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Canucks taking risk with Green despite steering ship through turbulent year

VANCOUVER – The elephant in the room has turned into a circus.

Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green, marooned on an expiring contract without an extension for next season, broke his silence Tuesday on his employment status but only to explain that he is a better coach now than when he came to the National Hockey League team four years ago.

“I think every year has its own challenges,” Green told reporters before the Canucks, freshly eliminated from the playoff race, crashed 5-0 to the Winnipeg Jets. “We came into the season and you’re always hoping for good things. It hasn’t gone the way we wanted. But you learn from everything. I think every year you coach you have an opportunity to improve as a coach, and I know over the years in Vancouver, I’ve improved every year and become a better coach every season. And this year is no different.

“When you go through challenges and you go through adversity, sometimes you grow even more in those situations than when you’re having success. And when I look back at the season … I know I’ll be able to look back and say, ‘You know, I’m a much better coach today than I was coming into this season.’”

And, yet, here we are.

After inheriting a 29th-place, 69-point team in 2017 and taking it three years later into the playoff bubble last summer where the Canucks had their first post-season success since 2011, Green and his entire staff of assistants are about to become coaching free agents.

There are a lot of ways to judge a coach besides wins and losses, and Green’s teams have opened him to criticism even as they improved until this season.

Since Green replaced Willie Desjardins, the Canucks have been porous defensively. Special teams have been, on the whole, mediocre. With everything including the global health crisis stacked against the Canucks this year, it’s difficult to know how to judge them beyond the obvious conclusion that Vancouver has slipped backwards for the first time since Green arrived.

But ask yourself this: Has the head coach squeezed everything he can from the players he has been given over four seasons? The answer is emphatically, consistently “yes.”

Green is still doing it, working to keep players engaged and battling. In their three games before Tuesday, the Canucks beat both the Jets and Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers.

The gigantic COVID-19 outbreak, a debilitating schedule and injuries to a roster that wasn’t good enough to begin with made it impossible for the Canucks to do anything more than try to survive till the end of the season. But none of the players have quit on their coach.

The bleak financial landscape that has prevented Green and his staff from receiving contract extensions beyond this season has never fully made sense, and feels ominous now that the coach is potentially down to his final five games.

Although his deal expires in June, Green’s last game under contract is May 19.

General manager Jim Benning has said numerous times since last season ended that he likes the work Green has done, believes he’s the right coach for the Canucks and wants to re-sign him.

Benning in March: “(Travis) has kind of, you know, had these young players for the last three years here, four years, and he’s grown them to where they’re at. I’m not looking to make a coaching change. My feeling on Travis is we really like him (and) he’s done a good job with this group. I’m not going to comment on coaching negotiations, but it’s something that we would like to get done moving forward.”

But Green and his staff, including goaltending jedi master Ian Clark, are still without contracts for next season because of what Benning has described several times as the financial “holding pattern” the Canucks are in during the NHL’s coronavirus-induced depression.

The prospect of losing many millions this year and possibly next has led to widespread staff reductions within the organization during the pandemic season. Managing partner Francesco Aquilini’s determination to defer as much spending as possible is reflected in back-loaded player contracts that, according to CapFriendly.com, will see the Canucks pay nearly $12 million less in actual salaries this season than the salary cap’s $81.5-million limit.

Amid this dire financial climate, retrenchment by owners is understandable. The Canucks are not the only team that has downsized. Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has reportedly solved his impasse with ownership, but only by accepting a $1.8-million average salary on his three-year extension that is at least $1 million less than what a lot of people figured he would get.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others have reported that some NHL teams are trying to push back salaries for head coaches after the period of inflation that followed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ stunning presentation of a $50-million contract to Mike Babcock in 2015.

But the Canucks are risking a lot long-term by not re-signing Green.

The pay raise that Green has earned from his entry-level head coaching salary of about $1 million barely registers as an expense in a billion-dollar company like the Canucks. Obviously, it also costs nothing against the cap.

Move on to the cost of assistant coaches whose salaries are a small fraction of the head coach’s, and the Canucks’ potential “savings” are infinitesimal. Benning just committed $25 million over the next five years to starting goalie Thatcher Demko. Isn’t it worth boosting Clark’s salary by, say, another $100,000 or so annually — roughly two per cent of Demko’s pay — to retain the goaltending coach who helped build him? Put another way, what do you think Clark would be worth as a free agent to the Calgary Flames, who signed former Canucks starter Jacob Markstrom to a $36-million contract last fall only to discover he’s not the same goalie without his tutor?

As with good players, the nearer good coaches get to free agency, the less likely they are to return. The best coaches possess value mightily greater than what their cap-excluded salaries indicate.

Since the cap-related roster upheaval the Canucks underwent last fall was one of the first contributing factors to what has turned into a disastrous season in Vancouver, it seems some continuity with the staff, and a head coach who even the general manager agrees is the right man for the job, has a lot of value to it.

It certainly would have value to the players who mostly like Green, universally respect him and continue to play hard for him. Green has built relationships with these players, established trust while overseeing the development of young cornerstones Demko, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser.

The situation with the coaches is a bad look for the Canucks, and a lot of people around the NHL can see it.

And how bad will it look if Green ends up down the road coaching the Seattle Kraken, while the Canucks search the bargain bin for someone who’s supposed to bring Pettersson and Hughes to full stardom?

Probably worse than it looks seeing ex-Canuck Tyler Toffoli, the prized forward who wanted to stay in Vancouver but somehow got away in free agency in October, sitting on 28 goals and about to start the playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens.

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