Canucks, Canadiens searching for answers in a season that's already slipping away

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Jim Benning was peppered with questions.

What the Vancouver Canucks general manager didn't have were many concrete answers to explain his team's disastrous opening to the season.

"Not the start we envisioned," Benning said this week in a gross understatement.

Three times zones away, Montreal counterpart Marc Bergevin is probably experiencing many of the same thoughts and feelings as GM of another organization in a hockey-mad northern market that's fallen on hard times, and well short of expectations.

"Playing together," Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said of the difference between the club that went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup last season, and this bumbling iteration.

That description fits nicely with what's happening on the West Coast, too.

Vancouver sat 28th overall with just five wins in 17 games heading into Friday's home date against the Winnipeg Jets, while Montreal has a paltry four victories in 19 contests.

Fans are furious, knives are being sharpened and the pressure continues to mount on a pair of GMs with uncertain futures.

"I think we made some good moves this summer to strengthen the team," Benning, who has a contract through next season, said during Thursday's 20-minute media availability with reporters. "There's some issues now that we're working through to try and figure out."

That's certainly one way to put it.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets have all enjoyed early success, things couldn't be more different in Vancouver and Montreal for teams expected, at the very least, to be battling for playoff spots.

The Ottawa Senators, meanwhile, declared their long, painful rebuild over before the season, but sit 30th in the standings right behind the Canucks (28th) and Canadiens (29th). They had four wins in 15 games before three contests were postponed this week because of a COVID-19 outbreak that hit 10 players and an associate coach.

It's really been feast of famine for Canada's seven NHL franchises thus far in 2021-22.

Benning has received the majority of the vitriol to date for not only this campaign and the current roster's construction, but also his seven previous in Vancouver that produced just two playoff appearances.

There have been bad signings, salary cap and asset mismanagement, and questionable trades. While the Canucks hit draft home runs with centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, there have been some big first-round misses like Jake Virtanen and Olli Juolevi.

Consumer confidence in Vancouver is pretty close to rock bottom, if it isn't there already. Sections of the crowd at Rogers Arena chanted "Fire Benning!" during Wednesday's 4-2 defeat to the Colorado Avalanche that stretched the Canucks' ugly losing streak to five games.

"I know fans are frustrated," said the GM. "We're frustrated."

Vancouver's penalty kill sat last in the 32-team league at an appalling 60.3 per cent heading into Friday, while the power play wasn't much better at 14.5 per cent, good for 27th.

The Canucks haven't got nearly enough production from Pettersson, who signed a big-money contract in restricted free agency right before the season, but has been held off the scoresheet in 11 of 17 games and has zero goals at even strength.

He's also been far from the only culprit.

"I'm surprised," under-fire head coach Travis Green said of Vancouver's horrendous start. "Our special teams are hurting us, and we have some players — there's a lot of talk about it — they haven't played the way they can."

Things aren't any better in Montreal, where Ducharme said the main issue for the Canadiens, who are missing two massive pieces in captain Shea Weber and goaltender Carey Price, has been consistency.

"Doing it right, right, right, wrong ... right, right, right, wrong, wrong," he explained Friday when asked about the most frustrating aspect of the current predicament. "We show video, we make adjustments, we talk about situations.

"There's always things that we want to polish, but then you need to go back to something. We talked about this, we know this, we've got to do this every time."

Montreal announced Friday that Bergevin, who doesn't have a contract beyond this season, tested positive for COVID-19 and is being monitored by medical staff. His club has lost four straight and six of seven to sit a point up on Ottawa, which has three games in hand with their schedule expected to resume Monday in Colorado.

And like the Canucks, many of the Canadiens' problems can be blamed on special teams. Montreal is 28th on the power play (13.6 per cent) and 29th on the penalty kill (71.0 per cent).

The struggles, unsurprisingly, are grating on players in both markets.

"When you give up that many goals, there's probably quite a few things that go wrong," Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot said sharply following Thursday's complete no-show at the Bell Centre that saw Montreal lose 6-0 to the previously scuffling Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Everybody's just trying to find a way," added winger Cole Caufield, who was recalled from the AHL in time to experience the Pittsburgh debacle first-hand. "Nobody's really too happy right now with the results that we have, but we've got to stick together and do it with the guys that we have.

"That's all we can focus on."

Hughes said mounting pressure as losses pile up should be expected.

"I take that personal," the Canucks blue-liner said Wednesday in the wake of the Colorado defeat. "The reason there's those conversations is because guys aren't doing their jobs ... it's not just (the GM and coach). It's our team, it's the personnel on the ice.

"We've got to be better. Hopefully we can string a couple (wins) together and those (conversations) can go away."

But it's hard to envision a victory or two easing much of anything among either fan base.

"It's wearing on all of us," Benning said. "We're going to do everything that we can to get this back in the right direction."

The clock in both Vancouver and Montreal, however, continues to tick.

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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