How the Canucks pulled off an improbable single-season turnaround

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How the Canucks pulled off an improbable single-season turnaround

Before Rick Tocchet changed everything, Vancouver Canucks fans welcomed him to the franchise with a hearty round of boos at Rogers Arena.

It was late January of 2023 and the Canucks were reeling. The team, a directionless also-ran for much of the past decade, was mired in another lost season.

Even worse, president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin’s still relatively new hockey operations department was shrouded by a thick cloud of dysfunction and controversy.

And then the blown leads and the losses started — and continued. As the season unfolded it was abundantly clear that Rutherford’s new-look management group was at odds with fan favourite head coach Bruce Boudreau, who, inconveniently, had been hired directly by Canucks ownership before Rutherford agreed to take the wheel as the organization’s new hockey czar in December of 2022.

All of this understandable fan frustration came to a head with Boudreau’s tearful dismissal, a slow-motion saga that unfolded over several weeks.

It was widely reported that Boudreau would be fired, and there was little argument that the club needed something to shake up their play style given the inability to defend. What made the Boudreau situation unique, however, was how many of the details were credibly confirmed weeks in advance.

Before the axe could formally fall on Boudreau, fans and media and Canucks players and even the coaching staff knew the identity of his replacement, and even the probable date of his dismissal.

After a home loss in what was widely understood to be Boudreau’s final game behind the bench, fans chanted “Bruce There It Is!” as the veteran coach tearfully soaked up the moment.

Given the dynamic that Tocchet walked into in Vancouver, it was clear that the new bench boss faced an uphill climb.

Rick Tocchet didn’t initially receive a warm welcome from Canucks fans. (Derek Cain / Getty Images)

“I never took it personally,” Tocchet said in a conversation with The Athletic last week. “I knew I was coming into a tough market with a team that had not won in basically 10 years.

“They had affection for Boudreau, so obviously it’s not the most ideal situation, but ideal situation or not, my job was to go in there and to turn things around.

“I don’t wanna say it was a hostile environment, but it was a fan base that was starving for a winner. And I just happened to be that guy there in the way of their displeasure. Thankfully we started strong, Jim and Patrik stuck to what they believe in and, so far, we kind of turned a few things around.”

There’s no arguing with the results. Tocchet has now coached 118 games behind the Canucks bench, with the team amassing a 70-35-13 record across his season-and-a-half in Vancouver, good for the seventh-best point percentage in the league during that span.

Now the Canucks are Pacific Division winners preparing to host their first playoff game in nine years. In advance of the postseason, The Athletic spoke with a handful of the principals involved to get a sense of how the Canucks franchise authored one of the most dramatic and improbable single-season turnarounds in recent NHL history.

Hiring Tocchet marked the beginning of a dramatic change in Vancouver’s fortunes, but the club’s change behind the bench was only the beginning.

Within 10 days of Tocchet taking over behind the bench, the team traded captain Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders for a package that included Anthony Beauvillier, forward prospect Aatu Räty and a 2023 first-round pick.

Horvat was popular in Vancouver, one of the club’s few bright lights during a dark era for the franchise, and the Canucks’ original plan had been to extend him with a team-friendly contract. When talks with Horvat stalled out in the summer of 2022, however, the Canucks pivoted, inking J.T. Miller to a $56 million contract instead.

For Rutherford and Allvin, the Horvat trade was the big domino, but their flurry of pre-deadline activity was only just beginning.

Over the next several weeks the team quickly jettisoned a pair of recently acquired players in Riley Stillman and Curtis Lazar, both of whom were on modest contracts with term, for futures of moderate value. Luke Schenn was sent to Toronto for a draft pick. The Canucks paid a modest price to jump the waiver queue on out-of-favour former first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov from the New York Rangers.

The big deal, however, was for Filip Hronek, acquired for the 2023 first-round pick the club had netted in the Bo Horvat trade and an additional second-round draft pick.

In Vancouver, the Hronek deal was a stunner. The club had seemed to be amassing futures for a loaded 2023 NHL Draft class ahead of the deadline. The Hronek trade, however, signalled that Rutherford and Allvin were impatient to get back to the business of winning hockey games, and saw rebuilding the blue line as the key.

“We had Tyler Myers and then we add Carson Soucy and then we add Zadorov. And Cole too, I mean, these are heavier guys,” Rutherford said. “And then we added Hronek last year, who’s more on the skill side, and he’s been very good for us.”

Meanwhile, as management went to work reshaping the roster, Tocchet was working down the stretch with the players, and winning an inconvenient number of games from the perspective of Vancouver’s lottery odds.

His work emphasized practice habits and line changes. His key stylistic staples seemingly focused mostly on day-to-day professionalism.

“Chipping the body, good changes and, you know, wall battles,” said Tocchet when asked to describe his oft-cited “Staples.” “It’s the details of your game, like the practice habits, you have to have all these staples if you want to become a good team.

“My first thing when I walked into the dressing room, I will tell you, the one thing I did is I showed some video of the team not changing well. This was a team that did not change well, guys came to the bench really slow, lazily.

“And I’m not blaming the players. It’s just something I saw go that way. I don’t like the way this team changed. That was the first thing I showed that we had to correct. And I think when you correct all those little things, everything else falls into place.”

Despite a myriad of key injuries to veteran players, and while icing a patchwork lineup featuring a large group of NCAA free agents on defense, Tocchet’s Canucks finished the season 20-12-4 in their final 36 games. Their underlying numbers trended in an auspicious direction. Thatcher Demko returned from injury and played spectacular hockey.

And Tocchet was able to get a sense of the group, with far-reaching implications for what came next.

“By him getting in here, the players got to understand him, how he worked. And he got to understand how the players worked and what players he wanted here,” Rutherford said. “And when you look at the kinds of changes that we had to make, from the standard changes, to changing the core and the leadership group, and deciding who the captain should be, all that, Rick would not have been in that position if he didn’t come in partway through the season.

“It was important to get a jump on this season. As it turned out, it’s really helped a lot.”

“Central to what’s happened here is that we got the salary cap untangled,” Rutherford said when asked what’s permitted the Canucks to shoot to the top of the Pacific Division standings this season.

In truth, the biggest transaction of Allvin and Rutherford’s Canucks tenure so far isn’t the big-money extensions that Miller and Elias Pettersson signed.

It wasn’t the big bet the team placed on Hronek, or the back-to-back jump-the-market blockbusters that sent Horvat to Long Island, and brought Elias Lindholm to Vancouver.

It wasn’t even the moves the Canucks didn’t make, like pulling back from moving on from wingers Brock Boeser and Conor Garland, who’d been widely available on the trade market in previous seasons, and have been star contributors throughout this campaign.

No, the signature move of Rutherford and Allvin’s managerial tenures was a paper transaction: the decision to buy out Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

It was the biggest ordinary course buyout in the history of the NHL’s cap era, based on the total value of the deal. And it freed up Allvin, Rutherford and company to reallocate that cap space by engaging in some modest shopping in free agency designed to boost the club’s penalty kill and add some tougher players capable of fitting in with Tocchet’s stylistic preferences.

Rutherford and Allvin’s decision to buy out Oliver Ekman-Larsson freed them up to do some shopping in free agency. (Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

“That is something that he stresses with Patrik and I, the importance of that,” Rutherford said of the team adding some toughness and size to the lineup. “And you know as much as Patrik could find guys, we have improved that part of it from the start of the season.”

On July 1, the team was able to sign Teddy Blueger and Ian Cole to reasonable one-year contracts. Carson Soucy was the bigger spend, on a relatively modest three-year deal at $3.5 million per season, which he’s more than lived up to.

“People asked me at the start of the season, like, ‘Every team you’ve played on makes the playoffs, why would you want to go there?” Like they were insinuating that the team kind of sucks, like why would you want to be there,” said Cole of signing with Vancouver. “And I’d tell them this is a good roster, with a lot of good hockey players. It felt like we just needed direction.”

In mid-August, the team brought in Pius Suter on a two-year deal worth $1.6 million annually, a massive bargain given how many different roles Suter has filled ably in the Canucks lineup throughout this season.

It wasn’t immediately clear at Canucks training camp that this season would be different.

“It’s hard to see in training camp, especially when we lost 10-0 in Calgary (in the preseason opener),” said Rutherford. “I didn’t see a whole lot during training camp, but I liked how it was going in terms of learning and work ethic.”

On the eve of training camp, the Canucks completed a trade sending Tanner Pearson to Montreal along with a mid-round draft pick for Casey DeSmith to bolster their goaltending depth. Another deal, in advance of the season, added Sam Lafferty to the club’s lineup for another mid-rounder.

Once the season began, the Canucks bested the Edmonton Oilers 8-1 in their home opener and then again at Rogers Place before flying to Philadelphia.

The game against the Philadelphia Flyers was catastrophic. It was probably Demko’s best performance of the year, which is why the result wasn’t as ugly as Vancouver’s form was in a 2-0 loss.

“I thought we had a really good training camp, and then we had a game in Philly and we were terrible,” Tocchet said. “I remember we were all bad and I kind of went after the players a little bit in the media. And I don’t regret it, but I’ve got to calm down a bit.

“Then we kind of had a couple of good games at the end of the road trip, and I said to Adam Foote, I said, ‘These guys are getting it. They understand. They know what we are talking about now.’”

Ian Cole said the Canucks’ catastrophic early season loss to the Flyers was a wake-up call. (Matt Kartozian / USA Today)

“We went into Philly after the Edmonton wins thinking, ‘Look at how good we are!’” said Cole. “And they just come out and play that John Tortorella-style grind game, and it slapped us in the mouth. They played a more playoff-adjacent style, where everything is hard, which was a 180-degree flip from playing Edmonton (the first two games).

“That was a reminder that it was going to be hard.”

The club lost their next game against Tampa Bay, and then reeled off an 8-0-1 point streak before losing again in regulation.

“Once we got going, probably 10 or 12 games in, I could start to see that these guys were bought into what Tocc was asking for,” recalled Rutherford.

By mid-November, Vancouver had ascended to the top of the Western Conference standings.

Though the Canucks had a lot going their way — as Rutherford memorably suggested it had to — it wasn’t all placid. Recently extended scoring forward Andrei Kuzmenko saw his role reduced, as he struggled to buy into Tocchet’s staples. Beauvillier was playing reliable defense, but wasn’t bringing much offense despite the plum opportunities he was granted in the top six.

The Canucks sustained an injury to Soucy and began to play .500 hockey for a multi-week stretch. It was their first divot of the campaign, and Rutherford and Allvin reacted quickly.

In late November, Vancouver traded Beauvillier — acquired less than 10 months prior — to the Chicago Blackhawks, and quickly turned around and sent their return to Calgary in exchange for Nikita Zadorov to provide the blue line with some depth and cover in Soucy’s absence.

During the All-Star break, Kuzmenko — less than a year removed from signing a two-year extension — was shipped off to Calgary as part of the package that brought Lindholm to Vancouver.

No one was unduly shocked when The Athletic’s Chris Johnston reported that the Canucks had at least discussed the possibility of trading Lindholm ahead of the trade deadline, when he didn’t immediately cement himself as a top-six fixture in Vancouver.

There’s a sharp contrast to the trust and autonomy that Rutherford-run teams have typically extended to the head coach — provided that Rutherford had a hand in directly hiring him, of course — while being quick to move on from players who aren’t working out.

Dating back to 1997, Rutherford has only hired six head coaches, including Paul Maurice on two different occasions.

To get a sense of how rare that is in NHL terms, consider that since Vancouver hired Tocchet in January of 2023, 14 other NHL head coaches have been fired.

“He doesn’t collaborate with us and he doesn’t have to. In fact, he shouldn’t,” said Rutherford when asked about organizational impact on Tocchet’s tactical approach. “But he spent hours and hours and hours leading up to training camp, and throughout the season, with the coaching staff, the Sedins, with (skills coach) Yogi Svejkovsky, they’re meeting and discussing things. Sometimes he’ll ask a question of Patrik or me about a player, but the planning, the tactics, the strategy, that’s totally on the coaches.”

“They let me coach,” said Tocchet. “They’ve given me plenty of autonomy. You know, they don’t tell me what to do. But they’re very good at getting their point across.”

On April 19, 1978, Rutherford, tending goal for the Detroit Red Wings, took the ice at the Montreal Forum to face the buzzsaw Montreal Canadiens.

The late 1970s Habs are the most dominant team in the annals of hockey history.

This specific iteration of the Canadiens were defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Going into Game 1 of the 1978 Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinal, the Canadiens had lost just 32 times in their most recent 277 games.

Rutherford’s Red Wings, in contrast, lost 34 games that season alone.

Then 28 years old, Rutherford had alternated starts with fellow netminder Ron Low all season and into the playoffs. After Low started the series, a 6-2 Canadiens victory, Rutherford drew the assignment for Game 2. And he repeatedly stoned the Canadiens’ galaxy of superstars, stopping 26 of 28 shots in a shock 4-2 Red Wings victory.

After their shock victory in Montreal, the Red Wings were hailed as conquering heroes when the series shifted back to Detroit. Low returned to the net for Game 3, however, and the Canadiens won to take a 2-1 series lead.

In Game 4, it was Rutherford’s turn again. The veteran netminder was feted pregame by fans, friends and family on his way into the old red barn of Olympia Stadium. Excitedly, he took the time to sign autographs and engage in small talk and later felt that he’d taken the eye off the ball.

That night, the Canadiens put their foot down. The final score was 8-0 for Montreal. Rutherford surrendered all eight goals on 32 shots faced.

For Rutherford, it was a lesson. From then on, he’d dispense with the niceties and be laser-focused on game days.

It’s a discipline that the Hall of Fame executive has maintained, even as he’s transitioned into a lengthy career as a notably gregarious executive. To this day on game days, Rutherford dispenses with most unnecessary tasks and chitchat.

Among Canucks staffers, there’s an in-joke that you don’t even want to make eye contact with Jim on game days.

“In Pittsburgh, as a general manager, he used to walk by me and very rarely even say ‘Hi’,” Tocchet said with a laugh when asked about Rutherford’s game-day routine.

“But he’s a little bit different with me now, maybe because he’s the president. It’s a different seat. Now he comes down on a game day every once in a while and just talks.”

It’s a new role, with a young, intense general manager in Allvin to mentor — a structure Rutherford might’ve welcomed back in Pittsburgh if things had played out differently.

“My experience in Pittsburgh was very positive,” Rutherford said. “I don’t like to really go back on it too much, but on this point, that is the way I thought it would work. And I was told that that role would not be available in Pittsburgh, at one point in time, so I’ll just leave that at that.”

The Canucks, it seems, will feel fortunate that it worked out the way it did. For now Rutherford, Allvin and Tocchet have brought the fun back to professional hockey in Vancouver, but this — a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs — is just the start. And they’re not here to simply enjoy the ride.

“People always ask me that question,” Rutherford said when asked if he’s having “fun” given the club’s success this season. “They use the word ‘fun,’ and I don’t know if fun is the right word for what I do.

“I love the challenge, OK? And I love the people that I work with, and the players. So I guess in a sense, you could say that’s fun, but it’s not like it’s fun-fun every day.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Chris Tanouye / Freestyle Photography, Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)