To try to win is to accept that you are most likely to lose.
Just look at last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs were both hot contenders to win it all, but they also knew that they were likely to face each other in the first round.
But neither team cared and they did everything they could to reinforce their squad, despite a 50 per cent chance the work would all be for naught.
Risk is part of the game of building a Stanley Cup contender, Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford said Wednesday.
“You had that with Boston last year, too, who had a historic year and still lost in the first round. There’s so many things that can happen and knock you out,” he said.
If you think your team is a move or two away from really stepping into the league’s elite tier, find a way to do it, Rutherford says. And don’t be afraid of not coming out on top in the end.
After all, he knows well the business of building a Stanley Cup contender. He’s been the general manager for three Stanley Cup winners and a finalist.
His Carolina Hurricanes made the cup final in 2002. Four years later they made a return to final. That year his Hurricanes won.
Ahead of that 2006 Stanley Cup win, Rutherford took some big swings. He got ahead of the trade market and picked up Doug Weight in January 2006, two months ahead of the trade deadline.
At the 2006 deadline, Rutherford went a step further, adding Mark Recchi to a lineup that would win the Southeast Division and finish fourth overall in the league, ahead of an epic march to a first Stanley Cup title for the Hurricanes’ franchise.
That team was led offensively by a pair of young stars in Eric Staal and Justin Williams; the supporting players included grizzled veterans such as Rod Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Aaron Ward, Bret Hedican and Frank Kaberle.
And a decade later, Rutherford guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back cups. Those teams were led, of course, by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
In 2015-16, ahead of the season Rutherford added Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino. During the season he shored up the Pens’ depth, adding Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin midseason, then Justin Schultz at the trade deadline. He also changed coaches, firing Mike Johnston in December, replacing him with Mike Sullivan.
The next season, Rutherford ran nearly the same roster and only made two deals, again for depth: Ron Hainsey, who played every game in the playoffs, and Mark Streit, who played down the stretch but was a bit player in the playoffs.
The Canucks’ brass were hopeful about this season — if you recall Rutherford’s pre-season statement that if everything went well, they’ve make the playoffs — but certainly expect to find themselves in competition to be the league’s top team.
“It’s a credit to the players and the coaches. Guys came in ready and worked hard in the summer. They’ve executed Tocc’s plan,” he said. “And most things have gone right. You always hope you are at the top — but no, we didn’t think this.”
He knows that you mustn’t be afraid to make a move if you think it will make your team better, especially when you’re close to being a cup contender.
The question of pushing your chips in, of going all-in has come up with Rutherford, general manager Patrik Allvin and their staff.
“We’ve been having these discussions for a few weeks, at least three weeks, about where we could go,” Rutherford said.
“We feel pretty good with where we’re at. Now we’re here and look at how our players have performed. What else we could do?”
Does that mean adding players?
“Possibly,” Rutherford said. “You need to see what comes up.”
And then there’s the elephant in the room: Elias Pettersson. Their superstar centre is in the final year of his contract and could sign a contract extension any time.
The Canucks would like to re-sign him, presumably at whatever cost it would take. Allvin admitted to Sportsnet this week that such little negotiation with Pettersson’s representatives J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson is unusual.
But the fact he’s still unsigned isn’t going to affect their decision-making for this season, Rutherford said.
“No. Doesn’t affect your decisions. We have the player under control for another year,” he said. “The focus is on what the player should be doing in the games right now. And it’s been very good.”
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