What happens in a hockey-crazed market when a hot start quickly dissipates into a dramatic downward spiral, highlighting a questionable coaching hire in the polarizing John Tortorella?
You have yourself an offseason rife with upheaval, just like the summer of 2014 for the Vancouver Canucks.
The brash and fiery Tortorella was axed after just one season. Longtime general manager Mike Gillis was dismissed, as well. Star center Ryan Kesler was shipped out of town in a trade to Anaheim.
None of it is surprising, according to former Vancouver Canucks player Geoff Courtnall, who spent five seasons playing for the club from 1990 to 1995.
“Well, I think the owners have high expectations and want to win. They weren’t satisfied with how last season went, so they made some pretty drastic moves," Courtnall told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation.
Among those drastic moves, Vancouver brought in a number of new people. Former Canucks captain Trevor Linden enters his first season as president of hockey operations. Jim Benning, long regarded as a star on the rise for his work under Peter Chiarelli with the Boston Bruins, is now general manager. And Willie Desjardins is on the precipice of his first season as an NHL head coach after spending the past two seasons in the AHL with the Texas Stars, who won the Calder Cup championship last season.
“I think he’s [Desjardins] obviously had success. I know some of the guys who have played for him in the Dallas organization and they all loved playing for him,” said Courtnall, who recorded 799 points in his 15-year NHL career. “He’s probably a guy that’s going to be tough, but will also be fair in giving guys an opportunity to play their best. I think that’s a fine line, to be tough on guys but give them confidence, because the biggest part of the game is mental.”
Walking that line may have been where Tortorella, known for his brash personality and demanding coaching style, faltered. He was widely criticized for leaning too heavily on his top players, who seemed to wear down as the season progressed.
“I think they overplayed some of the top guys in the first part of season and then had lots of injuries,” said Courtnall, who heads the Peruvian-based mining company Lupaka Gold. “They just looked like a team that flailed in the second half and they didn’t seem to be getting much leadership from much of the players.”
Courtnall wasn’t surprised to see Kesler traded to Anaheim, especially given the circumstances around his departure. Kessler was rumored to be unhappy in Vancouver and the Canucks shopped him, unsuccessfully, at the trade deadline last season. Now, the 30-year-old finds himself slotted in as the second-line center on a deep Ducks team.
“I like him. He’s a nice kid and a great player but no one guy can be bigger than the team,” Courtnall said. “I think it’s very difficult when a star player is not happy and you could pretty much see that. I think it’s a move that will maybe bring some of the best out of different players.”
The Canucks brought in some interesting pieces this summer, most notably signing goaltender Ryan Miller. They acquired center Nick Bonino in the Kessler deal, brought in youngster Linden Vey in a trade with Los Angeles and inked tough guy Derek Dorsett.
All the new personnel makes for an interesting combination, and Courtnall knows that Benning’s addition will only augment the team’s ability to scout and bring in new talent for the future.
“I’m very good friends with [Bruins team president] Cam Neely. I think Boston has had a lot of success since Cam Neely has taken over as president and he speaks very highly of Jim Benning,” Courtnall said. “He will definitely work hard and he knows a lot of players in the AHL, a lot of players coming up in junior that maybe people haven’t seen. That’s what it’s gonna take to find players where you least expect to find players. He’ll add to their roster with players that will play above expectation.”
As for Linden, Courtnall knows him well as a former teammate and linemate during their years with the Canucks. Knowing what he is like inside the dressing room, Courtnall has a good idea of what to expect from him as an executive.
“I sat beside him for five years. I think Trevor will not only demand a lot as president of the team, I think he’ll obviously also help Jim Benning,” Courtnall said. “He’s very serious and was an intense player and he came to play with a physical edge every night. He’s a good leader, very demanding, and I don’t think he'll change the way he sees the game now that he’s in management.”