By Lori Bennett
We are past the halfway mark of the season, and this week a couple of NHL executives met with the media to provide their mid-season commentary.
President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford had the unenviable task of addressing the media on Monday to provide his thoughts about the Canucks. Vancouver has been dysfunction junction for what feels like years now. The Canucks have made the playoffs twice in the last nine years and were eliminated in the first round on one of those occasions. Bizarrely, this abysmal performance has not led to any evidence of interest in a rebuild.
Rutherford was characteristically blunt, and media walked away with enough one-liners to write a novel, never mind a column. When asked about potentially selling and planning to tank this season Rutherford retorted, “I thought we were tanking. We’re pretty close to the bottom.”
Rutherford expressed disappointment in his own performance, explaining that he had joined the Canucks expecting to do minor surgery to repair the ills of the team, but now being fully aware that what is needed is major surgery.
“We’re going to have to do some things that I didn’t think we would…have to do when I first got here.”
Those things include trading unrestricted free agent Bo Horvat. He has priced himself out of Vancouver, and the haul he will fetch at the deadline will go a long way to repair this team. Elias Pettersson is believed to be the only untouchable player and will likely take over the captaincy once Horvat moves on.
Rutherford would also like to find a new home for Brock Boeser and his giant contract. Recently signed J.T. Miller is not likely going anywhere, and Quinn Hughes will also likely be part of the plan going forward unless a team offers a stunner of a package that Rutherford can’t refuse.
Perhaps the oddest dynamic surrounding the Canucks is with the coach. Bruce Boudreau is in the final year of his contract, and while there seems to be no interest in continuing that relationship, there has not yet been a move to replace him.
Hockey insiders have reported that Rick Tocchet is expected to be the next coach in Vancouver, and that his coaching staff may include Sergei Gonchar. When asked about the plan for coaching Rutherford responded, “Bruce is our coach now.” Truly bizarre.
Rutherford preferred to call their process a retool rather than a rebuild and said he would like to move some contracts to free up cap space to add the pieces they need to add going forward. He said summer buyouts may be an option if trades cannot be facilitated before then. Change is afoot out west, no doubt.
Then on Wednesday, General Manager Kent Hughes held court to provide his remarks on the Montreal Canadiens. Hughes is very familiar with the situation Rutherford is in, having inherited a mess in Montreal a year ago. But in just one year, the Habs are in considerably better shape with their rebuild in progress and the fruits of their labour already showing positive signs.
The press conference began with the Canadiens providing an injury update, and it was bleak.
Juraj Slafkovsky’s rookie season has been cut short. He will be out for three months with a lower body injury. Jonathan Drouin, a pending unrestricted free agent that Hughes would love to trade before the deadline, is out until the All-Star break with an upper body injury. Joel Armia, injured by a dirty elbow to the ribs from Jacob Trouba last Sunday, is also out until the break. Jake Allen will be away at least another week with an upper body injury, and Jake Evans is out eight to ten weeks with a lower body injury. The Habs are the walking wounded.
When asked whether some players may return earlier than anticipated from injury, Hughes said, “We may need to do better at protecting players from themselves.”
This is a marked difference from the former regime that applauded players for playing while injured, despite the peril to their own careers.
Cole Caufield was an immediate focus of the presser, with questions revolving around negotiating his next deal. Hughes confirmed both the team and player are interested in him remaining in Montreal, but wouldn’t comment any further on negotiations.
The GM responded to several questions about specific players. He confirmed that he sees Kirby Dach as a centreman within the organization for the long term, despite his success on Nick Suzuki’s wing. Hughes also addressed Samuel Montembeault, his impressive performance in net, and whether he might be a trade target. In French, he confirmed that Monty would not be going anywhere.
Hughes acknowledged the challenge of balancing the desire to build a winning culture in Montreal with the benefits of improving their draft lottery odds.
“I said to Marty, we’ve gotten to a point where the wins are good only to a certain point and the losses are bad only to a certain point.”
The coach has a tough job – keeping his players engaged and getting better while the fanbase clamours for a lottery pick.
Hughes might be able to help with that challenge by trading away some veterans that are helping the Habs hover around mediocre. The Habs GM is ready to do business, but so far he’s not found a ready and willing dance partner.
Said Hughes, “The closer we get to the trade deadline, the more I expect the market to be active.”
With that March 3rd deadline swiftly approaching, we can expect both teams to be very active, and to look significantly different once the dealing’s done.
Rumours continue to circulate around the Toronto Raptors. It would be surprising if names like Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby or Scottie Barnes were moved before the February 9th trade deadline. But there is a definite sense that this season’s performance is not consistent with the amount of talent in Toronto, and president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster may take the opportunity to change up the roster.
Blue Jays Babble
The Toronto Blue Jays were the subject of a little drama this week. News broke that the Jays were among the aggressive suitors for free agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who ultimately signed with the San Diego Padres. The dramatic part is that there is already a shortstop in Toronto.
Bo Bichette was drafted by the Jays in 2016 and promoted to the big leagues for the 2019 season. He’s been a fan favourite since filling the hole at shortstop, with a solid mix of power hitting, speed to steal bases, and highlight reel defensive plays.
On January 13th, the Jays reached deals with 11 of their 12 players who were eligible for salary arbitration. Bichette was the one they couldn’t come to terms with, so the parties will go to arbitration. This outcome, combined with the reported interest in Bogaerts, raises questions about Bichette’s long-term commitment to Toronto.
Last Sunday the signing period opened for international free agents, and GM Ross Atkins was active. The Blue Jays signed five players, including one of the best hitters on the market. Sixteen-year-old outfielder Enmanuel Bonilla was signed for $4.1 million, the largest bonus in Jays franchise history. This is a name we should keep on our radar for the future.