Thursday is the one-month anniversary of Jim Rutherford’s first day on the job, on the ground, as the Vancouver Canucks’ new president of hockey operations.
Almost lost amid the big-picture ideas he laid out for reporters on Dec. 13 was his statement regarding taking the measure of the struggling team he was inheriting.
“Watch it, really, through the month of January and … I’ll have a better idea where we’re at,” Rutherford said. “We’re going to have a real tough road trip in January … going through the gauntlet there of Florida and Carolina and Washington. But we’ll get a better read on this team at that time.”
And here we are, the Canucks facing the Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday after getting smacked 5-2 Tuesday by the Florida Panthers, the first of five Murderers’ Row opponents Vancouver faces over a span of eight days.
All five teams are among the top seven in the National Hockey League and four of them, including the Lightning, have been on forceful runs the last month.
As measuring sticks go, this one would have been dauntingly tall and sharp, even under ideal circumstances for the Canucks. But as reinforced by Tuesday’s loss – remarkably, the first in regulation since coach Bruce Boudreau beat Rutherford to Vancouver by a week – the last two weeks were far from ideal.
A nine-day layoff between games, created when the Canucks chose last week to postpone highly winnable home matches last week against Ottawa and the New York Islanders, robbed the team of any momentum lingering from its 8-0-1 start under Boudreau. And COVID-19 protocols robbed key forwards Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson of the chance to practise and at least stay in game shape.
So what exactly are we measuring now? Durability, resolve, belief?
“Fair or not fair, it’s reality,” Boudreau told reporters Wednesday when asked about the circumstances surrounding a torture test that, honestly, could finish with zero wins. “We’re going to definitely know where we are at the end of this seven-game stint.”
Boudreau was including in this examination of the Canucks the first two home games back in Vancouver – as yet unpostponed – against the Panthers and St. Louis Blues.
“These seven games,” he continued, “are going to say whether we’ve got a chance to do something serious here or whether we’re going to have to fight and claw and put another eight- or 10-game win streak together just to make the playoffs.”
The Lightning are not trying to make the playoffs; they’re trying to build a dynasty, validate themselves as the greatest NHL power since the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.
The Canucks, 16-16-3 even after December’s surge, are trying to make the Stanley Cup tournament for the third time in nine years.
“We worked hard to get ourselves back in this race and we’re in it now,” veteran Vancouver defenceman Luke Schenn said. “And you can’t have a trip where, you know, you don’t put up points in the win column, so obviously it’s a huge trip.”
Schenn has Stanley Cup rings earned with the Lightning the last two seasons, so he understands better than anyone else on the Canucks what they need to aspire to, and the hunger required to keep winning.
“As soon as you lose that hunger and that competitiveness and … you’re content with where you are, it’s exactly when you start to fall,” Schenn said on Zoom. “There’s a reason why teams obviously don’t win back to back very often. It’s because you go through it once, you know how hard it is and what you have to put into it, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Same thing when you’re in a grind in the middle of the season. We know how hard it is to win hockey games, and you’ve got to show up every night because … as soon as you don’t bring it and you let your foot off the gas a little bit, that’s exactly when things don’t go your way. We saw that last night.
“You look at all the good teams around the league; they’re at the top of the league, the top of divisions and conferences, because they don’t lose multiple games in a row. That’s what got us out of the race (in November) and winning multiple games, that was what got us back into it. So the more consistency you can have and being resilient after a loss is the sign of a good team.”
Boudreau said: “When Luke talks, people should listen to him because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a very high first-round draft choice that’s won two Stanley Cups, and I don’t think there’s too many guys in that room that can say the same thing.”
About zero, in fact.
Thatcher Demko, the best goalie in the league in December, looked especially cold after the layoff. But he probably isn’t stealing a game against some of the titans the Canucks face on this trip. The players in front of him have to be better than they were Tuesday: quicker, cleaner with the puck, more attentive defensively, better on special teams.
They’ve lost their momentum, but need to maintain that hunger.
“We’re learning as we go here and last night was an example,” Schenn said. “After a loss, your character shows through going into the next game. Everyone wants to bounce back and step up and, like I said, not let it carry over and bleed into consecutive games.”
It took the Canucks nine games to play themselves back toward the outer fringes of the playoff race. It would take far less time to play themselves back out of it.