Vancouver Canucks: “Inception” of the Boston Model

Feb 24, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; NHL linesman Brian Murphy (93) tries to break up Vancouver Canucks right wing Derek Dorsett (51) and Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand (63) after the final horn of the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; NHL linesman Brian Murphy (93) tries to break up Vancouver Canucks right wing Derek Dorsett (51) and Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand (63) after the final horn of the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

It feels like a lifetime ago that the Vancouver Canucks were setting an example for success in the league with their high-skill, high-speed counter attacking play, led by a pair of Swedish mind-reading brothers and dominant special teams.

At the peak of Vancouver Canucks twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin‘s point production (think back to 2011), the top teams in the league were all playing a similar game: Chicago was, well… Chicago.  Washington was a top-heavy team of goal scorers who simply outscored any team they’d play. Pittsburgh’s core and style was very similar to the team you see dominating the playoffs today and the Flyers of old had some of the fastest counter-attacking forwards in the game all on one team.

So how is it that with all the success surrounding the high-speed, high-skill game at the time, there was a trend towards heavy-hitting teams playing that ‘heavy’ game in the playoffs?

In retrospect, it seemed as though Vancouver was ahead of the trend: build a team around the fastest, highest skill players you can find, and support them with a strong defence core with an emphasis on puck movement and shut-down role players in the bottom four.

Unfortunately for the Canucks, (and I feel as though I’ve used that word far too often when talking about the Canucks this year) something bad happened.

After a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011, the Vancouver Canucks watched their dreams fall apart, as the city riots picked up around BC Place.

Something happened to the brain trust of the team that night. All of a sudden, the system that saw the team through their most successful years in franchise history, was no longer the answer.


Have you seen the movie Inception? The Leonardo Dicaprio flick about a guy who goes inside other people’s dreams and manipulates a person to change their mind?

Well… That’s what happened to the team that night.

As the city crumbled to the ground around BC place that night, so too did the idea that the Vancouver Canucks had it right.

For years after the Game 7 loss to Boston, Vancouver has been chasing the dream model of the team that defeated them: size and strength became paramount.

It started out small. Little things like trading away Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian: the first example of a team focused on getting bigger, hoping the skill sacrifice wasnt too costly. Regardless of how that trade appears today (largely irrelevant) It was the earliest example of a glitch in the matrix… to use another movie metaphor.

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In the following two seasons, Vancouver heads home early in the playoffs, knocked out in the first round by the eventual first-time champions, the Los Angeles Kings, and swept by the San Jose Sharks the following year.

This is where the Inception metaphor really gets going.

In 2013, Alain Vigneault was fired, and replaced by John Tortorella. On that day, the inception of the Vancouver Canucks took hold completely and there was no turning back. The Vancouver Canucks would play a year of shutdown zone defence, and plummet in the standings, missing the playoffs for the first time in the Mike Gillis era. This would cost Mike Gillis his job.

It was indeed the end of an era, but it was also the end of the dream. The top was no longer spinning. Reality was sinking in: the Canucks had lost their way.

When a pro sports team goes through something like Vancouver did, blame gets passed around quite a bit, and ownership will often feel the brunt of it. After all, they’re at the top of the pyramid. At the end of the day, they’re the people responsible for the success of the team.

I’m not saying the Aquilinis were playing the Leonardo Dicaprio role of the dream collapse. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand it’s quite a difficult thing to do. You really need a whole team to get it done.

On the contrary: I don’t believe the Aquilinis were even aware of what was happening. In fact, if anybody was the target of the inception, it was the Aquilini group.

Changing it up

Following the derailment of the team, Vancouver made their first hire. Trevor Linden would be the face of the new regime. A brilliant idea, really.

As a legend of playoffs past, the Trevor Linden hire as president did two things: refocus the media to reminisce and indulge in the history of the ’94 team and recapture the imagination of the disgruntled fan base.

The next hire was perhaps the most revealing: the Boston Bruins’ own assistant GM at the time, Jim Benning.

Benning is an interesting case, and like most first-time GMs, his struggles have been largely measured in balance with the circumstance in which he was hired (a real mouthful, I know).

Related: How Mike Gillis Destroyed the Future

To put it bluntly, Benning has done exactly what was expected of him as a first-time GM with a scouting pedigree, landing with a team suffering from high expectations and an identity crisis. He’s made some rookie mistakes (Frank Corrado waivers, Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett signings) but he’s also made some incredible picks at the draft (Thatcher Demko, Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen, Jared Mccann)

Although it appeared after his first season success that Benning was on the right track, it’s amazing what a basement finish will do.

Suddenly Benning is being asked questions like “when will this team make the playoffs again” and “why didn’t you start the rebuild earlier?”

Can you even answer these kinds of questions?

Stop Dreaming

The reality of his situation is that he’s learning on the job, his time is running out and he doesn’t have all the answers.

You see, there’s this amazing thing about professional sports: you can have a vision for the team, an idea for how to achieve that vision, and then you can fail when it matters most. How you manage that failure is perhaps the most important step in making a team a perennial contender.

The San Jose sharks and The St Louis Blues have been masters of their own demise over the years, but here they are in the Western Final, both on the verge of putting that past behind them.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins have made their way into the Eastern final and very few people predicted they would. Their recipe for success? Stay the course and play the game that got them there.

And how about the upsets?

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The Washington Capitals just walked away from one of the most dominant regular seasons ever, ending their season before reaching their ultimate goal. How are they going to handle it?

The Chicago Blackhawks were knocked out in the first round this year. Are they going to make sweeping changes or stay the course?

The Vancouver Canucks had one of the most forgettable seasons in franchise history. How are they going to respond?

Questions, questions, questions.

The way I see it, Vancouver has as good a shot at righting the ship as any team, but the first thing that needs to happen is this: stop dreaming.

Stop trying to build a team around the idea that your best players need to play a different game. Look at what happened to Pittsburgh when their coaching change lead to an Eastern Conference final appearance, all built upon the foundation of a coach “letting his players play”.

Stop trying to speed up a rebuild, when the average age in the NHL is getting younger and younger. It’s going to happen on its own. Just be patient and keep drafting. Don’t you dare trade any more picks in the top three. It’s just not going to be fair value in today’s NHL.

This last one is going to hurt.

Stop trying to change the past as if that were possible. Vancouver lost in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins and they lost in Game 7 to the New York Rangers. It was close, but they lost, and it wasnt because they weren’t capable. It just wasnt their time.

So how to respond?

Responding to Failure

Write a new story. Build around the strengths of your current roster players, even if that means closing the book on the 2011 core, which includes a pair of twins.

It’s time for a new dream to take shape, and one that doesn’t mimic another team’s successes of the past. It’s time to be patient and watch as a new team forms its identity. Maybe they’ll be fast and skilled like 2011 , maybe they’ll hit above their weight and make a run of it like 1994. Maybe they’ll be something completely new.

Being hopeful about how a team will achieve it’s goals is an okay place to dream, especially after it fails.

Vancouver may still be dealing from “post-inception disorder”, but It’s unlikely Jim Benning or Trevor Linden will continue the trend, if it’s going in the wrong direction. They’re both former players, they’re new to their positions and they want to win at all costs, even if ownership lets them go before they do that.

Next: Eye of the Off-Season Storm

They’ve decided to stay the course this year and that seemed to work out for this year’s final four playoff contenders. To use the inception metaphor one last time: stay focused on the dream of winning it all and let the spinning top spin. It may be another several years before the team has an answer for the speed and skill of the current NHL, but it would be foolish to assume that following in the footsteps of another team’s success is the only answer.

Let the Vancouver Canucks be the Vancouver Canucks, for better or for worse. When it’s their time to win it all, they will. Until then… dare to dream.