When Mike Gillis was fired as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks at the tail-end of the 2013-14 season, the calls for his dismissal were deafening.
A small group of fans even showed up outside Rogers Arena with “fire Gillis” signs late in the year and not long after that, “fire Gillis” chants broke out during a home game.
— TREVOR (@Ufcvancouverbc) April 2, 2014
A day after the infamous “fire Gillis” chant, ownership gave the people what they wanted, letting Gillis go. And they were largely applauded by the national media for doing so.
All this despite the fact that Gillis oversaw the most successful period in Canucks history. In six seasons at the helm, Gillis’ teams won their division five times, won five playoff rounds, captured two Presidents’ Trophies, and came within one win of capturing the first Stanley Cup in team history.
But this story isn’t about Mike Gillis.
By contrast, Jim Benning’s tenure as Canucks GM has been filled with losing.
Hired in 2014, the Canucks have the fourth-worst cumulative record in the NHL since then. After a surprise trip to the playoffs in 2015, the Canucks haven’t come close to the postseason since, toiling near the NHL’s basement for the last four years.
Here’s the bottom of the cumulative standings since 2014, sorted by points percentage:
In fairness to Benning, the situation he inherited wasn’t nearly as favourable as the one Gillis stepped into. But that excuse can only last so long.
It was painfully obvious to most observers that the Canucks needed a hard rebuild – if not after the John Tortorella year in 2014, then surely after getting bounced in the first-round by Calgary or missing the playoffs entirely in 2016. Benning resisted.
Even after management finally used the word “rebuild” for the first time in public in 2017 – three years into Benning’s tenure – the team has failed to do much in the way of building for the future outside of waiting for their allotted draft picks to pan out.
The plan appeared to be to try winning and building for the future – two seemingly contradictory tasks. Winning didn’t work and the future is now.
Can Benning really survive another year without playoff hockey?
Brock Boeser’s emergence bought him time in 2017-18, and Elias Pettersson calmed the masses last season. But at some point, wins and losses have to matter. Could he really survive finishing outside of the playoffs in Year 6? What’s the limit?
Benning has just one year left on his contract, so it would appear to be a ‘show me’ season.
After four consecutive seasons outside of the playoffs, currently the third-longest drought in the NHL, the temperature in the city is remarkably mild.
There are fans calling for Benning’s head, but it hasn’t reached Gillis levels. Not even close.
Fan apathy, rather than patience, is the major reason. If you’re an NHL owner, apathy is worse than anger – because at least angry fans care.
Either way, five years is a long time.
Owners don’t hire general managers selling six, seven, or eight-year plans.
And yet, here we are, nearing the five-year anniversary of Benning’s hiring and the Canucks aren’t even willing to say they expect to be a playoff team next season.
Benning is now the 12th-longest tenured GM in the league. Four years without playoff hockey has already tied a Canucks record.
If next season, after draft picks have developed and are making a difference in the lineup, Benning’s team can’t crack the top eight in the Western Conference, it’s a sign.
It’s a sign that he hasn’t been good enough. Free agent signings have been overpriced and underwhelming. Trades haven’t been impactful and, overall, his administration hasn’t been forward-thinking enough.
While Benning’s job absolutely should be on the line, that’s not in any way an endorsement for shortsighted moves on July 1.
The Canucks need to keep their eyes on the prize. Any moves made should be done with an eye on helping them towards their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup – not just squeaking into the playoffs.
Moves like signing Loui Eriksson to a six-year contract while the team is at the start of a rebuild or adding four years of mid-30s Jay Beagle are counterproductive and hurt the team long term.
Next year, after six seasons in charge – the same number that Gillis was given – if the Canucks aren’t a playoff team, then surely a move needs to be made.
While fans have never had more reason to be excited about the future of the team under Benning’s leadership than right now, it’s important to realize why.
When you lose a lot of games, you get to pick near the top of the draft as part of the circle of life in the NHL. There aren’t a lot of GMs that screw up top 10 picks with regularity – not even the Edmonton Oilers.
Don’t get me wrong, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser were great picks – and not obvious ones to make. The organization has also clearly improved its drafting ability under Benning.
But the moves haven’t all been great. Jake Virtanen was the wrong choice in 2014. So was Olli Juolevi in 2016. Quinn Hughes looks to be a good selection, though that was more of an obvious one to make.
No GM is perfect at the draft table, but that just underscores the reason why it makes sense to acquire additional picks.
Ryan Kesler handcuffed Benning with his publicly-known trade demand in 2014, but what the team has to show for him now is still embarrassing.
The Canucks gave up on 2014 first-round pick Jared McCann quickly, in a failed attempt to fast track the rebuild with Erik Gudbranson.
Draft picks left Benning’s grasp with alarming regularity during his first three seasons in charge.
Second-round picks were traded on three occasions, to acquire Linden Vey, Sven Baertschi, and Gudbranson. Third-round picks left for the likes of Derek Dorsett and Andrey Pedan.
The Canucks moved down in the draft (from the second round to the third round) to downgrade from Nick Bonino to Brandon Sutter. They gave up a fifth-rounder as part of a package to get Brandon Prust. They lost a fifth-round pick to get a jump on the Philip Larsen sweepstakes.
Benning seems to have learned from the error of his ways somewhat in recent years, but still gave up a fourth-round pick to help get Derrick Pouliot last year and chose to spend a seventh-round pick on Marek Mazanec in February rather than sign another AHL goalie for free.
It’s death by a thousand paper cuts.
After seven straight trips to the playoffs, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014, the New York Rangers made the decision to rebuild in February 2018, announcing it openly in a letter to their fans.
It’s the type of move that would have been applauded in Vancouver, had Benning done the same in 2014. In the three weeks that followed, the Rangers traded away the likes of Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, JT Miller, Michael Grabner, and Nick Holden. What they got back were two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick, plus some other players.
One year later, they traded Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Adam McQuaid, receiving a first-round pick, a second-round pick, third-round pick, two fourth-round picks, and a seventh-round selection.
New York actually made a move with an eye on the future in the offseason prior to the famous letter, receiving a top-10 pick and a good young defenceman Anthony DeAngelo for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta.
Did it hurt their on-ice product? Of course it did, though it should be noted – they finished just three points behind the result of Benning’s work this season.
In less than 24 months, the Rangers did what Benning has been unable or unwilling to do. Accumulate draft picks to kickstart an aggressive rebuild.
The Rangers are set to make their seventh first-round pick in three years at the upcoming draft. That’s the same number as Benning will have made in six years – and he traded one of them away already.
While Benning’s most egregious errors came during his first three years in charge when he hitched his wagon to Sutter, Gudbranson, and Eriksson, the best you can say about his work away from the draft table is that he’s been just ok – and that’s an optimistic look.
Chris Tanev’s value has plummeted, and that’s likely to continue as he turns 30 in the last year of his contract next season. Will they choose to re-sign an ageing and injury-plagued defenceman, trade him for whatever they can get, or lose him for nothing? None of those options sound as appealing as cashing in on him when he was their best defenceman a couple of years ago.
Beagle helped the team on the penalty kill last season, but is he worth three more years at $3 million per season? He turns 34 in October.
Getting Tanner Pearson and Josh Leivo would qualify as his best moves of late, though how much credit should we give for finding third-line wingers?
The Canucks have been without a president since Trevor Linden was let go last summer, and the team is rumoured to be interested in filling that position.
Many have connected the dots with Ken Holland, a BC native who was recently demoted with the hiring of Steve Yzerman as Red Wings general manager. Whether Holland, or another executive, is hired – it could turn up the pressure on Benning.
While I’ve compared Benning with Gillis, it should be noted that even if you thought Gillis did a terrible job – he’s not the bar we should measure Benning against.
The job of general manager is an important one – perhaps the most vital to the success of an NHL franchise.
Being good at drafting, but just ok at the rest, is not a recipe for success. To win a Stanley Cup, you need a manager that excels at all aspects of the job.
Is Benning the best man for the job? It’s a question ownership has to be asking themselves for the last four playoff-less years.