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Canucks eyeing retool rather than rebuild

Vancouver Canucks' Jacob Markstrom makes the save on Edmonton Oilers' Taylor Hall during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton on April 12

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Trevor Linden, on his 44th birthday and dressed rakishly in a black suit and a white-collared shirt unbuttoned to the chest, dodged the question.

In an online session with Vancouver Canucks season-ticket holders, the first query posed was the big one: retool, or rebuild?

"We're going to do everything we can to do the right thing," said Linden on Friday, on his third day on the job as the team's new president of hockey operations, replacing the deposed Mike Gillis.

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While the revered former Canuck isn't speaking in any specifics, certain actions suggest the Canucks are not considering anything like a teardown and are leaning towards making a push for contention immediately again next season.

The most prominent indicator is the decision to allow fans who put down money for 2014-15 season ticket packages to get refunds up until July 11 – meaning that if buyers don't like what Linden accomplishes over the next three months – hiring a general manager, working the draft, dealing in free agency – they can pull the parachute.

It's hard to believe the team offered an opt-out without a specific aim to significantly ante up for next season. It's a multifaceted bet, starting with the idea that team can be quickly bolstered through various moves, and that the Canucks are better than the team people have seen on the ice the past three months.

Consider this, before the Canucks wrapped up their season this past weekend against Edmonton (a 5-2 loss) and Calgary, in the first 40 games of the season, Vancouver was 23-11-6 and scored 2.65 goals a game; it was the next 40 that were a disaster, with fewer than two goals a game, and a record of 12-23-5.

Don Cherry said what has happened to the Canucks was "kind of sad," considering they almost won the Stanley Cup three years ago: "How they get like this in three years is beyond me," he said on Hockey Night in Canada.

Turning to analytics, puck possession numbers and a weirdly low team shooting percentage suggest that Linden – not an analytics man himself – can rely on a better version of the Canucks to emerge next season. How much better? Well, this entire pivot is a gamble (starting with the new boss, who has zero NHL management experience).

Linden, who – no surprise – is speaking in vague terms so far, has referenced moving parts. One of the crucial moving parts is Ryan Kesler. In early March, when Kesler wasn't traded, he was deeply unhappy.

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Now, however, as it looks like coach John Tortorella will be jettisoned, and now that Linden has arrived, the mood improved. Linden was a mentor for Kesler when they played together, and team owner Francesco Aquilini had and has mixed feelings about giving up on the soon-to-be 30-year-old centre man (who is without an assist since late January).

The braver, smarter longer-term strategy might well be to trade Kesler for several young promising players, but the notion of Kesler back as a Canuck in September is at least somewhat more realistic than it was a month or even a week ago.

"He has a great mind for the game," said Kesler of Linden on Wednesday after the hiring was announced.

The challenge of being a true contender remains. It was late December when the Canucks were 23-11-6. Even then the team was fourth in the difficult Pacific Division, two points behind Los Angeles, which put Vancouver in seventh in the conference. It may not be realistic for the Canucks to think they can crack the top three in the Pacific next year, and if they can't, they're looking at seventh or eighth as a best-case scenario, which means a first-round playoff against a top-flight team, starting on the road. Such a scenario does not augur well.

Some fans believe. As it became clear changes were coming, but before Linden was hired, local realtor Keith Roy renewed his half-season tickets. He had been considered downgrading to a smaller package. "At some point this team will be great again," said Roy, "and I want to make sure I am part of that."

The team and players who ended their season on the weekend among the dregs of the Western Conference are motivated to redeem themselves. Last October, it was not conceived that the Canucks would finish barely ahead of the Calgary Flames in the standings.

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The captain is chief among those looking to prove others wrong. Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel turn 34 in September. This year has been awful – on Friday Henrik was 98th in league scoring and Daniel was 113th. Look to see them deployed more offensively next year.

"You want the revenge," said Henrik earlier in April. "You want to come back and show people."

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About the Author
National correspondent, Vancouver bureau

David Ebner is a national correspondent based in Vancouver. He joined The Globe and Mail in 2000 and worked in Toronto and Calgary before moving to Vancouver in 2008. He has reported on a wide range of stories – business, politics, arts, crime – and has covered sports since 2012. More

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