The news on Wednesday came as a shock: just when it seemed like there would be no more Canucks news for the summer, the Canucks announced the departure of Trevor Linden from his position as president.
The headline announced that the two sides “amicably” agreed to part ways and the team has gone out of their way to reinforce the “amicable” nature of the split.
“I misspoke when I said he ‘stepped down’ and it's been pointed out to me that that made it sound like he's a quitter,” said Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini on Twitter. “He's never been a quitter, on or off the ice. We parted ways amicably and I wish him only the best.”
So, Linden wasn’t fired and he didn’t quit. Instead, it was apparently a mutual decision. Linden and the Canucks just grew apart over the years. They had become different people — or, rather, a different person and a different organization. At the end they were more like roommates than a president and a hockey team.
It’s the end of a tumultuous four years of work for Linden that saw the Canucks miss the playoffs for three straight years, but also grow a promising pool of prospects. His tenure as president of the Canucks didn’t do wonders for his reputation in hockey, as the team failed to communicate a compelling vision.
In the hours following the announcement, however, the repair of Linden’s reputation began in earnest, as the mutual breakup started to sound a little less mutual. While Linden had seemed worn down at the end of the 2017-18 season, he also seemed excited for the future, such as the prospects set to enter the Canucks lineup and the upcoming 50th Anniversary. It seemed like something had changed.
“The move is believed to have been part of a build up of growing frustration between Linden and the Canucks ownership on the direction of how to continue this team’s rebuild,” reported Farhan Lalji on TSN. “I’m told there was a meeting that was held recently — earlier this week or perhaps late last week — between Linden and ownership, where Trevor again showed some specific examples of four or five teams that had been built the way he had envisioned and developed young players in a specific way.”
“Those teams are now having success, but ownership saw it differently,” Lalji continued. “Linden wasn’t prepared to continue to put his name on their vision, so ultimately stepped away.”
This from Farhan reveals that Linden & JB/ownership didn't see eye-to-eye on how to construct the #Canucks’ rebuild. TL tried to sell them on a few teams that had been rebuilt the way he wanted. JB/FA felt that with a few UFAs, the team could push for a playoff spot again. pic.twitter.com/qElJ1ajgmt— Grady Sas (@GradySas) July 26, 2018
“There are significant rumblings [that something] went down in recent days between Linden and ownership,” said Jason Botchford of The Province. “It’s been described as a final straw-like event that led directly to Wednesday’s announcement. It’s unclear how heated the event got, but some are describing it as a final blowout about the direction of the team and the rebuild.”
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet echoed those reports, noting that Linden had approached several teams at the draft about how they approached their own respective rebuilds. Friedman suggested that Linden wanted to take a similar, patient approach to the Canucks’ rebuild
“I think that was his plan,” said Friedman. “I think he wanted to keep going the same way and I do think there was a recent meeting where I’m not sure the vision was shared, and I think at that point in time it was recognized that it was time for a break.”
From these reports it seems pretty clear that Linden and Aquilini were not on the same page. That was reinforced by one of the tweets from Aquilini’s Twitter statement about Linden’s departure.
9/12. A rebuild is a long, slow, gradual process. Everybody needs to be united behind the same vision and pulling in the same direction.— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) July 25, 2018
“A rebuild is a long, slow, gradual process,” reads the tweet. “Everybody needs to be united behind the same vision and pulling in the same direction.”
That certainly suggests that Linden didn’t share the vision and was pulling in a different direction. That direction was evidently towards the slow, gradual rebuild, while ownership saw a quicker turnaround at hand.
“I’m led to believe that with some of the top prospects coming in,” said Lalji, “that ownership might have believed the team was closer to being competitive than maybe Linden believed. They kind of felt that with a couple of moves to plug some spots, the team might have been able to contend for a playoff spot this year.”
That’s a scary notion, as the Canucks don’t look any closer to playoff contention this year than in the past three years. It also casts the Canucks free agent signings of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tim Schaller in a different light.
“Unlike last year’s free agency period, Linden had very little to say about those moves this time around,” said Lalji. “It was more Jim Benning, so you wonder if Linden was on the same page with those moves.”
These reports re-cast Linden into the voice of reason, extolling the virtues of a patient rebuild, while Jim Benning and Aquilini want to continue with the same direction that has seen the team finish in the basement. But it’s not quite that simple.
It’s important to remember that the Canucks over the last four years have been as much Linden’s creation as they have been Benning’s. As Botchford pointed out, “in the years after Linden was hired he became increasingly involved in the day-to-day hockey operations. In fact, it would be Linden on trade calls and making big hockey decisions.”
“There were times when people in the organization would say ‘Linden is running this team.’”
Linden bears as much responsibility for the team’s failures (and successes) over the past four years, then, as Benning. He might bear even more responsibility for the Canucks’ confusing communication, as he was frequently the main mouthpiece for the management group. When the team said one thing and then did another or made excuses for the team’s struggles, that was as much on Linden as anyone else.
Linden is the one who hired Benning in the first place, brought in Willie Desjardins, argued hard for keeping Desjardins, and fired Laurence Gilman. He was heavily involved with the trades and free agent signings the team made in a bid to keep the team competitive. The Canucks over the last four years have been Linden’s team, for good or ill.
If Linden had a wake-up call and came to realize the Canucks were further from contending than he originally thought, that is laudable. It is also stunning if it took Linden this long to realize that was the case. As much as Linden might have argued for a proper, patient rebuild now, for years he refused to even say the word.
There certainly have been some signs recently that Linden had some very different ideas about where the Canucks stand. For instance, when asked about free agency a few months ago, Linden advised caution and wanted to avoid older free agents.
“We do have to be careful with what we do this summer,” said Linden. “We're okay with being young next year. We're going to be extremely young, we know that.”
That doesn’t jibe at all with what Benning actually did in free agency, adding three older veterans that could crowd young players out of the lineup.
Linden may well be right that the team is a far cry from the playoffs — it’s hard to argue against that notion — but picture it from Aquilini’s perspective. The executive that you hired to turn the team around and promised a quick return to playoff contention, now approaches you after three years of missing the playoffs and says the team will likely miss the playoffs for another three years before they’re a contender.
How would you respond in Aquilini’s shoes?
Consider the Winnipeg Jets, who Botchford brought up as one of the teams that Linden likely looked to as an example of a patient rebuild. Prior to their dominant 2017-18 regular season and run to the Western Conference Finals, the Jets missed the playoffs in five of their previous six seasons. That kind of timeline would understandably be anathema to Aquilini.
So, as much as these reports might rehabilitate Linden’s image as a forward-thinking hockey man, the work he did as president of the Canucks can’t be so easily dismissed.