A few months ago, when the Vancouver Canucks’ miserable season was drawing to a merciful close, club president Trevor Linden went on the radio and said, “When we look at getting ourselves out of this situation, it’s about drafting and developing, and that’s where our focus lies.”
Linden’s remarks were music to the ears of a large segment of the fan base that felt the Canucks had been too impatient, too focused on trying to make the playoffs with an aging roster that was in dire need of a rebuild.
“What we really need is patience,” Linden said at a season-ticket holders event. “It’s going to require some patience from our fan base and some patience from us.”
And so Canucks fans entered the offseason expecting the Canucks to be patient.
And then, on Wednesday, GM Jim Benning traded one of his top forward prospects in 19-year-old Jared McCann — plus he threw in the 33rd overall draft pick this summer — for a 24-year-old, stay-at-home defenseman in Erik Gudbranson.
And how did Benning justify that move?
“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” he told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central (audio). “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”
You’ll note how Benning twice used the phrase “right now.”
And the Canucks wonder why their fans are confused.
To be fair, the Canucks are probably a better team with Gudbranson on it. They had a glaring hole on the right side of their defense, and Benning was determined to fill it. Also, it’s not like Gudbranson is old.
The worry, though, is that the Canucks are trying to serve two masters, the present and the future, and as a result, serving neither master particularly well.
A lot of people in Vancouver — not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people — see what they’re doing in Toronto, and they want the Canucks to do that. Trade veterans. Acquire picks. Lose now to win later, while accepting that there will be some “pain.”
What they don’t want is to travel down the same road the Maple Leafs had to travel — the years and years of mediocrity, or worse — before they finally tore everything down and started again.
In response to that line of thinking, the Canucks have used the Edmonton Oilers as the cautionary, tanking tale. Once a team accepts losing, it can be hard to get that winning culture back, or so the theory goes.
That’s why Benning acquired Brandon Sutter last offseason, and Gudbranson on Wednesday. To him — maybe not to others, but to him — those are “foundation” players, established enough to contribute in the present, while also young enough to be part of the future.
“Once we get the pieces in place from a team-building perspective, we’re going to hold on to those draft picks,” Benning promised.
We shall see.
Currently, Vancouver has just six selections in this summer’s draft, and only two of them are in the first four rounds.
Toronto, on the other hand, has 12 picks, including two in the first round, two in the second, two in the third, and two in the fourth.