Trevor Linden got to know Francesco Aquilini in the mid-2000s, when Linden played for the Vancouver Canucks and was president of the NHL Players’ Association, and the Aquilini family had become owners of the hockey club.
Linden and Aquilini spent time talking over details of the league’s new collective agreement. The lasting impression Linden took away from that time of Aquilini’s personality was his desire for success.
“He wants to win,” Linden recalled in 2014, after Aquilini had hired him as president of the Canucks.
The Aquilinis, for most of their time as owners, have had a competitive team – peaking in 2011 when the Canucks nearly won the Stanley Cup. When Linden was hired, the team was past its prime but the decision was made to keep pursuing the playoffs, rather than fully re-building the roster.
Today, the Canucks are at a crossroads. Team management believed they had improved the roster this past summer – and felt that competing for a playoff spot was a realistic goal. But now, as widely predicted, the Canucks are one of the worst teams in the NHL, the same place they were at the end of last season.
It is almost one-quarter of the way through the 2016-17 calendar but the Canucks have won only twice in regulation, in 18 games, and have scored the third-fewest goals while giving up the fifth-most goals.
Blame, as often is the case, is cast at the coach, 59-year-old Willie Desjardins, who is in his third year as an NHL coach. As with his bosses – Linden as president, and Jim Benning as general manager – Desjardins was a rookie in his role at this level when the three took over for the 2014-15 season.
Benning, as he was hired, was confident the Canucks were a short distance from contending again: “This is a team we can turn around in a hurry.”
The tone has changed, even if a general confidence remains. On Friday, speaking on TSN 1040 radio, Benning talked of a rebuild, a word that doesn’t get bandied about by Canucks management, but he didn’t invoke it to mean a teardown. He said the Canucks have a good group of young players and wants to improve the roster now. Obtaining a scoring forward in exchange for a defenceman is the top idea.
This fits the trend of Benning’s tenure, the hunt for immediate gains – signing expensive free agents in their 30s and trading draft picks and prospects for players in their 20s.
“I say to our fans: Just be patient with us, we’re going to rebuild this thing,” Benning said.
Of Desjardins, Benning said the team has been “competing every night” – and he will monitor the situation to see where the Canucks go.
The wants-to-win mantra at the top of the organization is a typical driving force – but it has been unwavering even as the Canucks struggle. Last season’s failings were blamed on injuries. This season’s problems have been in part attributed to some bad luck – such as, recently, lots of shots but few goals.
The question for Linden, and the Aquilinis, is what to change. Perhaps the team suddenly improves, starts scoring and winning. If not, maybe a new coach could provide a spark.
The bigger move would be changes in management, which had been rumoured last spring and have popped up again. Such a shakeup could signal a true shift in philosophy, away from chasing short-term results to greater focus on the longer-term.
On Thursday night, after the Canucks yielded a 2-0 lead to the last-place Arizona Coyotes but rallied to win in overtime, Desjardins seemed deflated. He described Arizona as “a pretty good team” but conceded: “Tonight maybe we didn’t have our best throughout but it was good to find a win.”
Brandon Sutter also spoke of Arizona’s skill: “There are no worst teams right now. It’s too early in the year to look at that.”
Daniel Sedin, however, seemed concerned. “We didn’t play nearly good enough,” Sedin said.
The Arizona game – pitting the 29th- and 30th-ranked teams – was one some believed would help determine the coach’s job. The Canucks then gave up the first goal for the 16th time in 18 games. And in those 18 games, the Canucks have held the lead for fewer than 40 minutes, less than 4 per cent of the 1,080 minutes of regulation time they’ve played.
“We can’t keep doing this to ourselves,” Sedin said, “because it’s going to be a tough season.”Report Typo/Error