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.

***

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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.