On the cover of The Hockey News’ 2018 Future Watch edition, the main headline screams: “Plan The Parade…Toronto will win the Stanley Cup. It’s only a matter of when. And how many.” Sixty-four pages later, the Vancouver Canucks’ story carries a much less emphatic: “Here comes the cavalry.”
Probably not the best time to mention that when the Maple Leafs and Canucks were rebuilding their hockey departments, they went out and hired Brendan Shanahan and Trevor Linden, respectively, two days apart. Four years and three months after the two former playing icons were brought on, the Maple Leafs have reaped the rewards of fully embracing The Tank™, while the Canucks are now kind of, sort of doing the same in the hopes things turn out similarly for them. And whatever they do, they’ll do without Linden, who leaves the organization with his legacy a little tainted and almost no on-ice success to show for his work.
Truth be told, the best thing the Canucks could hope for this season is that they integrate some of their promising young talent into the lineup and are bad enough to have a chance to win the draft lottery and the opportunity to unite 2018 first-round pick Quinn Hughes with his prodigious brother, Jack. A stroke of luck like that would put the Canucks on the same trajectory the Leafs find themselves now. But as Linden walked out of GM Place Wednesday for the last time as the Canucks president of hockey operations, he could do so knowing that in terms of prospects, the Canucks are arguably as robust as they’ve been in their almost-50-year history. Some of that has to do with the fact that the Canucks have never been world leaders when it comes to drafting and developing prospects. But much of it has to do with the fact that over the past couple of years they have done an outstanding job assembling young talent. And when it comes to the organizational spectrum, there was nobody in the Canucks front office who embraced rebuilding the right way more than Linden did.
When things like this happen, people tend to look for defining moments that led to it. That might be difficult in this case. Chances are, there were a number of factors that led to the perceived falling out between Linden and the Aquilini brothers who own the team. Can the Aquilinis be impatient and meddling? Well, yeah, but there are a lot of owners who are like that. But you also have to remember that these guys are not absentee owners who play with their toy from afar. They’re local businessmen who have to hear every day from everyone ranging from their pals at the country club to angry fans on social media what is wrong with their team. And with four years of Linden at the helm, it’s not as though they didn’t give him any runway.
Still, it’s a shame to see Linden leave when things were just getting interesting in Vancouver. Linden did a number of good things there. He revamped the scouting department, brought in the notion of sports science and tried his best to focus on the future. What waylaid him in many ways was in the first two years of his mandate, he and the organization sent out such mixed messages about the direction of the Canucks that nobody could really seem to figure out what the plan was.
In retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened for Linden and the Canucks came in his very first season at the helm. With one last enormous hurrah from the Sedins, the Canucks finished with 101 points before being bounced in the first round by the Calgary Flames. Not only did it delay the rebuild that Linden and GM Jim Benning knew needed to happen, it also led many in the fan base to believe that the team that had dominated its division for much of the past decade was better than it actually was.
It wasn’t really until last summer that Linden started to liberally use the word “rebuild,” but by that time the organization had already signed Loui Eriksson to a six-year contract and acquired the likes of Brandon Prust and Erik Gudbranson. There’s little doubt that Linden and the Aquilinis clashed over the direction of the team, but with Benning just re-upping for three years, there’s even less doubt the Canucks will continue on their path of building through youth. They really have no choice at the moment, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing when you’re looking at things in the long-term.
If Hughes decides to turn pro, there’s a good chance he’ll be drawing a regular shift in the NHL this coming season. Elias Pettersson, Olli Juolevi and Adam Gaudette will almost certainly join him. With Thatcher Demko and Michael DiPietro in the system, the long-term prospects in goal look good. Jonathan Dahlen, whom the Canucks stole from Ottawa in the Alexandre Burrows trade, along with Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich give them some future organizational depth.
So when the Canucks do find their way in the next couple of years, Linden will be able to take some pride in knowing he was a major part of establishing the rebuilding plan that made it possible. He just won’t do it with any ties to the Canucks, the team with which he has been synonymous almost all his NHL life.