Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini might not be a power-mad meddler on the order of, say, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but he seems to like having his fingers deep in the pie.
Maybe too deep.
That long-standing buzz picked up over the weekend after a report on Hockey Night In Canada suggested that Aquilini was preventing general manager Jim Benning from doing the job he was hired to do.
Benning, the report suggests, has come to recognize the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vancouver for what it is: a sign that the Canucks need to abandon the half-measure, on-the-fly approach to improvement and commit to a full-on rebuild.
But that idea is not cutting it with Aquilini, who apparently still sees this team as playoff-capable and is asking that Benning view the upcoming trade deadline as an opportunity to bolster his roster rather than tear it down.
Writing in the Vancouver Province, beat writer Jason Botchford suggested this sort of aggressive involvement is just business as usual for the Canucks.
The Aquilinis involvement in hockey ops is the stuff of legends in back channels.
Mythical stories ooze from the city’s elite and from the city’s in-the-know hockey community, about trades which were vetoed, trades which were demanded, and supposedly that time all the defensemen were to be moved.
All of them.
No one is suggesting that Aquilini shouldn’t be involved. As long as he’s signing the checks, an owner has every right to be engaged in the day-to-day operations of their club. But most who are in a position to own a team got there because they’ve learned the value of surrounding themselves with qualified people and understand that those people do their best work when allowed to operate with some autonomy.
And so if Benning, a man who played a critical role in building a Stanley Cup champion in Boston, feels that the best way forward is to take a step back, well, Aquilini might want to remember why he hired the man in the first place.
Or he should fire him and replace him with someone who will do exactly what he tells him to do. If he really believes in his own counsel, anyway.
But Aquilini might want to think long and hard before doing that. If nothing else, Vancouver’s past two games suggest that Benning knows what he’s talking about. The Canucks were overwhelmed by a Toronto team that iced a glorified AHL lineup (and was blown out, 7–2, by Chicago in its next start) and a Minnesota Wild squad that had lost 11 of its previous 12 contests.
A small sample, sure. But the season as whole tells a similar story.
This isn’t a playoff team. In fact, the Canucks are the worst kind of team right now. Good enough to win a couple of games and hang around the wild card neighborhood, only to remind everyone of their true nature with a couple of effort-free losses.
In other words, they’re going nowhere. Fast.
Benning may have been hired with the goal of keeping this thing afloat rather than tearing it down. It makes sense. Playoff tickets go a long way toward turning red ink to black. But approaches can, and should, change, as more information becomes available. And every bit of evidence gleaned from this past year suggests this thing can’t be saved with tweaks and patches.
As of this morning, the Canucks are six points and three teams removed from a wild card spot. Not an impossible gulf, but not one they’re likely to bridge, either. Not the way they're going.
It's worth noting that team president Trevor Linden spoke to several Vancouver media outlets in defense of his boss.
“From the day I started, the Aquilini family has been completely supportive of the plan we’ve conveyed to them,” Linden said. “I think our actions this year indicate that we’re trying to get younger and faster and we’re going to continue down that path.
“Ownership has absolutely been supportive of that.”
Linden has a reputation as a straight shooter, but he's first and foremost a smart guy. If there is a rift, he's not going to be the one who embarrasses the man who pays his bills.
But what he's saying about the team turning over old talent for new is accurate...to an extent. Benning has cast off several veteran players since taking the reins, including Kevin Bieksa, Chris Higgins, David Booth and Ryan Kesler. But those were players who either wanted out or who didn't have enough left in the tank to make a difference.
The real test then will be Benning's freedom to turn viable stretch run players like Dan Hamhuis, Radim Vrbata or possibly Alex Burrows into futures before the deadline.
It won't be easy. All three of those players hold no-trade clauses. Cap issues could further limit Benning's options. But we'll know if he puts them on the block.
These next couple weeks could be very interesting.
The numbers game
• Birthday boy Jaromir Jagr is now the 10th player—and second forward—in NHL history to appear in a game at age 44 or older. The others: forward Gordie Howe, defensemen Chris Chelios, Doug Harvey and Tim Horton, and goaltenders Johnny Bower, Lester Patrick, Jacques Plante, Moe Roberts and Gump Worsley.
• Forward Mattias Janmark of the Stars scored his third career game-winning goal and first in overtime on Monday night. Only three other rookies have potted a shot in OT this season: Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere (3), Chicago’s Artemi Panarin and Boston’s own Frank Vatrano.
• Oliver Ekman-Larsson had his fifth three-point game of the season and second in his last three outings. He now shares fourth place among NHL defensemen with 44 points, equaling his career high set in 2013-14 (44 in 80).
• The Coyotes dressed the son of a former assistant coach on Monday night after backup goalie Anders Lindback was injured before Arizona's game against Montreal. One of these emergency guys is going to see real action some day and have a Disney movie made about his life.
• “Hopefully they don’t think I’m going to bring too much to the table,” said NHL All-Star Game MVP John Scott, who finally made his AHL debut in St. John’s.
• First time I’ve ever heard of this: A QMJHL game was called after a linesman ruined the ice.
• Ready to face his former team for the first time, Mike Richards says he holds no grudges against the Los Angeles Kings. Big of him.
• An expected position of strength is turning into an area of concern for Team Canada ahead of the World Cup.
• Could a roll of hockey tape clear the path for the NHL to accept gay players?
• Finally, Gordie Howe was a pretty decent hockey player, but how was he as a model?