The Vancouver Canucks have been the worst team in the NHL since mid-January – but compared with their peers at the bottom of the league, the rebuilding road in Vancouver looks as though it could be longer and more difficult.
The situation began to unfold two years ago, when Trevor Linden took over the team. Owner Francesco Aquilini didn't want the Canucks to gutter, like division rivals in Edmonton and Calgary, teams that had missed the playoffs for years. So the strategy was a running rebuild – signing expensive free agents in their 30s to chase the playoffs while reviving the aging roster.
It seemed to work last season, when the Canucks fared better than expected and made the playoffs. But the foundations of the team – an older roster, one dubbed stale by John Tortorella in 2014 – had not fundamentally changed.
Rebuilding on the fly is alluring, but difficult to pull off. Genuine rebuilds generally require suffering.
In Toronto, the team has been dismantled and reconstructed. The Maple Leafs have a pile of draft picks and the young prospects on the ice this past month have looked pretty good, winning some games. And under coach Mike Babcock, they're playing smart hockey, controlling the puck.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has been outplayed by opponents all year. A litany of injuries has provided ample ice time to young players such as Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen, and Sven Baertschi, but the team's puck possession has been weak, the opposite of what the young Leafs have managed.
Coaching matters. Babcock is the best in the business. In Vancouver, second-year NHL coach Willie Desjardins has not fared well – but Linden and general manager Jim Benning have expressed their support for him.
A prime missing piece in Vancouver is a No. 1 centre. Henrik Sedin, so long a pillar of the team, has struggled this season. He has two years left on his contract but his play, from scoring to puck possession, has fallen off. He turns 36 in September.
The weakness on the first line is obvious when you look at Pacific Division playoff teams Los Angeles (Anze Kopitar), Anaheim (Ryan Getzlaf), and San Jose (Joe Thornton) – and also in Edmonton and Calgary. The Oilers and Flames have their problems but both have a crucial young player for a first-line centre, Connor McDavid and Sean Monahan, respectively. The Flames, who beat the Canucks in the playoffs last year, also have a top-10 NHL scorer in Johnny Gaudreau, and a potential defensive star in 22-year-old Dougie Hamilton.
The only obvious immediate answer for Vancouver's hole at No. 1 centre is Auston Matthews, the prize for winning the draft lottery – but it's an at-best 20-per-cent chance, if the Canucks finish last.
The Canucks have definitely played poorly enough to vie for last, falling into a tie for the bottom on Tuesday when they lost their ninth consecutive game, one short of the franchise record. Vancouver has scored the fewest goals in the league this season and has won the fewest games at home. Two games against Edmonton next week, on Wednesday and the season-ending match on Saturday, could decide the battle for the bottom.
Vancouver management says it believes the situation can change quickly. Even in a terrible season, Desjardins says he feels buoyed by the progress of the team's young players, that he has a "belief that we're moving in the right way."
Management, aiming to contend sooner than later, has focused on players in their early 20s, such as Baertschi, and recently signed Russian defenceman Nikita Tryamkin. There's hope Anton Rodin, 25, can make an impact, after winning MVP of the Swedish league, after he struggled in the AHL a few years earlier.
Five years ago, the Canucks came one victory short of winning the Stanley Cup and Henrik Sedin remains resolute he'll have another playoff run.
"Before we're done," Sedin said after a practice this week, "we're going to have a run at it. That's my opinion, that's what I feel."
Asked if he'd consider a push for a Cup in another city, Sedin paused, before answering.
"I would say no. But, again, it's nothing I want to talk about now. I've got two years left and then we'll see what happens. I believe in this team. I want to win here. That's my only answer."