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The Vancouver Canucks react to a goal by San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns during a 3-2 loss in Vancouver on March 3. (Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today Sports)
The Vancouver Canucks react to a goal by San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns during a 3-2 loss in Vancouver on March 3. (Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today Sports)

Vancouver fans losing faith in Canucks’ rebuild strategy Add to ...

At the end of last season, the Vancouver Canucks won their final game in overtime – a meaningless win given the team had already secured second place in the Pacific Division.

The win, however, kicked the team down the draft board, leaving them to choose 23rd, rather than 19th, at the 2015 NHL entry draft. While the Vancouver front office was resolute in its focus to make the playoffs, and averse to the greater pain of a true rebuild, Canucks officials worried they would miss out on the player they had their eye on, Brock Boeser.

At the June draft, they still got their man, and the pick looks promising. Boeser, in his freshman season at the University of North Dakota, has scored 22 goals in 32 games. He’s considered a key part of the Canucks’ future.

The mantra of rebuilding the team while contending for the playoffs – the hallmark of Trevor Linden’s first two years in charge of the team – has been abandoned, as team management has more seriously undertaken an overhaul. But this year’s version of the Canucks has the same problem as last year – where they will stand on the draft board. And this time there’s a lot more at stake.

As of midday Friday, with about a quarter of the season remaining, the Canucks stood in 23rd place in the league standings, which would translate into the eighth pick in the draft, and a lottery shot at a top-three pick.

The Canucks were in a four-way tie at 60 points with Arizona, Columbus and Buffalo. Vancouver had the fewest games played, but also the fewest wins in regulation and overtime. If the season finished with the same four-way tie, Vancouver would end up in 25th, giving them, at worst, the fifth pick.

Vancouver is on pace for its worst season in 17 years. It was in 1999, when the Canucks chose No. 2 and No. 3 overall and picked Daniel and Henrik Sedin. In the years since, the team has only four times picked in the top 10. The most recent are 2013 No. 9 pick Bo Horvat and 2014 No. 6 pick Jake Virtanen, both a part of the future core of the team.

The Canucks are doing a fairly good job at improving their standing for the 2016 draft, though not quite with the same deliberateness as the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the 13 games since the all-star break, the Canucks have been the fourth-worst team in the league, ahead only of Calgary, Arizona and Toronto.

Toronto’s purposeful demolition has given the Leafs a four-point gap as the worst team in the NHL, with Calgary in second last, and Edmonton and Winnipeg one point better.

If the Leafs hold in last, they’ll pick no worse than fourth, which would be an important part of their rebuild, never mind the stockpile of other draft picks.

It’s been a tough week for the Canucks, as fans grow increasingly sour. The team’s failure to trade veteran free agents Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata led many to wonder about management’s ability. On Friday, Linden and general manager Jim Benning faced a skeptical group of season-ticket holders at a morning town hall meeting at Rogers Arena. Linden conceded the team punched above its weight last year when it made the playoffs, and this season’s team was never really a true contender for the postseason.

“We’re developing our future right now,” Linden said, “and it looks good.”

A top-five pick at the June draft would go some way in sparking some confidence among Canucks fans. But the length of a rebuild could be a lot longer than anyone is prepared for.

Sometimes it happens quickly, like in Boston, where Benning was previously assistant general manager, when it took five years to get from the bottom to the Stanley Cup. Or Chicago, where it was only a few seasons after drafting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane that a run of Cup wins began. In Los Angeles, the Kings won their first Cup four years after Drew Doughty was drafted.

Sometimes it takes a lot longer: Consider Edmonton.

Even in Vancouver, it took 12 years from the drafting of the Sedins and the one time in that span the team made it past the second round of the playoffs, when the Canucks came within one win of the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Linden and Benning aim to recreate the turnaround in Boston that Benning helped pull off, through the draft and bringing in players in their early 20s. But confidence among fans that the duo can repeat Boston’s success here is at a low ebb.

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