We don’t get to hear from Francesco Aquilini often, so when the “Francesco whisperer” speaks publicly, it’s a rare time to get insight into the mind of the owner of the Vancouver Canucks.
That’s exactly what happened on Monday when former Vancouver Sun sportswriter Gary Mason appeared on Sekeres and Price’s popular “Vancouver Media Legends” show.
Mason, now of the Globe and Mail, shared a number of thoughts on Aquilini with hosts Matt Sekeres and Blake Price.
Among them was regarding why Aquilini kept Jim Benning as his general manager for so long. During Benning’s 7+ seasons in charge, the Canucks made the playoffs just twice and had the NHL’s 26th-best points percentage.
“I think the biggest mistake that Francesco has made during his time as the owner was with Benning. [Aquilini] and I have had conversations about this over lunch and he totally agrees. He left Benning in that position far too long,” Mason said.
One of the biggest mistakes Benning made was at the 2016 draft when he chose Olli Juolevi with the fifth-overall pick. Juolevi’s London Knights teammate Matthew Tkachuk went one pick later to Calgary and is now a Hart Trophy finalist with the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are now one win away from the Stanley Cup Final, with Tkachuk leading the way offensively.
But it would take more than five years after the Juolevi blunder for Benning to get fired.
“It just seemed like Benning was always able to persuade Francesco that they were one big move away from this team becoming something,” Mason added. “The biggest thing that surprised me is when he passed on Tkachuk… That probably still eats Francesco up to this day. He was absolutely livid about that, that they missed that mark so badly.”
That’s understandable. Juolevi spent the entirety of last season in the AHL and has just three points (2-1-3) in 41 career National Hockey League games. Seven years later, no player picked in the top 21 of that draft has played fewer games in the NHL.
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Another “X-factor,” according to Mason, was Benning’s positive relationship with Luigi Aquilini, Francesco’s father.
“I do know that Jim had a very good relationship with Luigi Aquilini. Luigi loved him. So that may have been a reason why they kept him around a little bit longer than they perhaps should have.”
While Aquilini has been accused by some of meddling in hockey decisions, Mason believes that’s mostly a thing of the past with Jim Rutherford in charge.
“I think for the very first time, they have a guy in charge in Rutherford who is truly running the show,” said Mason. “I do know that Francesco has so much respect for him that he wouldn’t dare try to be intrusive in any way, in terms of hockey decisions, in a way that he might have been in the past, in terms of sitting in on draft meetings and things like that.
“I think he has so much respect for Rutherford that he’s hands off and he’s letting Rutherford run the show and whatever Rutherford decides is going to be the way they go.”