When Jim Benning, the Vancouver Canucks general manager, began his life after playing hockey, it was as an amateur scout for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the lowest rung in NHL management for a team in its first year of existence.
When Willie Desjardins, announced Monday as the new head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, began his life behind the bench in hockey, it was as an assistant at the University of Calgary. That’s pretty much the bottom of that profession – and, on the side, Desjardins was still working on his farm in southwestern Saskatchewan.
These two men, the key hires made by Trevor Linden, himself a rookie in the job as team president, will be the foundation on which the Canucks will build, a notable departure from the men who came before: Mike Gillis and John Tortorella.
Describing Desjardins and Benning, Linden on Monday said: “These guys are down-to-earth, hard-working, genuine people. When you want to build a team, and you surround yourself with good people, that’s the type of people you hire.”
The Canucks, after an awful 2013-14, have chosen a simpler way of operating, lessening the focus on the new-thinking savvy of Gillis, with his embrace of unconventional ideas, and the fiery hammering of Tortorella, whose explosive character was supposed ignite the team. Now, it’s is back to basics. Benning is a man whose assessment of talent on the ice is lauded. Desjardins, who coached the American League’s Texas Stars to a Calder Cup championship last week, is extolled for his ability to work with players.
With a GM and coach in place, after a harried first 2 ½ months on the job for Linden, the biggest task is about to be done – the shaping of a roster that played poorly last year and is loaded with aging players.
The draft this week could produce a flurry of player moves, and the Canucks could be a centre of attention. The team, which has the No. 6 pick, has reportedly made an offer to Florida for the No. 1 pick. Then there is Ryan Kesler, who wants out but has a tiny list of places he’d like to end up. Linden on Monday said there was “no timetable there” for a Kesler trade – and then said Kesler is the type of player the Canucks want on the team. It could just be poker playing on Linden’s part, but a Kesler trade, if it doesn’t happen, could become the sequel to the Roberto Luongo saga.
Before his departure, Tortorella called the roster “stale,” an honest if self-serving assessment. Desjardins said he was excited about the lineup, but when asked specifically about it, the first thing he cited was “character” – which isn’t exactly an endorsement of on-ice potential. He insisted the Sedin twins still rank among elite players.
“I like what I have to work with, I like it a lot,” said Desjardins, before hedging, even if slightly. The Canucks, to outside observers, require a multi-stage rehabilitation to first be a reasonably competitive team, then make the playoffs, and become a true contender in the years ahead. “We want to be an entertaining, high-paced, fast team,” Desjardins said. “We want to be those things, and I do think the transition may take a little time, who knows? I know you don’t get much time, so you better be good quick.”
When Linden was hired in early April, it was something of a nadir. The Canucks, worried about season-ticket renewals, gave a money-back guarantee on deposits – buyers had three months, until July 11, to decide for certain, time to assess what Linden assembled out of the wreckage of last season. The GM is in place, the coach is set. Humble guys. Genuine guys. The next tricks are straight ahead: the draft and free agency. The new guys could significantly reshape the team on the ice in Vancouver come fall.