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The Trevor Linden trade shows why Canucks can’t be afraid to trade a top forward

The unpopular trade of a franchise player set the Canucks up for years to come.
Trevor Linden
When the Vancouver Canucks traded Trevor Linden, it changed the course of the franchise.

With just two weeks until the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, the Vancouver Canucks have some difficult decisions ahead of them. 

President of hockey operations Jim Rutherford envisions a two-year retool for the Canucks, noting that the team isn’t starting from scratch, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Rutherford, along with GM Patrik Allvin and coach Bruce Boudreau, have expressed their desire to improve the Canucks’ depth, increase their team speed, and find more puck-moving defencemen.

One of the biggest priorities is to create some cap space. 

“We’ve got to figure out a way to get a little cushion on the cap,” said Rutherford. “Being up against the cap and a team that’s not in the playoffs at this point in time is not a good thing.”

The easiest path to clearing cap space and fixing holes in the roster

The Canucks could clear a little bit of cap space by moving middle-six players like Jason Dickinson and Tanner Pearson or defencemen like Tucker Poolman and Travis Hamonic. Those kinds of moves at the margins can only do so much, however, and those players would still need to be replaced, limiting the total cap savings.

It would be nice to find a way to move Oliver Ekman-Larsson and/or Tyler Myers and replace them with cheaper defencemen. That would certainly make a big difference for the Canucks’ salary cap but those won’t be easy contracts to move, with Ekman-Larsson signed through 2027 with a cap hit of $7.26 million and Myers signed through 2024 with a cap hit of $6 million. 

The unfortunate reality is that, even with their resurgence this season, moving one of Ekman-Larsson or Myers would surely require moving an asset — a draft pick or prospect — with them.

That leaves trading one of the team’s top forwards, which is why rumours have surrounded J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, and even captain Bo Horvat this season. 

While Rutherford has stressed that the Canucks don’t necessarily need to move one of the team’s top players to get some room under the cap, it would certainly be the easiest way to create some space. In addition, because those forwards would be in such high demand, the Canucks could leverage that demand to fix one or more of their other issues: depth, speed, and defence, as well as bolstering the team’s shallow prospect pool.

For all three of Miller, Boeser, and Horvat, it’s not so much their current cap hits that are the issue, but what they might demand on their next contract. The 25-year-old Boeser is a pending restricted free agent due a $7.5 million qualifying offer. The 26-year-old Horvat and and 28-year-old Miller will be unrestricted free agents after next season and will surely command hefty raises on long-term deals.

Keeping all three while still creating space under the salary cap to improve the team in other areas seems like a difficult, if not impossible, task. 

Still, trading any one of those three forwards will be painful. Boeser is the youngest of the three and is the Canucks’ best pure goalscorer. Miller is the team’s leading scorer, with 60 points in 53 games so far. Horvat is the captain, an elite faceoff man, and the team’s top goalscorer on the power play. 

But the Canucks could look to a past painful trade that might make moving one of Boeser, Horvat, or Miller a little easier to swallow: the trade of Trevor Linden.

Linden trade: "Like a mad scientist trying to create a bigger monster."

Linden was the face of the franchise for a decade, serving as captain for seven seasons. For years, trading Linden would have seemed blasphemous. 

By the middle of the 1997-98 season, however, the situation had changed. Linden was resigned to a trade, knowing it was coming for a long time. New head coach and de facto GM Mike Keenan had slashed his ice time and ripped him in both the locker room and in the media, and Linden’s play suffered.

Then the trade finally came: Linden was traded to the New York Islanders. The face of the franchise was gone.

“Like a mad scientist trying to create a bigger monster, Mike Keenan changed the mix of his hockey team again today,” is how Barry Macdonald characterized the deal on Sports Page when it happened.  

The Linden trade may have been unpopular at the time, but it set the Canucks up for the next wave of success.

Linden was 27 at the time of the trade, right in between the ages of Horvat and Miller. Though he would play in the NHL for another decade, including six more seasons with the Canucks at the end of his career, his best seasons were already behind him. Though it certainly didn’t seem to be Keenan’s reasoning, age probably should have played a factor in the decision to trade Linden when he did.

Despite his declining play, however, Linden was still highly regarded around the league. At the time of the trade, Linden was just a few days away from representing Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics, alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, and Joe Sakic. 

As a result, Keenan was able to ask a significant price from the New York Islanders.

The return for Linden: "I’d be a fool to make this deal."

The centrepiece of the Linden trade was Bryan McCabe, a big, physical defenceman with the ability to put up points — his career high was 19 goals and 68 points with the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time of the trade, McCabe was just 22, but had already been named the Islanders’ captain. Unlike Linden, he wasn’t expecting a trade.

“When I heard I’d been traded, my jaw dropped,” said McCabe at the time. 

Keenan described McCabe as a “cornerstone piece on our defence.” The hope was that McCabe and Mattias Ohlund would anchor the Canucks’ defence for years to come.

It might come as a surprise now, but Todd Bertuzzi was considered a complementary piece of the trade — not exactly a throw-in, but definitely not the primary prize. Even though Bertuzzi was a first-round pick, he was thought to be a project. He had just turned 23 and had faltered after a strong rookie season a couple of years earlier.

“We tried everything to get him going except put bamboo shoots under his fingernails,” said then-Islanders GM Mike Milbury. ”If I thought he could fulfill his potential I’d be a fool to make this deal because his potential is so vast.”

In his own words, then, Mike Milbury was a fool. In Vancouver, Bertuzzi fulfilled his potential and then some, becoming one of the premier power forwards in the NHL, peaking at a 46-goal, 97-point season in 2001-02, where he was named a First-Team All-Star.

Even the third-round pick worked out for the Canucks. They selected Jarko Ruutu, who became an excellent agitator in Vancouver. 

It was a trade that, like many Milbury made in New York, made little sense for the Islanders. They were en route to missing the playoffs for a fourth-straight season and, more than anything, needed to focus on building a strong, young core. 

Milbury ought to have been building around Bertuzzi and McCabe, along with the dozen other young players he traded away, like Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden, Bryan Berard, Olli Jokinen, the pick that would become Jason Spezza, and, of course, future Canuck Roberto Luongo. Instead, he chased after a big-name veteran in Linden, who only ended up playing one full season with the Islanders.

Linden was subsequently traded to the Montreal Canadiens for a first-round pick and eventually moved to the Washington Capitals for a package that included this site’s namesake: Jan Bulis.

The long-ranging impact of the Linden trade

What if the Canucks could get a similar return for one of their top forwards as Keenan got for Linden?

That return was a 22-year-old defenceman who developed into a top-pairing minute-muncher, a first-round pick who had fallen out of favour but had the potential to be a dominant first-line forward, and a draft pick. Honestly, that sounds like exactly what the Canucks need to jumpstart their retool.

It turned things around for the Canucks, albeit years later, as Bertuzzi found chemistry with Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison, acquired a couple of years later for Alex Mogilny. They formed the West Coast Express, one of the most dominant lines of its time, which pulled the Canucks out of the darkness of the Keenan era.

Of course, the repercussions of the Linden trade went well beyond the initial return.

McCabe didn’t stick around to anchor the Canucks’ defence with Ohlund. Instead, he was moved as part of a series of trades by Brian Burke that nabbed the second-overall pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, where the Canucks already held the third-overall pick, allowing the Canucks to draft Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Bertuzzi was eventually traded by Dave Nonis to the Florida Panthers — GM’d by Keenan, coincidentally — in a package with Alex Auld and Bryan Allen for Roberto Luongo and Lukas Krajicek.

In a way, the Linden trade provided the key components of the best Canucks team of all time, albeit more than a decade later.

Even without that long-ranging impact, however, the Linden trade illustrates exactly why the Canucks shouldn’t be scared to move a top forward at this year’s trade deadline. It has the potential to be a franchise-defining deal.