The problem with hiring franchise darlings for upper management positions is that, inevitably, they’re going to pack up their desk. Perhaps of their own accord, perhaps with the team owner’s boot to their backside. No matter the catalyst, it’s like yanking an IV of nostalgic euphoria from the arms of fans, even if in many cases the bag has been seriously depleted over time.
The NHL is littered with the shards of shattered childhood dreams that pictured Kevin Lowe creating another Edmonton Oilers dynasty, Brett Hull as the “ambassador of fun!” for the Dallas Stars, Pat LaFontaine turning around the Buffalo Sabres and now Trevor Linden “amicably” leaving the Vancouver Canucks after four years.
(The “amicably” leaving bit always gets me, because it protects the executive’s reputation by not being a “quitter” and protects the owner from being the monster who tore down the poster on your bedroom wall.)
But there are examples where hiring the franchise player to run the franchise has worked. Say what you will about Cam Neely, but he’s been at the helm for a Stanley Cup, two conference championships and the Boston Bruins‘ current renaissance. Say what you will about Joe Sakic, but he’s grown into an effective general manager; or, failing that, he didn’t take his puck and go home like Patrick Roy did when adversity hit.
In every case, these hirings are public relations moves at their cores. Such was the case for Linden in Vancouver, who was hired as team president while the team was melting down in the magma of Mount Tortorella and the crowds were chanting for GM Mike Gillis’s firing.
Owner Francesco Aquilini knew that hiring Linden would change that conversation in an instant, and to that end his hiring was a success: Seeing Linden speak at the end of a terrible season at least gave the appearance that some at the top of the pyramid cared deeply about the product on the ice. He projected a sense of calm, if not a clear sense of mission. He was a skilled salesman. You’d expect no less from someone whose previous sports management experience was [checks notes] running a burgeoning empire of fitness clubs that bore his name. The guy knew how to get you to sign up for a membership, even if he couldn’t demonstrate all the equipment.
Four years after Linden was hired, the Canucks have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. They’ve committed to a rebuild, but the duration and depth of that rebuild appears at the heart of this “amicable” split between Linden and Aquilini. There are multiple reports that this is months in the making, multiple reports that a recent meeting brought everything to a head and multiple reports painting Linden as the guy who was arguing for slow and steady to win the race while Aquilini wanted a more expedited rebuild.
Gee, I wonder which side of the amicable split could possibly be putting this narrative out there?
There’s been talk that Linden was particularly inspired by the Winnipeg Jets‘ slow build to contender status. Like drafting Connor Hellebuyck in 2012 but not starting him until 2015, a path one could see for Thatcher Demko with Vancouver. Like drafting Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011 and then giving him 11 NHL games until 2013, when he played 63. Perhaps he saw the same for a player like Quinn Hughes, drafted seventh overall in 2018. Perhaps Linden thought some college seasoning at Michigan would do him good. Perhaps Aquilini and others thought otherwise.
There’s evidence to the notion that ownership wanted an expedited process. Aquilini, in a multi-part Twitter statement, wrote that “a rebuild is a long, slow, gradual process. Everybody needs to be united behind the same vision and pulling in the same direction.”
But a more interesting statement was made after the Sedins retired in April. Aquilini wrote of the 2018-19 Canucks: “We’ll be a younger team, but a well-coached, well-managed young team can mature and come together quickly. Look at Colorado and New Jersey this year, making the playoffs. Look at Arizona in the second half of the season. Look at our last 10 games. Our goal is to be a perpetual contender. That journey starts right now. This city deserves another run at the Stanley Cup.”
So much for slow and steady, one assumes.
I ranked the Canucks fifth in our recent Rebuild Rankings. They’re getting there, but it’s a process, and unfortunately one that started late as the team clawed to contention longer than it should have. I think Vancouver should tank hard for another season before cycling back up to the playoff bubble. Maybe that’s still the plan, given that their biggest offseason additions were Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel to the fourth line.
Unless, of course, those two guys were added as veteran character to what Aquilini believes could be a playoff team. Which would be a little nutty at this juncture.
In the aftermath of Linden’s departure, things seem a little chaotic. There was speculation that Aquilini would hire another team president, with names like Dean Lombardi and Chris Pronger (!) bandied about. (Lombardi would be a harbinger of a hasty rebuild.) But GM Jim Benning told Sportsnet 650 that ownership “told me that he’s not looking to fill that position, and that I’m going to be in charge of the hockey operations department.” He also said he didn’t “know all the reasons why this happened,” which would be a bad look for the organization were it not for the fact that awkward messaging has been its hallmark lately.
The team was never going to win this split with Linden. At worst, fans are gobbling up the narrative that Linden was pushing back against a reckless rebuild, which reinforces doubt about Benning, who, let’s remember, Linden hired. At best, they’re relieved that a beloved former player who might have been a bit over his head is getting out, for his own sake.
The bottom line is that nostalgia isn’t just a hell of a drug, it can sometimes have hallucinogenic properties. Trevor Linden was always going be OK when he cleaned out his office in Vancouver. He could have advocated for Mark Messier to be added to the Canucks Ring of Honour and still have come out of the situation smelling like roses.
(OK, maybe we’ve gone too far.)
History will decide who won this battle of philosophies. For now, it’s a bump in the road back to contention that hopefully doesn’t take the wheels of this thing.
Four things about Jarome Iginla, who will formally retire on July 30 at press conference in Calgary:
1. I loved Iggy. He was a player with the unique ability to beat you on the scoreboard, along the boards or with his fists, and yet was universally beloved as the epitome of class. He had 11 Gordie Howe hat tricks, including one against the Flames as a member of the L.A. Kings, which is classic.
The word I’d use to describe him would be “presence.” He had an aura about him. The guy that young players are just a little in awe of seeing when they walk into a room. The guy on the ice who draws your attention. Charisma that made him captivating, even if his next controversial words will be his first.
2. While other snubs from the modern era (Evgeni Malkin chief among them) got more press, Iginla being left off the NHL 100 list was absurd. For 12 straight (non-lockout) NHL seasons, Iginla had 30 goals. There have been longer streaks — Mike Gartner had 15 straight from 1979-94 — but only Jaromir Jagr can claim to have accomplished something similar during the Dead Puck Era. Iginla was a prototypical power forward, and the best in the NHL until Alex Ovechkin arrived. He deserved a spot on that list, full stop.
3. There are few more fascinating “What If?” trade scenarios than if the Dallas Stars hadn’t moved Iginla (and Corey Millen!) to the Flames for Joe Nieuwendyk in 1995. Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smythe when Dallas won the Stanley Cup in 1999. Iginla became Iginla, but never won the Cup. Was this, ultimately, a win-win?
4. The son of a Nigerian father and an American mother, Iginla has a unique place in sports history: In 2002, he became the first black man to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
“I’m proud to be a black NHL player,” he said in 2005. “I have had parents of children who are minorities tell me their kids really look up to me and that makes me proud. It’s an honor. I had my picture taken with Grant Fuhr in our baseball uniforms when I was 9 and it meant so much for me. Kids would say to me there are no black players in the NHL and I would say, ‘Are you kidding me? Look at Grant Fuhr winning those Stanley Cups.’ I want kids, no matter what their nationality or background, to dream big and think it’s possible. Don’t think about race, just go out and follow their dream.”
Sometimes on Twitter you get roped into interesting conversations, grab some popcorn and let it all play out. Which is what happened recently when Greg Balloch of InGoal Magazine tweeted about the new NHL regulations on goalie chest protectors that will be enforced this season, and both former NHLer Rob Schremp (a forward now playing in Austria) and goalie Mike McKenna (in the Senators’ system) chimed in.
Ken Appleby is wearing the new NHL spec chest protectors that will be enforced next season. There is significantly less padding around the neckline and shoulders, which is a bit concerning. pic.twitter.com/W779Ci6tar
– Gregory Balloch (@GregBalloch) July 18, 2018
Ultimately, the debate became two-fold: Whether oversized equipment makes goalies better than they actually are, and whether goalies should potentially sacrifice some safety in an effort to increase goal-scoring in the NHL. Which, frankly, are debates that track back roughly to the time man first discovered ice skating.
The latter debate has always been fascinating to me, because I’ve felt goalies have used it as a way to wave away any significant changes to their gear. It’s a heck of an argument to make, because the NHL reducing safety standards for entertainment and a goalie suffering a serious injury because of those changes would seem to be a surefire way to win a lawsuit settlement.
That said, there’s an argument to be made that goalies are now too protected. It’s akin to the debate they have in Major League Baseball about hitters being padded up to reduce fear and increase confidence.
So the question is, as the NHL again tweaks the equipment away from over-protection: Is some pain part of the occupation for goalies? Is reducing the padding around the shoulders and neck an affront to their safety, or a regression to appropriate standards of protection?
“Outside of maybe Steve Mason buying gear off the rack in his Columbus days, it’s been probably 25 years since the ‘fear factor’ was just part of being a pro goalie. I’m not sure all goalies think being black and blue all the time should be part of the job description,” said Kevin Woodley, the brilliant goaltending analyst for NHL.com and InGoal Magazine. “And a couple at least see that possibility right now.”
The equipment changes will be finalized before the season. Right now, the goaltending community is having a healthy debate about them, and that’s a good thing: The earlier this conversation happens before training camp, the better the chances are the goalies get the changes they desire. As for what this gear tweak could mean for offense, Woodley says there will be an impact, albeit a minimal one.
“You might see more goals squeak between arm and body early on and guys that struggle with that seal might get more passive with their hands committing to it earlier off a shot, but they think most will adjust quickly,” said Woodley.
The NHL has taken legal action against a company that makes Stanley Cup beer steins for shoddy craftsmanship that reflects poorly on the Cup.
New York State high school hockey is opting for video goal reviews after West Genesee was robbed twice in the postseason recently.
NHL expansion to Seattle creeps forever closer.
Good piece on Chuck Kaiton, whose 39-year run as the play-by-play voice of the Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers franchise ended recently due to business considerations.
When you hire Barry Trotz, you don’t just hire Barry Trotz but all the people that have worked with Barry Trotz. Congrats to the Islanders on snagging Mitch Korn, an absolute goalie guru, as the organization’s netminding coach.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
The top 50 drafted NHL prospects from The Athletic (subscription). Bet you a beer that Oliver Wahlstrom ends up with more goals in the NHL than Filip Zadina.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN