Back from the Bottom

Let’s be completely honest, Canucks fans of a certain vintage have had it pretty good. There are some, born in the mid-1990s, who have no memory of sustained failure. In fact, this most recent stretch — which, neatly, coincides precisely with the arrival of the Sedin twins in 2000 — has been the longest period of excellence in franchise history (ending only recently, that is). The first 30 NHL Canuck seasons saw exactly one season of greater than 100 points and another 23 seasons with a losing record, and only three division championships. Being a Canuck fan was a matter of personal dedication.

Compare that to the past 16 seasons. There have been eight seasons of 100 or more points (helped, obviously, by the advent of the loser point), seven division titles, two President’s Trophies, and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps most notable of all, those 16 seasons have witnessed only one legitimate losing season (although it could — and should — be argued that 2014 was a losing season, too). Major post-season awards became something of a commonplace reality during this period, as were high expectations. No longer was simply “making the playoffs” the ultimate goal (again, until recently); the Canucks organization attempted everything in its power to contend for a Stanley Cup.

So maybe, for some Canuck fans, this current situation is mostly unfamiliar territory. But fear not! For those that remember the late 1990s — a.k.a the “Messier Years,” a.k.a “The Dark Ages” — the team was able to turn itself around and return to respectability. The transition took several years, plenty of organizational turmoil, and lots of losing. And much of the return can be attributed to a number of draft picks and trades during the dark years. For the purposes of our discussion today, we will focus on three of the latter and their implications for the team in an article tomorrow.

The Trevor Linden Trade

To NY Islanders: Trevor Linden

To Vancouver: Bryan McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi, 3rd Round pick (1998)

To this day, this trade stirs many bitter memories. Mark Messier brought in old buddy Mike Keenan as the Canucks new coach and Keenan assumed control of player personnel decisions. “Iron Mike” had taken the opportunity to humiliate the former Canuck captain and local hero during another dispiriting loss in St. Louis earlier that season and had benched him in a game against Montreal, as well. Linden didn’t feel at all shocked by the move when it finally happened. “I was given a lot of opportunity here and things weren’t happening for me,” he said, “So I think it became a situation that was going to happen and it wasn’t the biggest surprise.”

In many respects, though, this was a trade that almost needed to happen. From a performance perspective, Linden’s play had dropped off considerably since his career year in 1995-96. He had struggled with injuries during the 1996-97 season, playing in only 49 games and scoring only nine goals. The former NHL Ironman continued his decline during the 1998 season, managing only seven goals in 42 games despite being named to the Canadian men’s Olympic team.

This last fact is important. Despite being objectively past his peak by February 1998, Linden was still considered a valuable commodity in NHL circles. He was on his way to Nagano to represent Canada (where he would do this) and there was still an enormous opportunity to maximize the return on any transaction involving Linden.

Keenan was accurate with his comments following the trade. “I’m excited about the youngsters we’ve acquired,” he said. “They help solidify our situation now and in the future.” He likely did not realize how prescient those comments would become. McCabe – at the time the Islanders’ captain – was slated to become a key cog on a young Canucks defense that included Mattias Ohlund and Adrian Aucoin (and another player we’ll discuss below). Instead, he would be shipped to the Chicago Blackhawks a year later as part of the series of trades that landed the Canucks a pair of Swedish twins. That said, McCabe had a very successful career, scoring over 500 points playing mostly with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bertuzzi, meanwhile, would become one of the most prominent power forwards in the league starting in 2002 and a member of the famous West Coast Express line. That third round pick, by the way, turned into an annoying pest from Finland, Jarkko Ruutu. All in all, despite the disappointment at the time, not a bad return on a depreciating asset.

The Pavel Bure Trade

To Florida: Pavel Bure, Bret Hedican, Brad Ference, 3rd Round pick (either 1999 or 2000)

To Vancouver: Ed Jovanovski, Dave Gagner, Kevin Weekes, Mike Brown, 1st Round pick (either 1999 or 2000)

Canucks fans and even players had been waiting for this trade since Pavel Bure announced his intention to hold out for a trade the previous summer. It just didn’t happen to be quite what they expected at the time. Bure, one of the most exciting and electrifying players to ever play the game — let alone wear a Canucks uniform — was one of only two players remaining from the 1994 Cup Final team. Bret Hedican was the other. This trade then, in many ways, was a firm break with the past.

Initial reaction to the trade was mixed, but that may have had more to do with high expectations. In the year 1999, this was simply par for the course. The coaching staff felt the acquisition of Gagner would give the team much-needed depth at centre. Instead, he gave them 33 games, two goals, and never played in the NHL again. Kevin Weekes, GM Brian Burke’s vaunted “goalie of the future,” was traded again within the calendar year and later provided his, um, insightful (?) commentary for Hockey Night in Canada following his playing days. Mike Brown fought a few scraps for the Canucks before spending most of the remainder of his career in the minors. And the less said about Nathan Smith — the player the Canucks selected in 2000 with the first round pick acquired from Florida — the better. Actually, why not? It’s a pretty funny story.

It was the young defenceman Jovanovski who was the true centrepiece of the deal for Vancouver. The former first overall pick, Calder finalist (1996), and Team Canada World Cup reserve player (also 1996), was struggling to live up the early expectations he had set for himself. Nonetheless, Keenan was still impressed by the young player. “Jovanovski had a great year his freshman season and all of a sudden there were expectations he was going to carry the franchise.,” he said, “That was a huge load.” As a Canuck, Jovanovski would develop into a top offensive defenseman and emotional leader for the franchise.

Bure would continue to score goals in a Panthers uniform, and Hedican would play almost another decade in the league – winning a Cup with Carolina in 2006. But Bure would succumb to his knee injuries and be out of hockey by 2003. The Canucks were able to extract some value for Bure, but not nearly as much as they probably could have (and likely threw in more than necessary for the return). Nevertheless, a future core player was acquired in the transaction. That was the least that could be expected when trading a player of Bure’s calibre.

The Alexander Mogilny Trade

To New Jersey: Alexander Mogilny

To Vancouver: Denis Pederson, Brendan Morrison

At the 2000 NHL trade deadline, seemingly everyone in Vancouver was speculating that the suddenly surging Canucks would be dealing a high-priced veteran out of town. Most, however, believed it would be aging centre Mark Messier getting dealt. Instead, it was the Canucks’ hottest scorer at the time, Alexander Mogilny. Mogilny wasn’t exactly having himself a banner season (only 38 points in 47 games at the time), but he had been one of the only consistent Canuck forwards at the time of the trade, scoring 6 goals in his previous 7 games.

“I’m not raising the white flag in any sense,” said GM Brian Burke at the time, but many in the media thought the trade signalled the beginning of the end for the Canucks playoff hopes. Burke was under pressure from ownership to trim the budget and trading one of Messier or Mogilny was probably inevitable. Fans were unimpressed, however. For a team that had not made the playoffs since 1996, trading Mogilny was initially viewed as a major setback. Morrison and Pederson, meanwhile, were no longer in the good graces of Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello, so the acquisition of Mogilny did not appear to cost them much. And it worked out, too. The Devils would win the Stanley Cup that spring.

But the trade was not the loss for the Canucks that almost everyone predicted. Despite Mogilny having plenty of success over the next several years, Brendan Morrison would become an important piece of the Canucks new core. The doom-and-gloom predictions of dire consequences that immediately followed the trade soon dissipated. The Canucks continued their run towards the playoffs with Morrison and, to a lesser extent, Pederson, helping the charge. Although they fell just short, the Canucks would qualify for the playoffs each of the next four seasons and play a very entertaining brand of hockey in the process.

Naturally, these trades cannot be taken in isolation. But in many respects, these three trades in particular set the stage for a franchise reset that resulted in the longest sustained period of franchise success in Canuck history. What implications this history has for today’s team, and whether such an approach can be replicated, will be the subject of another post – coming tomorrow.

  • detox

    Late 90’s were a tough time to be a Canucks fan, the Messier/Keenan combo was rock bottom! Losing is one thing, but to hate & dislike your own players is the worst as a sports fan.

    So let’s see after that 94 run + 8 or so crap years brought us the 2002 WCE + 8 or so crap years brought us the 2011 Sedinery… this means historically, we still have 3 years to suck until we swing this around. If we’re lucky maybe 2 years to wait for some exciting hockey.

  • detox

    Great article! I see a couple players on the current team that should be moved to maximize assets…this regime, for better or worse, is not willing to do that.

    • Taylor Perry

      Exactly. Although very difficult and not well-received at the time, the Linden trade should be considered one of the greatest trades in Canucks history. Right up there with Naslund-Stojanov and the Courtnall/Ronning/Dirk/Momesso for Butcher and Quinn deals

  • Mattchu

    I always wonder how players feel when they get traded around the deadline only to see their former team win the Cup. I always think of Morrison in this case, I’m sure he had a lot of fun playing with Naslund and Bert though.

  • Riley Miner

    Losing this much is, yeah, very unfamiliar to me as a Canucks fan. I was born in ’97, so I grew up in the WCE years and was spoiled with the 2010 Canucks who were arguably one of the best teams of the past ten years. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t prepared for a downturn. I kind of expected it as a hockey fan, seeing all the teams around them going through rebuilds. I guess the thing is, the ‘Canucks Fans’, not ‘Hockey Fans’, had never seen a rebuild before. I think there’s a difference in the Lower Mainland.

  • Riley Miner

    The past was the past, this is the present. We need to learn from our mistakes in the 90’s and comeback from them stronger than ever. Let’s just hope we don’t bring in another goof like Messier. Although with all of these Evander Kane rumours, we may make the same mistake.

  • ikillchicken

    This is an interesting piece of history and I enjoyed reading it. However, I have to take issue with the implicit suggestion that this is reason to not worry about the present state of the team. I mean that’s what you’re saying, right? Sure they’re a mess right now but don’t worry. They’ve been here before and managed to turn things around. Moves unpopular at the time turned out great in the long run!

    Here’s the thing though: All these trades involved giving up an aging veteran with serious name recognition for younger assets. And perhaps more importantly, they involved doing this while those veterans still had a lot of value. Naturally, that made these moves unpopular at the time among a lot of fans. After all, nobody *likes* seeing a favorite player shipped out of town or likes feeling like their team has given up on winning in the immediate future. It’s much more gratifying in the short term to do the opposite: Refuse to let go of whatever diminishing assets you have and sacrifice young assets and draft picks to chase an unrealistic dream of somehow contending again in the immediate future. But making these sorts of hard decisions is what you have to do, because these are precisely the kind of moves that allow you to rebuild quickly and have long periods of sustained success. And that’s exactly what the current Canucks management has failed to do. We *should* be making moves exactly like these and moving out veterans who are approaching the end of their prime in order to stockpile young assets who will be this team’s future. That’s not a process anyone would enjoy but it would be for the best. Instead though, Benning and Linden have chosen the “safe” path. They’ve chosen to keep the old core of the team together as best they can all while giving up picks and prospects. That’s proved controversial as well but for completely opposite (and much more valid) reasons.

    I mean look, it’s not strictly wrong to say you never know for sure how a trade will work out in the long run. Maybe some of what the Canucks are currently doing will look better a decade down the road. It’s just very unlikely. Especially in terms of the big picture. As these trades demonstrate, teams that rebound quickly tend to be the ones who rebuild aggressively. Teams that don’t continue to fritter away assets until they have nothing left to work with and wind up mired in a decade long rebuild.

    • TheRealPB

      You are willfully ignoring the actual trades the Benning regime has made in constructing this narrative that they’ve chosen the “safe” path. Garrison might not have been a part of the old core, but Bieksa and Kesler certainly were. And while the latter forced the hand by demanding a trade, all three of them were traded for younger players and picks. Luongo was traded for younger players and picks.

      Messier and Keenan are exactly why I don’t really subscribe to the blowing it up model. I think there’s a lot of parallels between that and the Tortorella era — post a SCF loss there’s a lot of incorrect postgame analysis that says that we lost not because of bounces or injuries in extremely close fought series but because we didn’t subscribe to a “Rangers” or “Boston” model of winning. So we go on some quixotic quest to acquire “heavy” players and “true leaders” or some other kind of idiotic search instead of saying hmm, maybe having a fantastic offensive D in Leetch and a great goalie in Richter or a two-way star in Bergeron and a goalie playing out of his mind in Thomas are what led to the win as well as losing half our team to injury and start trying to “blow things up” “get less soft” ” get out of the country club atmosphere” all of which mean nothing.

      If there truly is a Detroit or perhaps pre-last days of Lamoriello Devils model it’s to build slowly and consistently, selling off SOME assets but not all, and developing prospects slowly and purposefully. Sure if you get some idiot willing to trade you a top LW for a decent d you do it, but for the most part it’s slow and steady.

      It’s not as though the other trades of veterans from that era resulted in getting lots of prospects and picks. What did trading our core goalie and Gelinas from 94 get us? Sanderson, Ciccone and Burke — three other underperforming veterans. Jeff Brown got us Frank Kucera and Jim Dowd. More (bad) vets.

      The Canucks from the mid-90s did not rebound quickly. They took a decade to become good again.

  • Whackanuck

    The three trades cited were made in a time where NTCs and NMCs were rare. A lot harder to make those moves now. Remember Hamhuis and Vrbatas reluctance.
    Besides, at this time there’s hardly any vets with value left to trade.

    Secondly, I don’t understand the accolades Brendan Morrison gets. He was a second line center gifted with playing with two stars. Imagine those two with someone like Andrew Cassels.