VANCOUVER – Whatever ideological impasse fractured the relationship between hockey operations president Trevor Linden and Vancouver Canucks ownership, general manager Jim Benning vowed Thursday that the plan to rebuild the National Hockey League team will continue unchanged.
None of the Canucks’ talented prospects will be rushed into the NHL, Benning promised. Nobody is going to be bestowed a free roster spot without earning it.
“We’ve got of lot of good prospects on the way,” Benning told Sportsnet after a conference call with reporters, one day after Linden suddenly left the Canucks over an apparent disagreement with managing owner Francesco Aquilini. “But every player has a different path. Some need time to develop. Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser were able to jump (into the NHL) right away, but some players take another path. Some players need a year or two or three to develop.”
Linden felt the same way. But one of the most popular figures in franchise history is suddenly out of a job anyway. And Benning is suddenly in charge of hockey operations, which means he now has to deal with ownership and is unprotected by the buffer Linden provided.
Even as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Thursday that former Los Angeles Kings president and general manager Dean Lombardi is a candidate to replace Linden, Benning told reporters that Aquilini had assured him there are no plans to fill the role.
“He called me and he said that despite all the talk out there, he’s not looking to hire somebody as a president of hockey operations,” Benning said.
Ownership’s plans, however, are subject to change. Benning’s plans won’t.
“I’m going to do the right thing for this team long term,” Benning insisted. “I’m not going to rush anybody (into the NHL) if they’re not ready. That’s not the right thing to do.”
Aquilini reminded everyone Wednesday on Twitter that he and his family were Canucks fans long before they became team owners.
He grew up in East Vancouver near the old Pacific Coliseum. He is keenly sensitive to everything people say about his team – in the media, on social media and at the grocery store. The Aquilinis’ passion, their daily interest in the team, are both the best and worst things about their ownership.
Previous Canucks general managers Mike Gillis and Dave Nonis were starkly different in personality and practice but had in common the requirement to deal with Francesco Aquilini on an almost daily basis.
Linden, who knew what he was getting into when he became president four years ago, tried to build a broader coalition by including the whole Aquilini family, headed by patriarch Luigi, in his briefings and progress reports. But in the end, it still turned into a relationship that Linden or the Aquilinis or both deemed untenable.
As one veteran NHL manager described the job under these circumstances: “The hockey part is great. The rest of it is tough.”
Benning often accompanied Linden in his monthly summits with the Aquilinis. But the general manager benefitted from the hockey operations hierarchy — that Linden was the prime conduit between ownership and hockey-ops. Now Benning is on speed dial with the owners.
“Jim Benning will now head up hockey operations and report directly to the ownership group,” Francesco Aquilini told his Twitter followers.
Maybe not for long. Lombardi, previously general manager of the San Jose Sharks, was fired by the Kings 15 months ago, just three years after he helped Los Angeles win its second of two Stanley Cups.
“I can’t believe no one has hired him before now,” one of Lombardi’s colleagues said. “He built that team in L.A. and he built them the right way. Two Stanley Cups.”
Linden and Benning have been building the Canucks the right way, too, continuing to draft well and develop players as the NHL team struggled while getting younger and faster.
The Canucks are past the point of no return in their rebuild. No matter how badly the Aquilinis or anyone else wants the Canucks to win next season, there is little choice but to continue developing the deep pool of prospects Benning and Linden assembled and carefully incorporate them into the NHL lineup when they’re ready.
Both Linden and Benning were adamant that these players, projected cornerstones of the franchise, can’t be rushed.
“We’ve got several first-year pros and there are only so many you can have on your team,” Linden told Sportsnet one month ago. “I don’t believe in (the theory) ‘just let the kids play’ and throw them out there. That’s not a good recipe. If a kid comes in and shows he’s ready, that’s great. If he can’t, we have a great development program in Utica with Ryan Johnson and his group.”
Maybe this philosophy was the breaking point in the Linden-Aquilini relationship. Maybe the owners want exciting, marketable prospects like Swedish phenom Elias Pettersson and dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes in the lineup next season regardless of their NHL readiness. We don’t know because neither Linden nor Francesco Aquilini are taking questions.
But Linden’s shock departure opens everything to review. And if the Aquilinis are moving quickly and planning to bring in Lombardi or another hockey manager directly above Benning, then the uncertainty increases exponentially.
Not only might Benning get replaced, but a new hockey-ops boss may wish to hire a coach different than Travis Green. Or change the development model and scouting staff – both overhauled and improved the last four years.
“Francesco is passionate about the team,” Benning explained. “He wants the team to do well. Travis and I were down there yesterday and we explained to him our plan, and he’s on board. If young players deserve to be on the team, we’re going to find room for them. He understands that’s how you build championship teams. He doesn’t interfere with what we do. He listens to us, he asks questions, and then he lets us do what we need to do.”
Green added: “We’re all on the same page.”
Until this week, so was Linden.