Despite a few stretches of success, the world has not been kind to Vancouver Canucks fans over the team’s 47 years in the NHL. It’s not absurd to say life was even more cruel during those years at the top.
On Wednesday, the team re-signed GM Jim Benning to a three-year contract extension, and now we wait to see if the drudgery of supporting the team will ever ease up.
There are signs of hope: Bo Horvat, super rookie Brock Boeser, and legitimate blue chip prospects Thatcher Demko and Elias Pettersson are pieces of a future core, plus the others in the system who have a chance of adding to team depth.
These draft picks are almost the entire reason Benning was brought back.
On his weekly TSN 1040 radio spot, former Canucks AGM Laurence Gilman provided some insight into why he believes the Canucks gave Benning his extension.
“I think Jim is clearly Trevor’s guy and has Trevor’s full faith and confidence,” said Gilman.
“I think what took so long for this to happen is I don’t believe ownership shared the same opinion, and while they were happy with Jim Benning the scout and the job that’s been done on that front, I think they had some misgivings with respect to the other managerial aspects of the job, including contracts that had been signed, some of the trades that had been conducted, and the overall asset management.”
Gilman’s thoughts are in sync with most Canucks fans’ assessment of how Benning has performed: good in the draft, not good at the other aspects of the job.
Which takes us back to the original question: when will the team’s results improve?
To answer that, you must examine the Canucks’ direction.
The goals are repeated by Linden and Benning every chance they get: to continue the transition towards a younger, faster team, which will result in a competitive product.
Reflecting on those words, wouldn’t you think every professional sports team in the world, not just in hockey, has the same designs?
As far as targets go, they’re as generic as it gets.
Moving from direction to execution (while generic, the younger/faster direction they’ve stated does make sense), to use one situation as a microcosm of the way Canucks management will implement their plan, look no further than their handling of Chris Tanev.
On Friday, the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported Tanev could fetch a first round draft pick and a high end prospect in a trade right now, but the Canucks have no interest in moving him.
Realize that 28-year-old Tanev’s value will crater somewhere in the next four years because that’s just how aging works. If your aim as a team is to get younger, faster, better, you have to be trading players while their market value is high. Sure Tanev is a key player for Vancouver, but this is about building a true contender down the road.
They should be turning over every stone to get there.
Add that Loui Eriksson is a billboard for how bad decision making results in lousy returns, while the wasting of assets such as Dan Hamhuis, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson were additional failures.
Going back to the miserable history of this team, another one to which a parallel can (sadly) be drawn is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Before deciding to overhaul their entire organization and hiring Brendan Shanahan as president, Toronto was stuck on a never-ending treadmill of ineptitude.
That incompetence was made stark by the fact that since the Leafs won their last Cup in 1967, the Montreal Canadiens, their great rivals, won 10. They watched other Canadian teams’ success too: Edmonton with their five Cups and even Calgary had one.
All while Toronto never made it past the conference finals once.
Prior to Shanahan’s hiring in 2014, Al Strachan, formerly of Hockey Night in Canada and the Globe and Mail, wrote a book entitled Why the Leafs Still Suck.
A paragraph from the early chapters of the book:
If you don’t know what you’re doing, yet you’re running the organization, how can you possibly expect to hire people who do know what they’re doing? If you yourself don’t have any expertise, how can you evaluate the abilities of those you bring into the organization?
Strachan was describing Toronto’ situation, where then team owner Harold Ballard lacked the ability to hire people who could run his team well.
You can see where this is going with relation to the Canucks.
Trevor Linden, unlike other successful players-turned-NHL-executives such as Steve Yzerman, Ron Hextall, and Joe Sakic did not spend years working in NHL management, learning how teams operated, understanding the ins-and-outs of the business.
Forget a licence, without even a driving lesson, he was given the keys to the shiny F1 car and asked to compete in the most relentless Grand Prix race.
Linden, new to the business side of the league, hired the man to run his team – Jim Benning, and we know the results so far.
Aside from the draft picks, they haven’t been great. Of course, that can change.
The path to success
The plan going forward should be obvious.
First, aside from keeping a couple of veterans up front and on defence, players whose value will soon drop with age (soon after 30) should be moved.
Second, the team should never sign free agents over 30 to longer than two years, and the preferred route would see them sign one-year contracts to be flipped for more picks at each trade deadline.
Third, leave space under the cap and use it to help cap-crunched teams out, while taking more assets and picks and giving up nothing.
And fourth and most obvious: stockpile draft picks and continue to acquire talent through the draft.
It’s not rocket science – the road map has been charted by the team Canucks fans love to hate that finally figured things out across the country.
And if you’re one of the people who thinks most of Toronto’s success has come from winning the draft lottery and selecting Auston Matthews, just look at how many high-end draft picks Edmonton, Buffalo, Arizona have had in the last decade.
Those are teams who have lacked the strategy and execution to surround elite players with the right pieces to create a successful team.
The NHL is the best hockey league in the world, with billionaire owners spending hundreds of millions on payroll and all other aspects of building winning organizations. It is cutthroat, and every day the competition grows tougher.
Like a relay team in short-track speed skating, the margins between success and failure are razor thin, and while you may still be in the race with a few bad decisions, the team with the least will stand at the top of the podium.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Benning spoke with confidence when he made the following proclamation: “We’re going to do things the right way and I think that’s what we’ve been doing since we’ve taken over.”
“I don’t know when we’re going to be good, but I think if we’re doing things the right way, I’m hoping it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”
If Canucks management truly believes they’ve done everything the “right way” since taking over, it’s time for a gut check, because many things need to change with the way they’re building this team.
Aside from scouting, of course. They appear to have addressed that.