He stood in a dark suit, the swoop of his dark hair coloured with threads grey. It was the return of an icon. A great roar rose up – from a half-empty Rogers Arena – as Trevor Linden, standing in the general manager’s box, was welcomed home on Thursday night in Vancouver before the puck dropped on a meaningless hockey game.
“He exited as our hero,” began the montage on the scoreboard. The crowd responded with vigour. The montage continued and then concluded: “Welcome back Trevor!”
And so began the Linden-as-hockey-boss era in Vancouver, the hope of revival in bloom at the end of a difficult season. It is a small irony that Thursday night, against the visiting Colorado Avalanche, was the first meaningless hockey game the Canucks have played as a team eliminated from the playoffs since 2008, when they lost 7-1 to Calgary in the final game of that season. The Calgary blowout was Linden’s final game on the ice as a Canuck.
This time, it wasn’t as bad, but it was not great. One imagined it would have been stronger, feistier, the Canucks players in their first of of only three chances remaining this spring to show off for the new boss. Vancouver had its moments, and outshot Colorado 40-28, but lost the game 4-2, folding in the third period even with a considerable push to win.
Ryan Kesler blamed a “lack of focus.” Captain Henrik Sedin said the Canucks once again did enough to win but were undermined by their own mistakes, self-inflicted wounds. “We seem to give the other teams their goals,” said Sedin.
Colorado, meanwhile, tied a franchise record for wins in a season, 52, matching 2000-01, when the team won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender named Patrick Roy. This edition of the Avalanche is backstopped by Semyon Varlamov, who booked his 41st win Thursday, one better than Roy’s 40 in 2000-01.
“The coach is very happy,” smiled Roy, the rookie NHL coach, after the game. And while Colorado was outshot yet again, they won, yet again. Roy credited the team’s ability to limit true scoring chances, and underlined the importance of a goalie, who he believes is an MVP contender.
For Vancouver, until this campaign is officially over on Sunday night at home, against Calgary, Linden’s work will be watching, thinking, privately talking over what can be done. There are, in fact, signs of hope.
The Canucks have played fairly solid hockey this season – it might sound crazy to hear – when one considers puck possession, but the team has been sunk by a terrible shooting percentage, which leaves Vancouver as one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. It does seem like a freak occurrence, when Daniel Sedin has one goal in 2014, and Ryan Kesler hasn’t registered an assist since the end of January.
But while a reasonable recovery next season can be fairly expected, it is a real revival that seems less likely. And this is what Linden has to wrestle. Is the goal to try to be a contender next year, or does the team absorb some short-term pain with the aim of building a true contender for a couple years down the road?
Linden has clear ideas about what’s gone wrong – but on Wednesday when he was introduced as the new hockey boss, he declined to discuss it, for the obvious reason of the final games still to play. He gave some kudos to the existing roster, but it was not overflowing praise.
“There needs to be a full evaluation of how we get better and what that looks like,” Linden said Wednesday.
It’s unclear what appetite the owners have for absorbing short-term pain for potential gains in the medium-term. “The best years are ahead of us,” predicted team chairman Francesco Aquilini on Wednesday, emphasizing the fact that bringing on Linden was a declaration to the team’s fans and customers. “We want to get their confidence back and Trevor’s going to do that.”
It was something of a time warp on Thursday before the game. Entering the press box on the fifth floor of Rogers Arena there is the iconic photo from 1994 on the wall of gave-it-all-he-had Linden leaning on goalie Kirk McLean. Two decades later, here is Linden as boss man, and McLean on Thursday visiting as a friend.
The two immediate jobs to consider are coach and general manager. Beyond going internal for the new GM, promoting the likes of assistant Laurence Gilman, the name Jim Benning is bandied about. Benning, the assistant GM in Boston, has the sheen of helping build that top-flight team and the benefit of a history in scouting. Benning was also a long-ago teammate of Linden’s, playing his final two years of his career in Vancouver in Linden’s first two in the league.
The decision on the coach will be first, and possibly answered as early as Monday, the day after hockey playing is done in Vancouver for the season. On Thursday night, one fan bellowed support, on the scoreboard after participating in a contest during the second period: “Tortorella, you’re a beauty! I love you, man!”
So the fiery coach is not without his supporters and while he could be back next year, it feels a departure is the more likely scenario. Tortorella, through recent weeks, has displayed a zen-like calm. Some have said it is the poise of a man who is confident his job is secure. Better odds are it is simply a veteran coach who is comfortable with come what come may.
Tortorella and Linden spoke for some 30 seconds on Wednesday, before Linden’s flurry of media to help stoke hope in the city, on the day the deadline for season-ticket renewals was extended.
“That may be my first and last conversation with him,” said a nonchalant Tortorella on Wednesday. “I’m going to work every day until they say they don’t want me here.”