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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 to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.