Vancouver Canucks Are to Blame for Losing Nikita Tryamkin

Dec 3, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Nikita Tryamkin (88) skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at Rogers Arena. The Vancouver Canucks won 3-2 in a shoot out. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Nikita Tryamkin (88) skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at Rogers Arena. The Vancouver Canucks won 3-2 in a shoot out. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports /

Last week, the Vancouver Canucks lost defender Nikita Tryamkin to the KHL. After a season with more downs than ups, this was arguably one of the worst.

The Vancouver Canucks named Travis Green as their new head coach this week, but he will begin next fall without one of the better defenders of the 2016-17 season. Nikita Tryamkin departed after finishing his two-year contract with the Canucks and signed with Avtomobilist in the Russian-based KHL.

The decision to let Tryamkin go — and I insist that it was the Canucks’ decision — is perhaps the most glaring example yet of the front office’s disconnect with what this team and its fans need. Indeed, the reaction among Canucks fans to Tryamkin’s departure demonstrated just what an impact the young player had made in his first full season with the team. The disappointment was palpable; to some, it was nothing short of despair at losing one of the few bright spots of an otherwise ugly season.

Nikita Tryamkin didn’t speak much English and almost never talked to the media. And yet he quickly became a fan favourite.

So how did the Canucks let him go?

Family Matters

Management insists that the decision came down to Tryamkin’s desire to be closer to his family. Fair enough. To those criticizing a 22-year old for wanting to be closer to home, try taking a job at a radio station or factory or grocery store in Moscow, and see how you’re feeling in a couple of years. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

So let’s not judge a kid for wanting to go home.

But while Tryamkin’s decision certainly involved family matters, GM Jim Benning’s insistence that this was the main issue flies in the face of what Tryamkin himself has said.

Tryamkin actually cited hockey issues, often very specific grievances, when he described his reasons for returning to Russia.

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For instance, he talked about his ice time. He didn’t understand why he was benched at the start of the season. The Canucks claimed he was out of shape, and I am in no position to judge the accuracy of that claim. Tryamkin himself acknowledged that for the first five games he was benched, he maybe wasn’t quite ready enough to play at the NHL level. But for the next five games, he felt he was ready and could have played better than several players who were logging minutes.

Tryamkin wasn’t just whining. He took ownership over his potential lack of game shape at the start of the season and stepped it up. Once he was ready, he expected to play. And to be fair, he was right. Once he got into the lineup — as a result of injuries, mind you — he played well enough to stay.

In fact, by the end of the season, it could be argued that he was among the better defenders on the team. He certainly performed better than regulars like Luca Sbisa and Ben Hutton. He without a doubt added more to the lineup than Alex Biega, Philip Larsen or late-season Utica Comets call-up Evan McEneny.

Riding the Pine

This raises Tryamkin’s second question about ice time: Why was he regularly benched in late-game situations? When the coach was shortening his bench, why was Tryamkin deemed less reliable than Sbisa, Edler, and others who played ahead of him?

This is a valid question. His Corsi numbers were among the best of the Canucks’ D. His takeaways/giveaways was 17/33, certainly not impressive, but better than Sbisa (19/50), Edler (17/37) or Gudbranson (4/23). He was, in most games, a reasonably steady presence on the back end with the capacity to defend against the best players in the NHL. Some of his most impressive moments came in games against elite players when he was able to be effective against the likes of Connor McDavid.

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And unlike some of the players who played ahead of him, Tryamkin’s ceiling is probably a lot higher. It is clear that he is still developing, and at times he looked every bit like a rookie, out-of-position or behind the play. But we also saw glimpses this season of his speed, smooth skating, excellent defensive stick, offensive creativity, a decent shot, a lot of heart and, last but not least, his imposing physical presence.

The Pronger Effect

Which brings us to what I think was Tryamkin’s key complaint. The Canucks wanted Tryamkin to be Chris Pronger. Coaches showed Tryamkin video of Pronger and asked him to play that way. The head coach even called out Tryamkin after a late-season game, pinning a loss to Boston on Tryamkin’s shoulders because he didn’t “step up” on Brad Marchand.

Jason Botchford has pointed out that this is an unfair expectation because only Chris Pronger can be Chris Pronger; his talent was unique.

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I would take it further. I don’t want Tryamkin to be Pronger because Pronger was a mean, dirty player, whose primary role in the NHL is more or less antiquated in today’s game because his kind of play is deemed dangerous and punishable. (In fact, the punishments for playing like Pronger would probably be a lot heavier if Pronger himself wasn’t making rulings as a director of the Department of Player Safety.)

Let’s get something clear here. Nikita Tryamkin doesn’t play hockey in order to hurt people. He very obviously does not like hurting people. In fact, he specifically told the Canucks that he didn’t want to hurt people. He expresses visible concern when other players are hurt. He helps them off the ice, asks if they are ok on the bench, and expresses incredulity when people want to fight him.

After Jamie Benn dropped the gloves with Tryamkin in March — a fight in which Tryamkin clearly held back and declined the opportunity to take Benn’s head off — the young man was confused as to why Benn would want to fight him after a clean hit. In his exit interviews, he expressed remorse about the number of penalties he took. As Jeff Paterson noted in a recent Pat-Cast, Tryamkin was aware that he was being targeted by referees, who perhaps unconsciously expected him to be more violent simply because of his size.

Some people like violent hockey. I’m not one of those people, but I know those people exist and that’s their business. But here’s something we can hopefully agree on: Nikita Tryamkin comes out of a very different hockey culture, and he was never going to be a violent hockey player.

Big and physical, sure, he already was those things. But Chris Pronger he is not. Even if you like Chris Pronger, you can’t make Tryamkin be Chris Pronger any more than you can make Henrik Sedin be Milan Lucic, or Alex Edler be Jacob Markstrom. (Sorry to break it to you, Alex, but you have to let that dream die.)

Did the Canucks alienate Tryamkin by demanding he be something he is not? It seems so.

‘A Real Good Offer’

What is more, it appears that the Canucks’ front office took Nikita Tryamkin for granted. While he was repeatedly name-checked as one of the young players that had developed into a great prospect over the course of 2016-17, when it came time to offer him a deal, he was offered significantly less than Ben Hutton. I like Ben Hutton and think he will develop into a fine second or third-pairing defender.

But he was outplayed this season by Nikita Tryamkin, whose ceiling is much higher and shows signs of being a possible top-pairing player with the right development.

Jim Benning told the media it was “a real good offer,” but if I’m Tryamkin and I’m offered less than Hutton, I might just walk away too. It’s not really about the money. It’s about the respect, or lack thereof. In a season where Tryamkin often felt like his efforts and talents were not being respected, this may well have been the tipping point.

For the Canucks and their fans, the loss is larger than they may realise.

The Russian Connection

Tryamkin had a quiet charisma, as many Canucks media people have noted, and was remarkably well-liked for a guy who barely spoke any English. He spent most of the season as the only Russian player on the team, even though the Canucks could have called up fellow Russian defender Andrey Pedan from Utica in lieu of Biega or McEneny. When another young Russian was brought in, forward Nikolay Goldobin, he was immediately thrown in the coach’s doghouse (after scoring a beautiful goal, go figure) and never got out.

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With other young Russian players currently in the Canucks’ prospect pool, it would do well for the team to make a greater effort to welcome and integrate these players into the fold, rather than isolating them, benching them, or questioning their manhood. Let’s not forget that this is a franchise that once outright refused to draft Russians.

So, did Tryamkin go to Russia because he wanted to be closer to family? Sure. But that desire isn’t necessarily separate from what the Vancouver Canucks did to push him towards that decision. He came to North America on a two-year contract to play hockey. We can glean from that fact that some part of him wanted to play hockey in Vancouver. Not in the minors, not on the bench, and not in the penalty box.

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He fulfilled his contract and then, as many other players have done, he moved on. He was well within his rights to do so, having satisfied all of his obligations to the Canucks. But it is a shame for all involved that the Vancouver Canucks did not do more to make Nikita Tryamkin a big part of this team’s future.

They could certainly use him.