Trevor Linden has a goal for the Vancouver Canucks. And it's probably the same goal as every Canucks fan. Linden wants to see Vancouver win the coveted Stanley Cup. But, unlike most fans, he's just been given a second chance to help make that happen.
After a disappointing 2013-2014 season, Vancouver saw their hockey team in desperate need of changes both on and off the ice. Those changes began quickly and, within days, former Vancouver Canucks captain and fan favourite Trevor Linden was named President of Hockey Operations.
DARPAN had the exclusive opportunity to speak with Linden, the man who has been tasked with reenergizing a team in need of a turnaround, about his return to Vancouver, the moves he's made in the off season and what he sees for the future of his beloved team.
For someone who inherited a huge responsibility and has had a lot to do in just several months, Linden's demeanour doesn't reflect the pressure he faces despite knowing exactly what the city of Vancouver and Canuck fans expect from him. Linden has been here before – in a position to carry his team to the Cup, in a position heavily scrutinized by a demanding city that can quickly turn when wins aren't coming their way. As captain of the Canucks from 1990 to 1997, Linden's used to leading the team on the ice but this time; he'll be leading the rush without lacing up his skates.
There is almost a calmness – and surely a contentedness – in his voice at the mention of his return to the Canucks after he retired from playing in 2008. “This organization has always meant a tremendous amount to me in my life, in my family's life,” Linden says and quickly corrects himself. “Not only this organization but the city of Vancouver and the province of B.C. and so it's great to be back. To be involved in hockey and representing the hockey fans of British Columbia...is a tremendous privilege.”
It's clear he doesn't take the position lightly and knows it's a huge responsibility, especially considering his past, but he speaks as if he couldn't possibly have been anywhere else except back with the team that has given him so much.
“It's obviously a very meaningful role. It's a great connection for me to the game I love and obviously to the fans that have meant so much to me over the years. It's a pretty special place to be.”
Reminiscing aside, Linden didn't waste any time getting down to business. His first significant addition to the team came with the hiring of Jim Benning as general manager. “Jim brings a wealth of knowledge when it comes to two areas: scouting – amateur scouting and pro scouting – and team building. I think that's where Jim's strengths really lie,” Linden says.
Despite his strengths, Benning's hiring didn't come without some debate which Linden isn't afraid to discuss. “People have always said he's a rookie general manager and yes, there's no
question that he is,” Linden tells DARPAN in defence of his new GM. “But I consider him to have a tremendous amount of experience. Over twenty five years in hockey, assistant general manager in Boston for the last 8 years as an integral part of building that team, and his involvement in Buffalo was about building teams; he's got a wealth of experience.”
Coincidently, the new head coach of the Canucks and Linden's second significant hire is also a rookie in his new role.
“The one criteria I had from a coaching standpoint was to find someone who was a career coach and Willie's coached at every level,” Linden explains about the addition of Willie Desjardins to the team, citing his previous experience at the NHL level as an assistant coach as well as his championship winning season with the American Hockey League's Texas Stars.
He goes on to speak about Desjardins with a confidence that seems necessary considering the short, one season tenure of the last head coach to stand behind the bench for the Canucks.
“He's a guy that has the ability to connect with people. I think he is going to bring the best out of our team and that was something that was really important – that we find a coach that can recapture some of the players that we feel we lost last year and get them on the right track.”
So if Desjardins’s job is to recapture some of the players that the team appears to have lost, what about the fans and the city who feel they have been let down by an under-performing team? Linden knows there is a lot of work to do in that department, too.
“Ultimately, it was a tough year for everyone involved last year – the fans, the media, players, management,” Linden says, referring to the disappointing season that saw the Canucks fail to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. “For anyone who has connected with the team or cared about the team, it was a tough year. And so we want to bring a team back that is fun to watch and bring some excitement back to Rogers Arena. We want to have a team that connects with the fans, a team that people can identify with.”
And he's not all talk. Linden and his management team spent the summer making moves that have already changed the face of the organization that fans were falling away from.
“Our goal this year is to make the playoffs,” he says with conviction. “And obviously we've changed. We've certainly made some significant changes, not only with the general manager position and the coaching position but also personnel wise. Trading Ryan Kesler was a significant move for us and so it's really changed the mix on our team,” Linden says, addressing the elephant in the room without expanding on the played-out trade of the off-season.
“I think we've gotten younger, I think we're a deeper club but, ultimately, as tight as the Western Conference is, we want to make the playoffs. And if we can make the playoffs, it gives us a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup – that's our goal.”
When asked if the changes have them closer to that goal than they have been in previous years, Linden's amiable attitude turns candid as he divulged how tough of a task he faces.
“You know what? It's not easy,” he shared. “But there's two things we really want to accomplish; we want to try to get back some of the players that we feel underperformed last year and get them back to where we feel they should be.”
While Linden refrained from naming names, much has been said about the dynamic duo from Sweden, twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin who, despite signing extensions with the club for four more years, had some of the worst seasons in their NHL history. Linden may have felt protective about the under-performing players of the past but he was quick to offer up which new additions to the Canucks he hopes will make a significant impact. “Whether it be Nick Bonino, Derek Dorsett, Linden Vey, Luca Sbisa, Ryan Miller – these are all players that are going to help us get to that next step.”
With the mention of Ryan Miller, it seemed the right time to ask Linden about the goaltending situation. For any fan of the team, discussing who stops the shots is a bit of a bone of contention. The Canucks have not been without controversy when it comes to their goalkeepers yet you wouldn't know it when talking to Linden. “I think that Jim identified the goaltending position as the most important position on the team and you don't stand a chance if you can't get consistent saves,” he says. “And we're going to have real depth in goal.”
He's careful with his words but it's obvious he has confidence in his current keepers. “We think the world of Eddie Lack,” he says, referring to the Swedish Stork who became the starting goaltender after spending most of the season as the backup. “He had a tremendous year last year and took a big step. We wanted to give him as much support as we could and [we did that with] bringing in Ryan. [Jacob] Markstrom is another young guy that has got a lot to learn but we really feel strongly about our goaltending position and we felt that was key coming into the season.”
While Linden doesn't specifically address how the three goalies will work together or what the addition of Miller means for each of them, he's not worried about any controversy or collapses in goal.
As a former player in the city and one who played through a Stanley Cup final loss, Linden knows that he's under an incredible amount of pressure to perform. “It's pretty easy for the experts to look at the depth charts right now and say, oh this team is better than that team,” he says, speaking directly to the fans that may have concerns. “But at the end of the day, the game is played on the ice. And that's what we have to do better than others. We have to execute our game plan better. And if we can do that, if we can get the most out of our players and play as a real cohesive unit, we're going to be fine. And that's the challenge right now; it's to bring this group of players together and have them perform as well as they can as a team.”
Speaking with Linden is refreshing, as both a fan of his and a fan of the Canucks. He speaks with passion about hockey, about his team and about what he is trying to do in his newest role in Vancouver. He's trying to turn the team he so obviously loves into one the fans can begin to love again as well. For a team that needs something to believe in again, the return of 'Captain Canuck' might just be it.
PHOTO: The vancouver canucks/jeff vinnick