Canucks made the playoffs only twice — in his first year, 2014-15, and in 2020. He hit on some first-round draft picks such as Pettersson, Boeser and Quinn Hughes but missed on others, most notably 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen (sixth overall) and 2016 first-rounder Olli Juolevi (fifth overall). And in his more recent efforts to ice an immediate contender, Benning traded away his last two first-round picks: the 2020 selection was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the price of acquiring J.T. Miller, and the 2021 pick was bundled in a deal with the Arizona Coyotes which saw the Canucks acquire Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland.
Benning, Green and the coach who preceded him, Willie Desjardins, were all first-time heads at the NHL level when they were hired by the Canucks. Boudreau sits at the other end of the spectrum — 29th all-time with 984 NHL games coached and an overall record of 567-302-115. The only coach with more games behind an NHL bench and a higher regular-season points percentage than Boudreau’s .635 is Scotty Bowman (2,141 games, .657).
It has been a generation since the Canucks made an in-season coaching change. The last time it happened was Jan, 23, 1999, when Marc Crawford replaced Mike Keenan. Crawford lasted until the end of the 2005-06 season before he was succeeded by Alain Vigneault. In the summer of 2013, John Tortorella replaced Vigneault for one tumultuous year. Willie Desjardins was Benning’s first hire in 2014, then Green succeeded him in 2017.
Fans won’t have to wait long to get a look at the new coaching staff. The Canucks continue a six-game homestand Monday, hosting the Los Angeles Kings.