Canucks are hiring the right people despite themselves

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.

21 comments

  1. Kenji
    May 27, 2014

    Linden now goes out for Halloween as Count Olaf, amirite?

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  2. Peachy
    May 27, 2014

    Agree with the sentiment: wrong process, (probably) right outcomes.

    The negative nancy in me asks: for how much longer will the wrong process lead to right outcomes?

    Dunno, but I’m concerned that the organization isn’t getting fhndamentally better.

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  3. Patchman
    May 27, 2014

    I’m one of those who thought that Mike Gillis was doing a pretty good job, even though some of his decisions didn’t work out as I am sure he had planned, but my initial impression of Benning is favourable. My fear is that Trevor Linden actually believes that he is qualified for the position of president of hockey operations. Being personable, intelligent and hard working are not enough and many of his public statements have been cringe worthy. If he is content to be the pretty face in a nice suit for now and to defer to Benning and the other hockey people in the organization, the Canucks should be fine.

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    • James
      May 27, 2014

      Well, considering that pretty much all of Gillis’ public statements have been cringe-worthy for the last few years, I am thinking we give the amiable guy a chance to do some PR and mend some fences with the other GMs while the guy who doesn’t suck at scouting tries to rebuild the talent pool. M-kay?

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      • Patchman
        May 27, 2014

        If that’s the way Linden sees his role, I’m fine with that. I hope he is successful at it.

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        • John in Marpole
          May 27, 2014

          I’m not sure which of the Gillis moves was best, between the $10,000,000 offer to a washed-up has-been Leaf – while straight faced claiming that it wasn’t about the money – to the hiring of the most recently fired coach, I can’t think of a single good move Gillis made.

          By comparison, Linden got immediate co-operation from the GMs of other teams that would have never been accorded to Gillis. GM’s who wanted to throw him an anchor when he shopped Luongo (speaking of quality GM moves, the whole goalie controversy was Gillis’ doing) wouldn’t have let him have a sniff of time with their assistant GMs during a playoff run.

          So right there, Linden has already been more effective that Gillis was during his whole tenure.

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          • Daniel Wagner
            May 27, 2014

            You seriously can’t think of a single good move by Gillis? What the what? That’s one hell of a retcon.

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    • Andrew
      May 27, 2014

      Being GM isn’t all about the moves on the ice. Gillis was terrible at managing people. He managed to chase numerous players out of the locker room and was working on Kesler as well. On top of that, he was highly disliked by the other GMs around the league. That is why he got played at the draft by Toronto. That is why he was constantly doing deals with Florida. No other GM wanted to make a deal with the guy.

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  4. Frank
    May 27, 2014

    So far so good. Organizations are a reflection of their top leaders.

    With Linden and Benning at the helm, we have executives who are humble, thoughtful, intelligent and have a clear sense of how to build a winner from the ground up through the draft and timely trades. These guys will make the organization stronger, more competitive and more entertaining.

    I think that they will be able to hire a coach that will be able to maximize our roster and develop the young guns coming into the system.

    I am hopeful that the Linden/Benning era will bring sustained success for a long time to come.

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  5. Chrìs
    May 27, 2014

    Great article dan, but the whole time I was reading it I was thinking man Higgins looks stoned. He’s standing there looking at linden, thinking to himself “man this towel feels awesome , what’s this made of. Mmmmm this place needs more towels like this”. Regarding the hiring the of a coach, I’m willing to bet it will take another two to three weeks, and will probably happen before the draft. If anyone wants to play connect the dots go look at the roster for the 1985-1986 Medicine Hat tigers. Then we can start talking about how linden will only hire people that he has played with

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    • Harrison Mooney
      May 27, 2014

      Higgins always looks stoned. Always.

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      • PaulB
        May 27, 2014

        Whenever Higgins is on the ice for an opening faceoff, he’s always sniffing a smelling salt capsule which he tosses over the glass into the fans seated near the blue line. It never seems change to his expression though.

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  6. bluemoonjones
    May 27, 2014

    A good start, yes. But a lot still to do.
    The next steps would be correcting last years’ wrong by grabbing Stevens as Coach, and following that up by keeping Kesler and picking someone special with the 6th pick in the draft. Yes. And after that, inform Horvat, Gaunce, Jensen, and Corrado at the minimum, and maybe even Shinkaruk, that they each WILL be on this years’ roster, period.
    Now that’d all add up to an even better start…

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    • James
      May 27, 2014

      Hm, I don’t think we want to follow in Edmonton’s footsteps THAT closely. Let the kids develop while the core treads water, I don’t think anyone is under the impression that we’ll be sweeping San Jose, LA and Anaheim next year with the lineup loaded with 19 year olds. The worst thing we can do right now is burn a bunch of ELCs ‘developing’ guys in the NHL, only to lose them all just as they enter their prime. We are at least 5 years of development behind on the farm. If we scratch and claw our way into the playoffs (ala Detroit) only to be bundled out, how does that help our situation? Unlike Detroit, we actually need next year’s draft picks to be high.

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  7. shoes
    May 27, 2014

    Well….the comment about firing a ‘Stanley cup winning coach after one season’……sort of gets me. Torts won the cup for the same reason that the Sedins have been vilified in Vancouver since 2003-2004. The Sedins were not quite ready for their roles when Bertuzzi clocked Moore. The fans did not like the twins style and blamed them for many of the losses. meantime if Bert had not clocked Moore, the Flames get nowhere near the final and instead a much more powerful Canuck team does. Torts does not win and the Sedins do not get vilified and life would be so much different now for Nucks fans.

    Oh well, they will all be better next year, with the egotistical know it all, Torts out of the picture and his surly sidekick Sully with him. Thank you Linden.

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  8. steve
    May 27, 2014

    Linden is just waiting for someone to hire Tortorella, then we can hire their former coach.

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    • Amor de Cosmos
      May 28, 2014

      I think we can do a little better than the ex-coach of the Spuzzum Shockers.

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  9. BBoone
    May 28, 2014

    Linden’s job is to restore confidence in management level decisions . In particular with regard to the players at all level who are under contract to the Canuck organization
    Who better to do that than Trevor Linden ? The major problem with Canucks has been poor player decisions . Ask yourself if Linden would have signed off on the majority if the bad ones
    The answer is a resounding no because his evaluation of what it takes to play championship hockey in terms of skill and character is a lot better than Gillis and for that matter a lot better than anyone involved with PITB . You owe Linden an apology for your demeaning insinuation that he is simply a ” casino greeter ” in a good suit .
    His job is like John Elways in Denver . The actual player decisions in Canuckville are going to be significantly better because Trevor Linden has final say.

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    • Patchman
      May 29, 2014

      How do you come to the conclusion that Trevor Linden will be good at player evaluation? Does he have a track record that we can reference?
      We know that, since leaving hockey 6 years ago, he has been the front man for an apparently successful chain of 6 fitness centers and that he has his own line of eyewear. We know from his recent public pronouncements that he believes there is only one way to play hockey and that is “the right way”, whatever that means.
      What else is there?

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      • BBoone
        May 29, 2014

        Oh for heavens sake .Players who were blue chip thru and thru at every level and played at a top level in a leadership role for many seasons know exactly who has the potential to be a gyrations player and who doesn’t , who is a good player and who isn’t , who is over rated and who is under rated . That is why this final decider role is the next thing in pro sports management .
        He is not being hired as a GM or coach for which a different skill set is needed but rather for what he knows for better than all but a handful . Exactly what it takes to walk the walk in the NHL .

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  10. nateb123
    May 29, 2014

    Presumptuous article, to say the least. “Sure the Canucks organization hired both savvy and respected leaders….but that was clearly luck.” God forbid they actually thought “Hmmm, who is well-liked, would lead to ticket sales AND could do a good job?”

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