PENTICTON, BC – It’s too early to say if Patrick Alvin is building a winning team, but Vancouver’s junior general manager Canucks has certainly built the largest hockey operations division in franchise history.
From his squadron of top assistants, including leading assistant general managers Cammi Granato and Emilie Castonguay, to a player development department that has tripled in size and now includes Hall of Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin, to training additions and even many more – an overhaul worth $1 million for the Canuck complex at Rogers Arena, the organization may never have put more resources off the ice to improve the team.
But the NHL’s salary cap strictly applies to player salaries, and with it historically stable, weeding out unfavorable contracts has been very difficult. Without deals, in the off-season Alvin was only able to upgrade his group forward a bit by adding free agents Ilya Mikheev, Andrei Kuzmenko and Curtis Lazar.
Still, much is expected of the team that finished last season 32-15-10 under coach Bruce Boudreaux and head of hockey operations Jim Rutherford, but still missed out on the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.
With the Canucks’ Young Stars Championship this weekend and training camp next week in Whistler, Sportsnet sat down with Allvin to discuss the team and what he sees.
Sportsnet: After a lot of change but with the same roster you inherited when you became General Manager last January, what excites you about this season?
Alvin: I’m excited because the players are excited. I thought it was great to see Kuzmenko and Mikheev come so early (in August) and settle in town and start working out and getting ready. I was happy to get the JT Miller deal done. He is excited to be locked up here for another seven years.
Sportsnet: Let’s start there. You’ve talked about the difficulty of trading contracts and how that prevented you from making as many menu changes as you would like to over the summer. A seven-year, $56 million extension allows Miller, the top scorer at the top. But JT will be 30 when that deal starts next year. Are you worried that this will turn into another stressful contract that could restrict the organization?
Alvin: Always when players get older, I think there are more factors that come into play: age, obviously, injuries and things like that. But did you know? He was our best player, and he was our best player two years ago in Vancouver. So, for us to give up on that, that would be difficult. We agreed on a reasonable deal.
Sportsnet: There have been months of trade rumors about JT Do you think the team would have been worse, in the short term, if you traded with him?
Alvin: Yes, depending on what the return is. But as we’ve said since taking charge, we wanted to take our time to take stock of what we had. And JT kept growing on both Jim (Rutherford) and me, and we felt the way he’s playing, the way he carries himself, how competitive he is, and separating his ways from a 100-point man and #1 position, it’s definitely going to be tough.
Sportsnet: Miller’s re-signation came as a surprise to many people, as was the fact that your captain, Bo Horvat, is about to enter the final season of his contract without an extension in place. Are you optimistic that you will get one before the season?
Alvin: Such deals take time. Am I optimistic that it will happen before the season? Can. We’re still communicating, so we’ll see.
Sportsnet: Worried that this problem will become your next biggest distraction?
Alvin: It can be, it definitely can be. I mean, we’ve seen it in all the gossip on Miller. This might be a distraction, but I know Bo is focused, committed and wants to stay, so I hope we find a solution here.
Sportsnet: You said after last season that you wanted to upgrade the defense, and then you repeated that goal on the August trading deadline. Is it possible for that to happen?
Alvin: We’re still two weeks away, but the fact of the matter was that coming here, we had seven one-way contracts (in defence). So to add something – it was difficult in the free proxy market – nothing really materialized over the summer in terms of trading. If everyone is healthy, I think we’re doing well, led by Quinn Hughes and OEL (Oliver Ekman-Larson). Every indication that Tucker Pullman is good to go here from day one, and if he is, I think that changes our group. However, if we find something that makes our team better, we are open to that.
Sportsnet: Jim Rutherford, your boss, had some very sharp comments in May and said the Canucks’ exits were among the worst in the NHL. How does that improve with all the same men of defense?
Alvin: I think what Jim was hinting at is the way we play, with the structure and the retrievals and how fast you get from point A to point B. It wasn’t that our area exits weren’t on the strip, it was just that we were just waiting and waiting and then passing by. We want to get out of our end faster. So I guess it was more than that: How do we play that style? There is nothing wrong with our D-corps to implement it, but we need to be on the same page.
Sportsnet: Does upgrading your attackers mean you’ll spend less time in the defensive zone?
Alvin: I sure hope so. Hopefully with a good puck in possession we can undercut the other teams and create more scoring chances by doing so.
Sportsnet: I spent 20 years preparing to become an NHL general manager and then got the job during a once-in-a-century global pandemic that flattened salary caps and changed the way teams had to work. Are you ready for this?
Alvin: I don’t know if you can prepare for this, even if I go back to my previous job in Pittsburgh. With the year of COVID (in 2020) approaching and the repercussions going forward here, I don’t think anyone has seen a flat lid. With some of the structured contracts that were already here, warranty and all that, that definitely hurts us. It hurt a lot of teams, especially the one in our situation with no flexibility on the roof.
Sportsnet: At least you can build your own hockey team. What was your message to them?
Alvin: I mean, it was a huge change of staff in the different departments. My message to my colleagues is: We have one chance to get it right, so let’s (focus) on the hiring process, how we do things, how we run meetings, what message we’re sending, how prepared we are in detail. If we don’t do it now, it will hurt us in the future.
Sportsnet: By re-signing Miller, you obviously think the Canucks are in a window to win. Has your opinion of this changed since you took the job?
Alvin: It’s a good question. If you look at other teams like, I mean, Colorado, when did you open their window? That was probably two years ago, wasn’t it? But they were pretty bad for a long period of time, and you needed to be lucky to get Nathan MacKinnon (first overall in the draft). When you watch your team, we’re not old, we’re not really young, so I think we’re in that window because our key players are in their twenties and you hope they keep improving.
Sportsnet: Other than the obvious – win more games – what’s the biggest key to getting better?
Alvin: We are not a comma team. So, I mean, for us, first of all we need to change the way we think. We have to understand that everything we’ve done up to this point isn’t good enough. We need to change it. We need to push ourselves to get to the next level. And the next level for us is to be a playoff team, and a consistent playoff contender. So we have steps to take, sure.
Sportsnet: Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to beat a team that didn’t do anything outside of the Edmonton bubble playoff round three seasons ago?
Alvin: There is always pressure in professional sports to make it happen. I would say that part of the pressure is how you handle it and how you prepare for it. I would say that (the players) have probably struggled with the fact that they don’t really know what it takes to get to the next level. This is a challenge. The most important thing here is to raise the level. Everyone talks about the culture, and every day the players have to raise the culture of this team. That was my message at the end of the year: This is not good enough, we need to find a way to get better and you guys have to get ready and change things. You can talk about coaches and all the outside noise, but it’s up to the players to sacrifice and do what it takes.
Sportsnet: How much encouragement do you get from going 32-15-10 over the last two-thirds of last season?
Alvin: Whatever people think of the last 50 games, it wasn’t good enough because we didn’t do the playoffs. So let’s stop talking about it. We need to be better.