When Trevor Linden was hired as the new boss of the Vancouver Canucks, a returned hero whose chief job was a swift rehabilitation of the hockey team, he faced a three-month sprint through an obstacle course crowded with moving objects.
The holes to fill were numerous – coach, general manager, and throughout the roster – and the challenges were significant – Ryan Kesler and his microscopic trade list. Linden, a rookie NHL executive, has managed well, conjuring a rapid remake that cuts ties with the Mike Gillis era and establishes reasonable foundations for his tenure.
"It's been intense," said Linden in an interview Thursday. "I'm extremely pleased with how things have worked out."
The Canucks promised change, wanting to excise all memories of the season of John Tortorella. In April, facing waning demand for season tickets, the team offered a money-back guarantee until July 11 so buyers could see what Linden deliver. Time is almost up, and most of the work is done – but it's not certain skeptics have been converted into believers.
Linden got the GM he wanted, Jim Benning, and the coach, Willie Desjardins. A trade of Kesler was done, to mixed reviews. David Booth and Jason Garrison – a combined cap hit of about $9-million – were jettisoned. Ryan Miller was the marquee free-agent signing, providing reliable stability in the crease, and on Thursday Radim Vrbata was added, a 33-year-old goal scorer. The Canucks didn't get everything they wanted – the team couldn't secure a trade for the No. 1 draft pick in late June or convince free agent Jarome Iginla to come to Vancouver – but it has been three months of solid work for Linden.
The report card may look all right but it is not especially inspiring – and this is reflective of difficult circumstances. Linden arrived amid the end of a wreckage of a season. There was no single move he could make to instantly remake the Canucks into a contender. Instead, it's a two-tier strategy: aim for the playoffs in 2014-15, while building a stronger contender for the years thereafter.
Making the playoffs will still be a challenge, as it is hard to declare the Canucks today better than the team of one year ago. And the Western Conference remains ferocious, with the likes of Anaheim, Colorado and Dallas all looking tougher than they were last year.
Vrbata, relatively unheralded, could become a fulcrum. The right winger scores goals, puts a lot of pucks on net, is strong on the power play, and is savvy in shootouts – all elements the low-scoring Canucks need. And even as Linden and Benning rework the roster, if the Canucks are to truly improve next season, much of it will come from revived performances from veterans, starting with the Sedins, who are turning 34 and coming off their worst season in a decade. Vrbata is imagined as the man who will provide a new spirit on the first line alongside the Sedins.
"I'm a big believer in chemistry," Vrbata said. "[It] helps so much in today's league, where sometimes it's so, so tight. You can really gain advantage by knowing the guys."
Vrbata on the first line creates a second line centred by Nick Bonino, acquired from Anaheim in the Kesler deal, flanked by Alex Burrows and Zack Kassian, according to a sketch by Benning. The idea is this composition gives the team more scoring depth. The third and fourth lines then look to include names such as rookie Bo Horvat, veterans Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen.
"It's not about someone coming in and scoring 40 goals," Linden said. "It's about guys playing to their potential and being a 15- to 20-goal scorer. If you can have enough those guys throughout your lineup, and manufacture goals, that's ultimately how you win games."
All in, however, one cannot decisively say these Canucks are better than the Canucks who failed under Tortorella. To this Linden leans on the prospects for Desjardins, the rookie NHL bench boss at 57: "His influence on this group will be significant."
When Linden was hired, he circled July 15 on the calendar, roughly marking the date where he would get a chance to breathe, take a day or two off. Most of the work is done. The team still has to re-sign three restricted free agents, Kassian, Chris Tanev, and newly acquired Linden Vey, but the Canucks of 2014-15 appear to be largely in place. Considering where the team on the day Linden began his work, the past three months have been a success, but it may not be enough to produce immediate success on the ice.