Jim Benning took over as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks two and half years ago on May 21, 2014. He came to town following a turbulent season for the Canucks, one in which Roberto Luongo was traded, Ryan Kesler demanded out, Mike Gillis and John Tortorella were fired, and Trevor Linden hired as president of hockey operations.
Benning has attempted to ‘rebuild on the fly’ since then, wanting to remain competitive while integrating young players into the lineup.
“Our goal is to develop young players in a winning environment, to make the playoffs, and ultimately we want to compete and win the Stanley Cup,” Benning said after his team was eliminated in the first round of the 2015 playoffs by the Calgary Flames.
You can debate how realistic that plan is – and many have – but now that we’re into year-three, the plan does not appear to be working.
The Canucks were a bad team last season and appear to be as bad or worse this year, so an attempt at a “winning environment” has been a failure. Win-now moves coupled with the Sedins entering the twilight of their careers has made the future look bleak as well.
While the team is younger, there isn’t anyone on the roster that screams ‘future hall of famer’. There’s no immediate help likely to come from the Utica Comets, the franchise’s last-place AHL affiliate, either.
While there may be some future stars in the pipeline – Thatcher Demko, Brock Boeser, and Olli Juolevi come to mind – nothing is guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at the work Benning has done as GM of the Canucks.
While the Canucks have not gone into full rebuild mode under Benning, they have made a number of moves for the future.
Four trades in particular come to mind.
Benning moved Ryan Kesler (who he had to trade) and Jason Garrison (who was convinced to waive his no-trade clause) for (more or less) Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, Jared McCann, and Linden Vey.
Sbisa has been no better than a depth defenceman, while Vey was a bust in Vancouver. Bonino and McCann, meanwhile, have already been dealt away in other deals.
Kesler is still very much an impact player, while Garrison has been a top-four defenceman for a very good Tampa Bay team.
Trading away Kevin Bieksa was the right move given his age, while Eddie Lack has struggled since being traded to Carolina.
Derek Dorsett was the perfect fourth liner in his first year in Vancouver. He fought everyone in sight,delivered big bodychecks, and contributed some offence on the fourth line with 25 points (7-18-25) in 79 games. He was much less effective last season, and will soon turn 30 years-old.
The Zack Kassian trade did not work out for either team. Kassian was tossed on waivers after his involvement in an early morning car crash before last year’s season opener. Brandon Prust found himself in the minors before season’s end.
Could Benning have got someone else for Kassian? If the answer is anyone else, then he should have done that.
One of Benning’s calling cards as Canucks GM has been to make trades to speed up the rebuilding process. In these moves, he gets a young player further along the development process.
When the move works out, you quickly look like a genius. When they don’t, you quickly look like a fool.
Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, and Linden Vey have already proven themselves to not be everyday NHL players. Swing and a miss.
Despite his slow start this season, Sven Baertschi could still very well become an impact player for the Canucks, as could the second rounder given up for him, so wait and see on that one.
Let’s also wait and see what Gustav Forsling becomes, although the early returns look terrifying for Canucks fans. Forsling, a 20-year-old defenceman, made the Chicago Blackhawks out of training camp, and could be the best player of the all the players listed above.
Markus Granlund is a nice player, and could very well become a better player than Hunter Shinkaruk, the man he was traded for.
The acquisition of Erik Gudbranson was another controversial trade by the Benning regime, because not one, but two young pieces – 2014 first round pick Jared McCann and the 33rd pick in the 2016 Draft – were dealt away to acquire him.
Judging by Gudbranson’s play thus far this season, the Canucks severely overpaid to get him. Gudbranson is still just 24 years-old, so there’s time for the #3 overall pick from the 2010 Draft to develop into a rock on Vancouver’s blueline for years to come.
The biggest issue with these moves are that the Canucks are trading potential for certainty. If you’re a team rebuilding, you need to find impact players, not future third liners and depth defencemen.
There was a lot of hang wringing about the Brandon Sutter trade at the time, particularly because of the swapping of draft picks and the dispatching of Adam Clendening.
The swapping of picks moved the Canucks from the 55th overall pick to the 64th pick.
As with any trade, perhaps there was a missed opportunity elsewhere, but Clendening has turned out to be a bust.
The main pieces of the trade – Nick Bonino and Brandon Sutter – can still be debated. Bonino had a slow start in Pittsburgh last season but caught fire once Phil Kessel was put on his line. Brandon Sutter was injured most of last year, and has shown some promise at times.
Nearing the quarter-poll of the season, Sutter has 11 points (6-5-11), well ahead of Bonino, who has 5 (1-4-5).
Jim Benning hasn’t spent big money on many free agents in his time with the Canucks. Only three UFAs have been signed to contracts worth more than $2 million per season.
Ryan Miller has been good, although one could argue that cheaper alternatives would have given more bang for buck. Radim Vrbata was a steal in year 1, but a passenger in year 2.
Loui Eriksson is still early in his Canucks tenure – he’s finally found his scoring touch – but the early returns are not promising. If he doesn’t look good in the first year of the deal, many fans shutter at the thought of what the sixth-year of his $36 million deal will look like.
Canucks fans are hoping that the free agent signing of undrafted defenceman Troy Stecher is viewed in the same light as Alex Burrows and Chris Tanev one day. Time will tell, but he’s been better than anyone could have predicted so far this season.
While re-signing players to below market value was a calling card of the previous regime, it has been an area of concern with Benning.
Chris Tanev is worth every penny of his contract, although he could have been locked up for cheaper had they been willing to gamble on him earlier.
Derek Dorsett isn’t worth the money they’re paying him, and certainly the term – four years – is too much for a fourth line player.
Luca Sbisa’s contract is an albatross.
We’ll wait and see how the Sutter and Jacob Markstrom deals pan out, although they appear at least close to fair market value.
Despite the great Frank Corrado debate of last season, it appears the Leafs aren’t terribly impressed with him either. Corrado’s probably no great loss, as were David Booth and Chris Higgins, who were each bought out.
Brad Richardson has been strong for the Arizona Coyotes since leaving town, although you can understand why the Canucks moved on from him, given that Bo Horvat was ready for minutes.
Shawn Matthias and Dan Hamhuis were lost for nothing at season’s end, which is a black mark on Benning’s record.
Benning’s strength, as a former scout, is his drafting. Draft picks take a long time to develop, so we’ll see what the future holds.
His mid-round and late-round picks appear promising. There should be little doubt that Benning is the best drafting GM Vancouver has had in a long time.
But if there’s one pick that can be questioned, it’s selecting Jake Virtanen at sixth overall in 2014. The pick, which was a controversial one at the time, does not look good thus far.
Virtanen is only 20 years-old, so there’s still time, but Winnipeg and Toronto appear to have struck gold with Nikolaj Ehlers and William Nylander, the next two forwards selected after Virtanen.
Benning has made some mistakes at the helm, which hopefully he’ll learn from. The hope going forward is that his draft picks, particularly the ones outside of the first round pan out. Four of Benning’s draft picks from the 2014 draft have already played 10+ games in the NHL, which is more than any Canucks draft year since 2004.
If Benning can hit it out of the park at the draft table, it will give him a lot more room for error going forward.