Canucks must learn painful lessons from Linden era

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Unless you’re a fly on the wall, it’s pretty tough to attribute specific decisions to the exact front office members who made them.

So, yes, to some extent, a GM’s effectiveness hinges upon the quality of the scouts available, and a team won’t have a good GM if the guy above him – whether that’s the owner, team president, or both – makes the right call. It’s not that far from an NFL team’s highs and lows being chalked up so intensely to the work of head coaches and QBs.

One can only speculate as far as which of the Vancouver Canucks’ moves have Trevor Linden’s fingerprints all over them, and which ones come down to someone lower in the pecking order.

As we absorb his (seemingly?) abrupt departure as Canucks president – more on that here – it’s pointless to hammer on the beloved former center to a harsh degree. If the Canucks want to get better in any meaningful way, they need to absorb lessons from an era where they missed the postseason three times and failed to win a single series, often wasting a bucket of cash in the process.

Naturally, people running other NHL teams can learn a thing or two, as well.

  • Actually, start your former stars in vanity project positions.

Steve Yzerman is one of the shrewdest GMs in the league (with “proclivity for former Rangers” being the closest thing to a weakness) after ranking as one of the NHL’s most brilliant players, but don’t forget that there was a maturation process. Yzerman essentially underwent an apprenticeship with the Red Wings before becoming Lightning GM, and even then, Stevie Y was wise enough to surround himself with experienced, varied hockey people.

As former PHT’er Jason Brough notes, it sounds like Linden wasn’t particularly prepared for the gig. “Experience” is thrown around a lot as a buzzword these days, but it doesn’t feel as much like hot air when it comes to high-stakes, sometimes detail-intensive front office work. Garth Snow jumped from NHL backup to Islanders GM, and that didn’t exactly end up as a spectacular success, either.

So, rather than throwing a former player in the deep end right off the bat, here’s a suggestion: name the next Linden “The Ambassador of Fun” and ease that person into a more serious job, if it makes sense. If the ceiling’s “shaking hands and kissing babies,” it sure is a lower-risk way of finding that out rather than handing them the keys of your franchise as if it’s a live hand grenade.

  • Search for diverse voices.

Look, for all we know, the Canucks could give Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” a run for its money, but it sure feels like things leaned more toward having one too many “yes men” in the room. When there aren’t enough people speaking up, you get moments like the Bruins shrugging their way to the disastrous Tyler Seguin trade.

One way or another, you can essentially tie the Trevor Linden era to that of the GM he hired, Jim Benning.

If Linden’s departure is more about him getting pushed out then Linden getting fed up with an unquestionably difficult job, then this will only be worth the bad PR if the Canucks start to make some changes. Is there really any sign that Benning’s worldview is meaningfully different than that of Linden?

(TSN’s Farhan Lalji indicates that Linden didn’t always see eye-to-eye with ownership or Benning, for what it’s worth.)

The Canucks’ summer moves indicate that the answer might be no, at least assuming that people on their way out of organizations usually see their influence muted. Rather than going full-rebuild, the Canucks handed baffling four-year, $12 million contracts to Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. Even if you like those two “elbow grease” guys as players who maybe can help you during the playoffs, is there any indication that Vancouver is merely a few scrappy assets away from contending?

As long as Benning is in control, it’s tough to imagine the Canucks taking the steps they need to turn things around. Instead, they continue to collect mistakes and delay the process, potentially dooming themselves to a longer slog through mediocrity.

Linden shoulders some of the blame for mistakes such as the Loui Eriksson contract, yet you can also picture him looking at the structure of this team through bleary eyes and say “Nah, I’ll pass.”

  • Choose a path, not half-measures

It says a lot about the Linden – Benning era that it took until after the 2016-17 season for management to finally acknowledge the word “rebuild.”

Instead, the Canucks’ tanking is closer to a jeep: sometimes embracing it, sometimes trying to “entertain” and meekly compete. Such a process gives Vancouver less of a chance to land truly premium prospects, wastes a ton of money, and opens the door for the Canucks to have money tied up in bad contracts once they’re actually ready to compete (and give young players who actually deserve that money the raised they’re due).

We’ve seen teams show some deftness in trying to have it both ways. The Sharks dumped Douglas Murray and Ryan Clowe for picks during a playoff run. If the Rangers play their cards right, what would be a lengthy rebuild could be palatable.

Still, sometimes you’re better off holding your nose and really taking a plunge. The Linden Era argues that this Canucks group is incapable of walking the tight rope between improving the future while putting a passable product on the ice.

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Look, even lucky NHL teams face serious challenges in becoming competitive. You can take a reasonable approach and still end up behind the true contenders, whether you’re hamstrung by a limited budget, an undesirable market, or other factors.

All of that said, smart teams leverage whatever assets they have, and maybe most importantly, develop clear-eyed self-awareness.

Under Linden and Benning, the Canucks have long suffered an identity crisis, with ugly results being an unfortunate constant. On the bright side, getting the message could help turn things around, even if Linden won’t be around to enjoy the spoils of such victories.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.