Earlier this summer, the Vancouver Canucks parted ways with Trevor Linden (again). There’s no question that the team is in trouble, but there’s no guarantee that a Linden-less future will be better.
When a franchise is in a rut, heads are going to roll. But if the wrong heads roll, things will not get better. How do we ensure we roll the right heads?
To be clear, as far as anyone knows, Trevor Linden left his position by his own choice. Of course, these things are never quite that simple, and the truth is probably that – at some level – he was pushed out the door.
I like Trevor Linden, doesn’t everyone? It’s hard to hate the guy. But it was also getting painful watching him trot out weak excuses and changing stories over the last four years. We are, without a doubt, approaching the point where the Vancouver Canucks are in the worst run in franchise history. Only the Mike Keenan-Mark Messier era still holds a claim to being at least as bad as the current string of basement-dwelling seasons.
And it’s not going to get better anytime soon.
This summer has been a roller coaster; a solid draft day, which included a genuine blue chip defensive prospect in Quinn Hughes, was followed by an appalling series of free agent signings, worth too much money and way too much term. This is tied up in 4th line players who will now sop up ice time that could otherwise have been used on young players who need to take steps forward. Don’t try to tell me Brendan Leipsic and Nikolay Goldobin will make the team ahead of the guys Jim Benning just threw millions of dollars at. That’s not how this thing works.
And then, the bombshell that Trevor Linden was stepping down.
I was relieved, at first, because I thought maybe it meant that the unraveling of this failing administration was finally happening. But, on reflection, I worry that the problem goes higher than Trev.
The Blame Game
Yeah, yeah, there are lots of factors in the Vancouver Canucks having been so awful, and no, injuries is not one of them. What sunk this franchise into the depths was its inability to make a decision; try to compete now or rebuild. It was obvious, and they blew it, and now we are here.
In each of the past four seasons there has been big talk about trying to compete for the playoffs while also getting younger and faster. But only a true wizard could accomplish both of these things at the same time, and we know now that neither Trevor Linden or Jim Benning are, in fact, wizards.
Each time the franchise has taken steps in younger/faster direction, it has inexplicably undermined that progress by taking steps in the opposite direction. Consider: yes, the Canucks have acquired some genuine young talent with potential, and yet, it has also thrown ludicrous contracts at players like Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson,and Erik Gudbranson, so bad that these players have become virtually untradeable. At precisely a time when the Canucks need to be trading older assets for prospects and picks.
When it has had tradeable assets, like Thomas Vanek last season, it has utterly failed to market them. The return on Vanek, who (this should not have been a surprise) turned out to be a very valuable player for Columbus down the stretch, was embarrassing. Detroit got three draft picks for Tomas Tatar, who hardly even played in the playoffs, while the Canucks had to eat Jussi Jokinen‘s contract and acquired only AHL-level player Tyler Motte in return for Thomas Vanek.
These kinds of mind-melting failures have earned a lot of scorn at the feet of Jim Benning. He is the general manager making these decisions, and they have been bad. But let’s consider the chain of command here.
It was Linden who picked Jim Benning. It was Trevor and Jim who chose Willie Desjardins and stuck with him for three years despite an attitude that was antithetical to a rebuild (remember when Goldy scored a breakaway goal in his first game as a Canuck… and got benched? Thanks Willie. Real good.) When they finally had to bail on Willie, Trevor and Jim interviewed only one candidate, their pal Travis Green. He has only had one season, but (as I warned over a year ago) his approach to coaching was not very different from Willie. Replacing Willie for Willie 2.0 only makes sense if you think the team needs a Willie.
I don’t think the team needs a Willie. I think the Vancouver Canucks need a seriously new direction, and I am not even close to being the only one here.
So this is all Trevor’s fault, right?
Capitalism and Sports
Unfortunately it’s not that simple either. Who hired Trevor? Francesco Aquilini, managing director of Aquilini Investment Group. Francesco is man whose father owned a wealthy company. Wealthy companies often use their wealth to make more wealth, it’s called capitalism, and in another life I write extensively on the subject.
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I’m not mad at Francesco for being a capitalist, but it occasionally occurs to me that a lot of people’s emotions hang in the balance of the decisions made by just some guy with an MBA. Is Francesco Aquilini one of brightest minds in hockey? I mean, it’s possible, I don’t know him. But it would certainly be unlikely that this paragon of hockey genius would have been lurking the beautiful Italian Gardens (of which Francesco is the chair and primary sponsor.)
What is more likely is that Francesco is just an ordinary guy, who likes hockey, and happens to command a huge amount of resources (again, capitalism) which means that he is in the really fun position of being able to own a hockey team. It’s great for Francesco. But is it great for the Vancouver Canucks and the many, many, many people who place a large (some would say irrational) chunk of their emotional energy into rooting for their success?
I’m not sure it is.
Rebuilds and Not Rebuilds
See, let’s be honest here: Francesco hired Trevor because he needed a boost. Things were looking bad, Torts said it was “stale,” and fans were getting restless. Francesco knew that Trevor had a ton of goodwill in the community and his hiring would generate a lot of positive feeling and blunt the edge of what might be some lean years of hockey.
Fair enough, and that’s sort of what happened at first. The problem is, Trevor didn’t have any experience running an NHL hockey club. I like the guy, but running a gym and running the Vancouver Canucks is not the same thing. Trevor made poor choices. Jim Benning was a poor choice. Willie Desjardins was a poor choice. Poor choices flowed from those poor choices and, well, here we are, the nightmare from which we cannot awaken.
It wasn’t a bad decision from Francesco’s standpoint, insofar as his goal was to sustain his revenues. He really did delay the inevitable retreat. But he also gave us four years of truly stale, hopeless, floundering, uninteresting hockey. And counting. Sorry, are we supposed to be getting stoked about the Beagle boys? I’m just not stoked.
The whole rebuild has been backwards from the start. You don’t make Brandon Sutter’s and Jay Beagle’s your foundational pieces. You build around players like the Sedins, like Brock Boeser, like Elias Petterson. And you build around them with talent, skill, speed, players who can break open a game. Then, when you have a core that includes an Ovechkin, a Backstrom, a Kuznetsov, an Eller, a Burakowsky, a Vrana, then, then, THEN, you make sure you’ve got a few Beagles. It doesn’t go the other way.
Trev and Jim got it wrong, and you can see it in a lot of the decisions they made right from the start. The smug “we’re going to do things the right way” attitude that they brought in four years ago soured very, very quickly. Injuries were perennially used as an excuse, but some of us remember that among the first things the new regime did was nix some of the more interesting things the old regime was doing in terms of injury-prevention.
“We just don’t have the talent” sometimes came up, and yet, it would be more accurate to say they didn’t go out and get the talent, and sometimes they mishandled the talent they had (paging KHL All-Star Nikita “offered less than Ben Hutton and regularly benched in the third period” Tryamkin.)
But, again, that’s possibly because they had never done this before. They were not the right people for these jobs. And that, ultimately, rests on Francesco.
Which brings me around to the question of where the buck stops. It invariably stops with Francesco, but that’s a little odd, isn’t it? That so many of us should be so perplexed and stressed and arguing-on-twitter over a series of decisions that ultimately flow from the unaccountable tyranny of one man. Maybe a very nice man. But still, just one man, with all that power.
Francesco has the power to hire Presidents and General Managers who will tell him what he wants to hear, even if it is bad for the franchise. I’m not saying he did that, exactly, or that he will do that again. I’m saying he can. That’s just how capitalism works. Certainly gives us something to think about, no?