Trevor Linden is entwined with the past and present of the Vancouver Canucks as few men in hockey are with a single team.
His image from his playing days appears repeatedly around Rogers Arena. His number 16 is one of only four retired and hanging in the rafters. The entrance to the team’s executive offices is named Gate 16, outside of which there is a silver plaque celebrating Linden, who wore the captain’s C at the age of 21. “He was a born leader,” it reads.
So when the Canucks were in a state of collapse two seasons ago, it was a natural fit to turn to the former on-ice hero to take over the team as president of hockey operations. Linden was hired on April 9, 2014, with a difficult mandate: rebuild a team with an aging roster and a shallow pool of prospects.
Two years later, the difficulty of the job, and the length of time it will take, has become clearer. The Canucks finished the 2013-14 season in 24th place; as of midday Monday, they stood 26th.
In an hour-long interview on Monday morning at Rogers Arena, Linden’s answers were dotted with phrases such as “need to be patient,” “going to take some time” and “there’s no quick-fix.”
In Vancouver’s last turnaround, from the drafting of Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the first round of 1999 draft, it took 12 years before the Canucks reached a Stanley Cup final. The current owner, the Aquilini family, bought the team in the mid-2000s, when it was very much on the rise. So this difficult stretch is something new.
However, the Aquilinis are committed to an extended rebuild, Linden said, with a focus on drafting and developing players.
“We’re in a new place,” Linden said. “They get it. I’ve talked to Francesco [Aquilini] a lot about where we are, about what the future looks like. He’s extremely supportive. They understand this is going to take some time, and the need to be patient.”
Linden meets monthly with the owners. The family, earlier in its ownership, had been hands-on, and firings would occur when the team missed the playoffs. This off-season will be different, said Linden, who several weeks ago publicly backed second-year coach Willie Desjardins.
“There has been zero interference,” Linden said.
On the question of whether Desjardins would be back as head coach, Linden said: “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t be. There’s such an appetite to place blame, especially in this market, I think because of the success of this franchise for 12 years. The whole conversation about ‘let’s blame the coach,’ it doesn’t make sense.”
The big forthcoming decisions for general manager Jim Benning will centre on veteran players such as forwards Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins, both of whom have a year left on their contracts. There’s free-agent defenceman Dan Hamhuis too. All provide leadership, but cost is the question.
Linden also spoke about making careful acquisitions in the free-agent market: The Canucks made two splashy signings in Linden’s first summer, but this time, the situation is much different, and it might be harder to convince players to come here.
Vancouver has some reasonable salary-cap breathing room, but Linden isn’t interested in signing lengthy deals.
“It’s less about the money and more about the [contract] term, which you’ve got to be careful with,” he said.
With a weak Canadian dollar and a flat salary cap, Linden said, there could be chances to add players from teams in financial binds. The Canucks also have numerous young restricted free agents to sign.
There will be more new faces on the roster next year. Russian defenceman Nikita Tryamkin, who has played 10 NHL games, is expected to stick with the Canucks, and Anton Rodin, MVP of the Swedish league, could earn a prominent roster position.
Typical of teams in mid-rebuild, the Canucks are unlikely to be much better next season as young players struggle to improve, the roster of the future comes into clearer focus and the playoffs remain out of reach.
“When you [ask], ‘is this the worst it’s going to be,’ I don’t know how to quantify ‘the worst,’” Linden said. “I know where we are, I know where we need to get to, I know how we need to get there. But we need to be patient.”Report Typo/Error