It is almost three years into Trevor Linden’s tenure in charge of the Vancouver Canucks and the work to rebuild the team is unfinished.
The Canucks are mired near the bottom of the NHL for a second consecutive season – officially eliminated last Thursday night, more than two weeks before the regular season ends. It could cost coach Willie Desjardins his job.
Further, the Sedin twins are near the end of their careers, supplanted as Vancouver’s top scorers for the first time in more than a decade. The perennial first-liners are becoming the team’s second line. The future, however, hasn’t emerged.
It will still likely be several years before the team’s young players and prospects are good enough to vault Vancouver back into the postseason.
“It’s going to take a lot of things going our way for us to find ourselves in the top eight,” Linden, the team’s president, said in a recent interview. Several times, he invoked the word “patience.”
Fans appear ready. In Linden’s first season, 2014-15, the Canucks made the playoffs with an aging roster. They’ve struggled since, even though management felt Vancouver could vie for the postseason. As this season worsened – the team dealt with injuries, and maladies such as the mumps – Canucks general manager Jim Benning was roundly cheered locally at the trade deadline when he scored several prospects in deals that moved out long-time stalwarts Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen.
“I do believe our fans want to see a young team that they are able to grow with,” Linden said. “But having said that, what some fans want comes with a price. There’s going to be some challenging times. There’s going to be some frustration.”
How much frustration is hard to predict. The time it takes to rebuild a hockey team is often measured in the span of a decade. The Chicago Blackhawks, before they won three Stanley Cups in six years, missed the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons. Young teams on the rise have a similar story. The Toronto Maple Leafs missed the playoffs 10 of 11 seasons and are now in position for the postseason. The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, are set to break the longest playoff drought in hockey, 10 successive seasons.
Vancouver’s main problem is its lack of young high-end talent ready to compete against the best. Top teams have several elite players and then several more very good ones. The Canucks of 2010-11, when they almost won the Stanley Cup, fit this bill, with the Sedins, and Roberto Luongo and Ryan Kesler.
Of the rising teams in the Pacific Division, Edmonton has five players 24 or under who were top-10 picks. Calgary has four. Vancouver has three – and will add a fourth player this June, at the draft, probably a top-five pick.
Among Vancouver’s potential young stars, Bo Horvat, chosen No. 9 in 2013, has delivered more than expected. But Jake Virtanen, 2014’s No. 6 pick, has had a poor second professional season, mired in the AHL and not scoring. Last year’s No. 5 pick, defenceman Olli Juolevi, hasn’t improved his point production this season in the major-junior OHL.
A lot of hope has also been pinned on Brock Boeser, whom the Canucks chose 23rd over all in 2015. The 20-year-old right winger scored a goal in his NHL debut on Saturday in a 4-2 win against Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn., not far from where from where Boeser grew up.
As the Canucks rebuild, they continue to invest in veteran talent, from free-agent signings to awarding playing time on the ice. This list of names is lengthy, from Brandon Sutter to Loui Eriksson.
Linden said veterans are a key part of developing Vancouver’s young players.
“We need to maintain that strong veteran presence,” Linden said.
Amid the challenges, one issue that has quieted is ownership’s hands-on approach. In the year before Linden was hired, the Aquilini family was deeply involved in the hiring of coach John Tortorella. At the 2014 trade deadline, Francesco Aquilini was in the room with his hockey-management team when the Canucks looked at moving Luongo and Kesler.
The Aquilinis recently relocated their corporate office to Rogers Arena. Linden said the working relationship, and his freedom to lead the Canucks, is better than ever.
“Our alignment on where we are as an organization and where we need to get to is as strong as it’s ever been,” Linden said. “We’ve all worked hard on that. I’m really encouraged. I like the direction we’re headed.”Report Typo/Error