From a certain perspective, the Vancouver Canucks have had a horrible start to the 2014 off-season. First, they fired the winner of the 2011 NHL General Manager of the Year award and got rid of a Stanley Cup-winning head coach after just one season on the job.
Then, the Canucks appointed a former player with no front office experience who had been away from the game for six years President of Hockey Operations and he hired a first-time General Manager largely because he worked for the organization that beat the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
When you look at it that way, things are going all wrong. And yet, when you fill in the details, everything’s coming together pretty well.
The Canucks may not be making intelligent decisions, but they seem to be making the right decisions. In other words, they’re hiring the right people even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Hiring Trevor Linden as President of Hockey Operations was a savvy move from a public relations standpoint, but it made very little sense otherwise. While many other former players have taken up that position in various franchise, particularly recently, it’s normally done after they’ve completed an apprenticeship of sorts.
Joe Sakic served as an adviser and alternate governor for the Colorado Avalanche for two years before stepping into his current role as Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. Brendan Shanahan started in the NHL’s hockey operations department, including three years as director of player discipline before being named the President of Hockey Operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs in April. And Steve Yzerman worked under Ken Holland as a vice president as well as managing Team Canada at the 2007 World Championships and 2010 Olympics before becoming the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Linden doesn’t have any of that experience to fall back on, though he was the president of the NHLPA for eight years. What he does have is name recognition.
If you’ll excuse my cynicism, hiring Linden was more about selling tickets than actually improving the team. Linden is beloved in Vancouver, to the point that the worst his detractors can say is, “Sure, he’s great, but he’s not awesome.” That love could go sideways if the Canucks struggle under his leadership, but it’s undeniable that having him back with the organization just feels right for Canucks fans.
Here’s the thing: I suspect he’s also going to do a good job.
While the priority of the Aquilinis in hiring Linden may have been to prevent the team from hemorrhaging season ticket holders, Linden has always been an intelligent and hard-working guy. Those were the qualities that earned him respect and admiration both on and off the ice when he was a player and it’s the same qualities that should serve him well in his new role.
Consider the steps he’s taken since being hired. He immediately sought out advice from his previous mentor, Pat Quinn, and other players who have stepped into similar roles, like Cam Neely. He constantly refers to getting more information, downloading data, and putting together lists. He’s taking a methodical, thoughtful approach, interviewing John Tortorella multiple times before taking the step of firing him. These are not the actions of someone who is satisfied with being a figurehead, but someone who understands that he has a tough job ahead of him and is willing to do whatever it takes to do it well.
Then there is the hiring of Jim Benning as the Canucks’ new General Manager. It may just be how things appear from the outside, but the Benning hire has seemed like an extension of the obsession the Canucks have had with the Boston Bruins since the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. He was a suspected target for the Canucks as soon as Gillis was fired and Linden’s mention and praise of the “Boston model” in an early interview solidified it.
It was clear as day that Benning was their guy and, for all the talk of putting together a list and considering every candidate, it seemed obvious that if Benning wanted the job, it was his. He was plan A-through-Y, with “someone else, I guess” listed at Z.
That’s normally not the best way to go about hiring the right guy for the job, as it’s far too easy to ignore a potentially more qualified candidate when you’re locked onto one guy. Fortunately for the Canucks, Benning seems to fit the bill. He was on the shortlist for the Sabres’ job last year and has been talked about for open positions for several years now. That’s because of both the success of the Bruins during his tenure there and his decades of experience, starting as a scout with the Anaheim Ducks.
The apprenticeship that Linden skipped, Benning committed to wholeheartedly. He’s spent the last eight years working with one of the top GMs in the league. He’s seen what has worked for the Bruins and what hasn’t and is now in a position to put what he has learned into practice.
Now we just need to wait for the Canucks to hire a head coach for another misguided reason — perhaps because he proves he’s the opposite of John Tortorella by saying he’s more of a cat person — and I’m sure it’ll turn out that he’s also the most qualified candidate.