Jim Rutherford admits turning around the beleaguered Vancouver Canucks has been more work than he expected.
“When I came here, I knew it was going to be a big challenge. And I thought ‘You know, we’re going to have to do minor surgery,’” the team’s president of hockey operations said in a wide-ranging press conference Monday. “Have I changed my position? Well, yeah. We have to do major surgery.”
Since Rutherford was hired in December 2021, the Canucks have gone from bad to worse.
Vancouver finished last year’s campaign on a high, going 32-15-10 after Bruce Boudreau was hired as head coach and missing the playoffs by five points.
The club was expected to pick up where it left off this season, with players and Boudreau saying they planned to make a post-season run.
But a 0-5-2 start and inconsistent play have seen the Canucks drop to sixth place in the Pacific Division with an 18-22-3 record. As of Monday, Vancouver sat 12 points out of a wild-card spot.
Now management is looking ahead to the future.
“Between now and the start of next season, we’re going to have to make some changes,” Rutherford said. “Some won’t be very popular. Some will be popular,” he said, noting that the team needs to create cap space and get younger.
“But we’re going to have to really do some things I didn’t think we would normally have to do when I first got here on how we make those changes.”
Rumours have long swirled about Rutherford making a change behind the bench. Multiple reports have said the Canucks are in talks to replace Boudreau with former Tampa Bay Lightning and Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet.
Rutherford said he has had conversations over the last few months about bringing in a new coach, but has always been clear that Vancouver is not looking to — and does not want — to make a change.
“Bruce is our coach right now,” he said.
Trouble has followed the Canucks off the ice, too, this season.
Monday’s press conference was called to discuss how they team handled forward Tanner Pearson’s season-ending hand injury. Defenceman Quinn Hughes said publicly the situation “wasn’t handled properly.”
Pearson broke his hand in Vancouver’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 9 and was initially expected to be out up to six weeks, but has since undergone several surgeries. The Canucks announced last week that the 30-year-old winger will not play again this season.
Rutherford said he’s done a “thorough review” of how the injury was handled and did not find anyone who said Pearson was unhappy with the treatment he received.
The team is “open to” having the NHL Players’ Association or the league look into the case, he added.
“If there was any wrongdoing, we want to get it right going forward, OK? But based on our (internal investigation) here, we’re more than comfortable with the way things have been handled,” he said. “But having someone come in and look at it would be fine.”
Vancouver has also been at the centre of many trade talks, with captain Bo Horvat set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
The 27-year-old centre is poised for a career-best campaign, with 30 goals and 18 assists in 43 appearances.
The club has taken its “best shot” when it comes to extending Horvat, Rutherford said.
“The contract that we have on the table right now is, I think, is a fair contract for what he’s done up until this year,” he said. “But it’s certainly under market value for what he’s done this year.”
Any trades Vancouver makes going forward will look for a mix of young players with NHL experience and draft picks in return, he added.
With 39 games left this season, Rutherford was asked whether the Canucks have thought about bottoming out in a bid to improve their chances of securing the No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NHL entry draft.
The team doesn’t have much further to fall, the president of hockey ops said.
“I thought we were tanking,” he said. “We’re pretty close to the bottom. I would never, running a team, go tell the coach and the players ‘Don’t play hard for this game.’ They have a job to do to come to work every game and try to win that game.”
The possibility of snagging teenage phenom Connor Bedard — the self-proclaimed Canucks fan who’s heavily favoured to go first overall — is intriguing, though, Rutherford said.
“We’d all like to get the first pick overall,” he said. “If there’s ever a year to get it.”
Rutherford stopped short, however, of saying that the Canucks will be undergoing a rebuild.
“We’re not looking toward a rebuild. I’d rather call it a retool,” he said.