For the second time in three years, the Vancouver Canucks are stumbling through a difficult season.
In 2013-14, the Canucks missed the playoffs, and coach John Tortorella and general manager Mike Gillis were fired.
In 2015-16, the Canucks are in danger of missing the playoffs again. The jobs of president Trevor Linden and GM Jim Benning are not in jeopardy, but coach Willie Desjardins is facing ever-harsher criticisms.
The team’s poor performance has sparked heated debate over who’s really in charge, an issue that has been mostly dormant in the Linden era.
Team owner Francesco Aquilini had a reputation for hands-on ownership, but after the implosion of 2013-14, he eased back.
On Saturday, however, Aquilini was thrust back into the picture amid media speculation that Benning wants to “start over” and rebuild the team, a strategy Aquilini opposes.
A running rebuild – rather than a teardown – has been the ambition of the Linden/Benning era. It has accelerated this year as veterans have been jettisoned in favour of more young players on the roster. But the goal was still to make the playoffs – Benning was emphatic about it recently.
Once the who’s-in-charge story caught fire, the Canucks went into damage control. On Monday morning, Linden was on local radio insisting he had the final say on hockey decisions and that the owner is on side.
Linden was frank about the Canucks’ immediate potential.
“This is not a situation that’s going to turn around quickly,” he said. “Francesco and the family have a really good understanding of where we are and what needs to take place for us to get back where we need to be.”
Later in the morning at Rogers Arena, the team’s media strategy was to mostly duck. Ahead of Monday night’s game against the struggling Minnesota Wild, Desjardins held an unusually long press conference. Thereafter, few players were around to speak with reporters.
The first to appear was rookie Ben Hutton. “We’re one big happy family,” he said.
Desjardins, in his second year as an NHL coach, has faced various waves of criticism through the season. One is his deployment of players. A prominent example: Low-scoring centre Linden Vey has had more ice time in six of the past 10 games than Daniel Sedin, the team’s only all-star.
“Whenever you lose, you’re open for criticism,” Desjardins said Monday. His team has the second-fewest wins in regulation or overtime in the league.
Fans are losing faith. On StubHub, some lower-bowl tickets for Monday night’s game were available at as little as half of face value. Many tickets in the arena were available for less than face value.
The players have their own ideas. Dan Hamhuis, 33 and soon to be a free agent, blamed the rumours about the team’s direction on “media generating a lot of their own stories on things.”
Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, another imminent free agent, are the two Canucks around whom the immediate future of the team pivots. Does Vancouver still aim for the playoffs, or do management and ownership concede that it hasn’t worked out this season, and they ought to look ahead and get some sort of return for Hamhuis and Vrbata before the trade deadline?
Hamhuis could veto a trade with his no-trade clause, and walk away in the summer, but he suggested he’d consider a trade. “We’ll see if something comes of that at the time,” he said.
The team has had bad luck with injuries, too. The most recent blows are losing defenceman Alex Edler until the end of March and centre Brandon Sutter for at least as long – after Sutter had already missed a large chunk of the season.
In the next month, the Canucks have 11 of 14 games at home. But home has been harrowing: The Canucks are tied for the league’s worst home record with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Turmoil is only what you expose yourself to,” goaltender Ryan Miller said of all the talk around the team. “I understand our position, where we’re ranked. The job’s not done, as far as we’re concerned.”Report Typo/Error