The Vancouver Canucks made two moves Wednesday: One, they introduced Trevor Linden, the most popular player in franchise history, as the new president of hockey operations. Two, they extended the season-ticket renewal deadline until after the draft and free agency period.
“We’re trying to sell tickets,” said chairman Franceso Aquilini, when asked about the economic cost of missing the playoffs. “I’m disappointed in the season, just like all our fans. Trevor’s here now. He’s going to put a plan in place and get our season-ticket holders back and believing in this team again.”
For now, that’s what this is about. Sales. Belief. But if you’re a season-ticket holder, are you sold just because general manager Mike Gillis is gone? Do you believe just because Trevor’s here now? Or do you wait and see what the plan actually is before you come back?
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Linden captained the Canucks, leading them to the 1994 Stanley Cup final. He served as president of the NHL Players’ Association, helping oust executive director Bob Goodenow and end the 2004-05 lockout – to his credit or detriment, depending on your perspective. But he has been out of hockey since he retired in 2008, biking, working in the business world, watching the Canucks from afar. He has zero experience as a hockey executive. Zero.
Though Linden looked and sounded great at his press conference, he said little of substance. Though he said he believes he’s “ready for this challenge,” he was unconvincing when it came to why. Example: Linden told reporters on the side that he knew little about analytics, noting the trend arose after his playing days.
That doesn’t mean Linden will fail. That doesn’t inspire confidence, either.
“It’s a new career path,” said Linden, who turns 44 on Friday. “It’s a new life, if you will. Certainly lots of challenges. I’ve got a lot to learn. I’ve always been someone who’s loved to learn. I think I have the ability to learn quickly and make the right call, and I trust my judgment.”
In a sense, it’s refreshing. Gillis was a former agent with cutting-edge ideas, but he came off as arrogant and condescending – not only to the public, but to his fellow GMs. He acted like he had nothing to learn.
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But this isn’t the team or the town or the time for on-the-job training. Linden is taking over a team that came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, in a town that obsesses over hockey every bit as much as Toronto or Montreal, at a time when everything has been falling apart. People have been spoiled by winning and scoring, but the owners are reportedly meddlesome, the coach’s style doesn’t seem to fit the personnel, the core is aging, et cetera.
To get a grasp of Linden, let alone get excited about Linden, we need to know his vision, how much power he has and how he plans to put it all together – what kind of GM he wants, what kind of front office he wants. Until we know that stuff, we can’t even get into the coach and the players. Linden said he wanted to have a GM in place by the draft – middle of June would be ideal, early June would be even better – and “any sort of coaching decision will be made in due time after thorough evaluation.”
Linden was vague at best – partly by design, because he doesn’t want to tip his hand to competitors, and partly by default, because frankly he’s figuring out a lot of things on the fly.
“I more subscribe to the fact that winning hockey is fundamentally sound hockey,” Linden said. “I had a saying when I played that, ‘There’s only one way to play, and that’s the right way.’ You don’t sacrifice offense by being in good, sound defensive position.”
Aquilini said he supported Linden’s “right way.” In other words, they say they’re on the same page, which is good. But we don’t really know what’s on it yet, do we?
This is important. Aquilini threatened two media outlets with legal action after they reported he and his brothers were behind the hiring of coach John Tortorella, a perception Gillis fed in a recent radio interview. He texted one writer and called him a “prick” – not exactly a ringing endorsement for Tortorella or the Aquilinis’ level-headedness.
[More: Did Mike Gillis deserve to be fired by Vancouver?]
“Mike hired Tortorella, and I supported that decision,” Aquilini said. “So I have to take responsibility for that, and that’s why we have a change in direction today.”
Aquilini said Linden would make all the decisions in regard to hockey operations.
“I intend to spend a lot of time working with [the Aquilinis] and having them fully understand the decisions we make and why,” Linden said. “But ultimately I’m very comfortable with the autonomy that I have.”
Clip and save that quote, just in case.
The GM? The structure of the front office?
Linden said he had a profile in mind for the GM and the hockey ops department in general. He said the search had already started and would include internal and external candidates. The Canucks have two well-regarded assistant GMs: Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning. There are many others out there, such as the Los Angeles Kings’ Ron Hextall and the Boston Bruins’ Jim Benning.
“Gaining permission to speak to certain people can be a challenge, and so that’s what will affect the timing,” Linden said. “When I make a decision, you’ll understand, and I’ll be able to speak more freely about the type of profile I was looking for.”
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Maybe the plan will be clear in time. Right now it’s not. At least Linden said this: “I intend to surround myself with good, thoughtful, independent thinkers, and that’s how I will make the right decisions. That’s how this organization will make the right decisions.”
That’s the key.
This can work. Linden mentioned Cam Neely, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, great players who are leading successful franchises. He said he had spoken to them in the past few days.
But Neely, the president of the Bruins, didn’t hire GM Peter Chiarelli, one of the best in the business. He inherited him. Sakic spent two seasons in the front office of the Colorado Avalanche before he became the executive vice-president of hockey operations and hired his old teammate Patrick Roy to be VP of hockey ops and head coach. Roy had run a team in junior for nearly a decade. Yzerman spent four years in the front office of the Detroit Red Wings and was executive director of Team Canada before he became the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Linden has to know what he doesn’t know and lean on advisors like Pat Quinn, the old coach and executive he said he called Wednesday. He has to hire the right people, let them do their jobs and learn along the way.
The Buffalo Sabres hired Pat LaFontaine as their president of hockey operations in November for the same reasons the Canucks hired Linden now. LaFontaine had virtually no front-office experience, either. He hired Ottawa Senators assistant GM Tim Murray as the GM – and then parted with the Sabres after an apparent power struggle. Time will tell, but it might have been for the best. Murray was qualified to run a team. LaFontaine was not.
“I’ve kind of been like the backup quarterback the last few years, right?” Linden said. “Everyone loves the backup quarterback because he hasn’t made any mistakes yet.”
Exactly. And hiring the wrong GM is a mistake Linden cannot afford to make. Good thing the Canucks have extended the renewal deadline. Season-ticket holders still have time to decide whether to buy in.
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