Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Why does Thomas Drance hate the Canucks so?

It used to be that sports journalists covered local teams objectively, in a semi-detached manner. Growing up as a Canucks fan and aspiring sportswriter, I well recall that the coverage was rarely positive because the results were almost always negative. The team made so many blunders that local scribes had a field day lampooning its foibles. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Jim Taylor did it so deliciously. Radio gnome “Big Al” Davidson would carve the hapless Canuckleheads into a million pieces. But they never tried to run the team, from what I can recall. Nowadays the local sports media is mostly a bunch of millennials who think they know everything, to the point where they think they should be running the team they’re covering. This is the problem with millennials, and I for one am fed up with it. 

The absolute worst, of course, is Thomas Drance of The Unathletic, as I call it. The former tour bus guide got into covering sports as a blogger. Blogs were popular 20 years ago, before social media came along. Nowadays with Facebook and Twitter, they have faded in popularity but still provide an outlet for those with something substantial to say, like me. They actually qualify more as long-form journalism amid the barbs and snipes on social media these days. But to his credit Drance persisted with blogging, and what he lacked in writing ability and insight he more than made up in sheer volume. He rose to managing editor of the Canucks Army blog, which unfortunately became so negative that I came to call it the Anti-Canucks Army. Now that Drance has been promoted to lead Canucks correspondent for The Athletic, his criticism has become as relentless as it is strident. 

Even amidst a streak in which the team has pulled itself back into the playoff picture, Drance advocates in today’s . . . er, edition that the Canucks should throw in the towel and start trading some of the team’s most vital starters. Here’s his lede: “In dismal fashion, the Vancouver Canucks have won six of their past eight games.” Dismal fashion? This year’s Canuckleads have pulled off a series of thrilling victories of late, last night scoring in overtime on the road to extend their dominance over the Ottawa Senators. Sure, they’re one of the league’s worst teams, but if you can’t beat them you’re never going to get far. He goes on to explain how the streak, which has seen the Canucks also beat the Oilers, the Habs, and the division-leading Leafs (not once but twice – and on the road at that), has been “a mirage of favourable results.” 

I would argue that this is more like the plucky Canucks we came to know and love in last summer’s bubble, when they came within a game of getting to the Final Four. Perhaps the team’s inexplicably dreadful performance to start the season was instead a mirage of unfavourable results. But not according to Drancer. “The Canucks’ recent winning run has been less vibrant, dynamic saunter and more wobbly, zombie stagger,” he writes. WTF, as the kids say. I coulda sworn I’ve been watching smothering defensive play, timely goals, and brilliant saves. “The club’s 5-on-5 form has been appalling,” Drance continues. “Vancouver’s defensive structure has been every bit as brittle of late as it was in January.” What on earth is he going on about? Finally we get to the root of his problem with them winning.

They’ve managed these wins while being outshot in every single game this month, often by a wide margin. The Canucks have in fact been outshot by 67 at 5-on-5 in the month of March. Outshot by 67 in just eight games!

OMG, as the kids also say. They’ve been outshot! Geez, I always thought it was the shots that go into the net that determined the outcome of hockey games, not the ones that don’t go in. When I was a goalie, and not a very good one at that, I couldn’t care less if the other team blasted away as long as it was from distance and I got a good view of the shots. Lotsa shots kept me warm and dialed into the game. It wasn’t the quantity of shots I worried about so much as the quality, so all I wanted was for my defence to clear pucks and players from the front of my net. The goalie I admired most was Ken Dryden because his Habs dominated so much that he often went many minutes without seeing a shot yet was still able to stop almost all of them. The simple fact is that since the Canucks tightened up their defensive play to the point that they’re not giving up any more breakaways, their record has improved accordingly. 

The problem with hockey’s new wave of “experts” is that the fancy stats they use – a/k/a analytics – are mostly based on shots. That’s not what wins hockey games. If you only went by shots on goal, the old Soviet Red Army team would have been the worst in history. Instead they might have been the best. They took very few shots, as Team Canada learned to its chagrin in 1972, but they passed the puck around so exquisitely that they had you tied in knots before one of them finally tapped it in. The NHL game is different, of course. Creating traffic in front and getting pucks to the net is the formula for success these days. That’s why you need a monster netminder who can stand in there and hold the fort, like the Canucks had in Markstrom last season and have in Demko now. But according to Drance, Demko’s recent brilliance is actually cause for concern.

It’s a cruel twist to this lost season that even positive storylines — like what Demko has managed in making the Canucks crease his own — are being constantly undermined by the visible seams of organizational dysfunction.

OK, we’re getting closer now to diagnosing Drancer’s problem. It’s his long-standing Benning problem. If only the Canucks got rid of GM Jim Benning, all would be right with the team and the world. According to Drance, Benning is somehow making a mess of things by not re-signing the coaching staff (despite the pandemic) and should immediately trade away any and all assets to ensure that the team doesn’t make the playoffs. That way, of course, Drance will have continued cause to call for Benning’s head. You see, it’s all a mirage, thanks to Demko.

A serious organization can’t afford to see the comforting bright side in the Demko mirage, particularly not at the expense of ignoring the significant challenges it’s facing in reality, or the distance it still has to travel in the years ahead to ice a meaningful contender. And it can’t get distracted from doing what needs to be done, which is selling creatively and selling aggressively, and pursuing that end with singular diligence and focus over the next three and a half weeks. 

That’s right. Trade ’em all! Every player on an expiring contract should be shipped out for a mid-round draft choice, even RFAs like Tyler Motte who are cost controlled and have yet to hit their ceiling. Forget all the hard work done in acquiring and developing them. Let’s start all over again. Motte, for example, was acquired in trade a few years ago for Thomas Vanek, who was signed as a free agent. Let’s just forget the time spent in developing the promising Motte and cash him in for a lottery ticket that may or may not pay off in about five years. This is Drance’s idea of building a team. Of course Tanner Pearson should be the first to go, according to Drance. It took years to find a sympatico winger for Captain Bo, but let’s just start that search all over again. He even advocates shopping Nate Schmidt, for whom Benning settled in his off-season quest for a puck-moving defenceman (after originally pursuing Oliver Ekmann-Larsen), despite him being under contract until 2025 at less than $6 million per. “They should consider those types of more difficult possibilities,” argues Drance in a comma splice sentence I have repaired by injecting attribution. “That’s the level of urgency and open-mindedness that’s required at this trade deadline.” (I couldn't resist also axing his repetition.)

This club is going to need every ounce of flexibility it can get this summer, every sliver of additional prospect and draft capital it can carve out by monetizing whichever veterans on expiring contracts it can manufacture a market for.

As Babe Pratt usedta say: “That’s a buncha hooey!” Get off it, Drancer. The Canucks have prospects coming outta their ears now thanks Benning’s fantastic drafting. They have all their draft picks this year and lack only their third rounder next season, which was surrendered for Schmidt. They hardly need more lottery tickets. Instead of quantity, like shots on goal, they should be going for the highest quality possible. From what I can tell, the Canucks are making another run for it this spring. Drancer can like it or not. I’m sure he’ll be grinding his teeth every minute.


  1. Yikes, this is a horrendously bad take.

  2. "The Athletic hired literally hundreds of writers to cover and analyze almost every imaginable league, team and program.... But the site noticeably lacks edge and critical muscle...”


    Some sports media commentators are still mourning the loss of Canucks D-man Frankie Corrado. Another "asset management" failure by Jim Benning, they said. Frankie was part of the Leafs' woeful defence in 2015-16 and, after that season, he went on to play 9 more NHL games and now skates in Europe.

    Who can forget the commentator who said on radio and online that Benning made a huge blunder when he brought in J.T. Miller. Yeah, Canucks had no need for a forward able to score a point a game, as Miller has done since coming to Vancouver.

    These guys throw out nonsense as if it's certain truth. We can all have opinions about what we'd do if an owner paid us a million or two to run our favourite team, but, until then, let's not take our sports convictions too seriously.

    1. Nice one, thanks. Geez, if they need more edge, maybe I should apply.

  3. Of course, the commentator who dissed J.D. Miller as unsuitable for the Canucks was J.D. Burke. He seems to have calculated that if you say something sufficiently outrageous, people will think you're the next Tony Gallagher.