That’s what Jim Benning was supposed to bring back in May of 2014.
Hope for a friendlier, more relatable management team.
Hope for better scouting.
Hope for more ticket sales.
Hope for a better future. A future that would finally escape from the shadow of the 2011 core.
Gone were the days of yelling at radio hosts and talking down to Blake Price. Gone were the days of smug self assessments. Gone were the days of what felt like a really bad episode of the Sopranos with Tortorella, the Aquilinis, and Gillis all fighting for control of the team.
We won’t debate which one was Ralphie.
In their place stood good ol’ Jim Benning. Real salt of the earth guy. Didn’t you hear, Benning even used to play with that nice Trevor Linden kid, the one who worked on the farm. Hell, Jim Benning even had a folksy nickname, “Trader Jim”!
It sounded like your neighbour who is always finding good deals at swap meets.
“Honey, did you hear what Jim got down at the market yesterday? He traded a paperclip for a car!”
“Oh that Trader Jim, always working his magic!”
Everything was set up for the turnaround this franchise so desperately needed, one that already felt like it was starting a bit too late.
Retool on the fly
Except the turnaround didn’t really happen.
Sure, “Trader Jim” made some deals to trim some of the fat from the 2011 core. Bieksa was traded. Jason Garrison, not part of 2011, but part of the Gillis core, was also dealt. Ryan Kesler sulked his way out of town.
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) August 30, 2014
In their place was Ryan Miller, Radim Vrbata, Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, Linden Vey, Adam Clendening, and Derek Dorsett. Not exactly the young core many had hoped for. In fact, it felt an awful lot like a retooling on the fly, instead of a full on rebuild. That was their buzz word of the day at times, too. “Retool! It’s so cool! Don’t be a fool! Buy my spool?” (I think that’s what the Canucks PR department ran with)
“BUT BUT BUT THE OILERS!” yelled some from the peanut gallery, forever the battle cry of those who are wary of putting their faith in too much youth. “Committing to a full rebuild promises nothing!” they warned us. Maybe Torts really was just a crazy old guy yelling at the clouds, and he was the main reason for the previous bad season. Maybe the new crazy old guy would yell at the clouds better.
So we waited, and we watched. And to their credit, the Canucks had one hell of a first season under newly minted head coach Willie Desjardins. They got 101 points and finished second in the Pacific, far better than anyone had imagined. Maybe there was something to this retooling business after all.
Except much like the Monorail in Springfield, things began falling apart rather quickly.
Losing to Calgary
We saw the first signs of it in that playoff series against Calgary. The Canucks looked out-coached and out-classed by a very pedestrian Flames team. To this day, Coach Willie’s line deployments in that series look straight-up bizarre, like you let your kid brother play the playoffs in your NHL 15 franchise.
Against Vancouver, Ferland and 18-year-old Sam Bennett looked like world beaters. Ferland because apparently he had mithril armour on and could kill any Canuck just by looking at them, and Sam Bennett, because he was, well, 18 years old. Eighteen is a very magical age according to CBC hockey announcers. The Flames made the Canucks look like hot garbage.
Against the Ducks in the second round, however? The Flames got slaughtered by Anaheim, bowing out in five games, despite having an 18-year-old Sam Bennett on their team. Despite having the next coming of Thor in Ferland. Crazy, I know.
The end result was that Vancouver looked like a paper tiger. The 101-point season felt like an illusion, hiding a series of warts that were just getting bigger.
The next season, sure enough, the warts continued growing for Vancouver. Those 101 points? A thing of the past. This despite bringing in “foundational” Brandon Sutter for Nick Bonino. This despite drafting the local kid from Abbotsford and gifting him 55 games in the NHL. This despite Ryan Miller leading the charge in nets still. The Canucks struggled to get any momentum and ended up near the bottom of the standings.
Heading into the deadline that year, it felt that finally, yes, the rebuild everyone had been waiting for since 2014 was FINALLY going to happen.
Except that didn’t really happen either.
Dan Hamhuis? Still a Canuck.
Radim Vrbata? Still a Canuck.
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) February 29, 2016
The year before? Shawn Matthias, kept for a failed playoff run.
All of a sudden the Canucks were looking at two seasons of not getting assets for their veterans at the deadlines.
“No-trade clauses!” yelled defenders of Benning. “Jim Benning was handcuffed! What could he do? WHAT COULD HE DO???” they cried.
It was a disaster of a deadline to many. How do you walk away from two expiring contracts with nothing? It was one of the hardest deadlines to process because it also left you wondering if the team was ever going to commit to a rebuild. Not that dealing away expiring contracts signals a full rebuild, but at least it shows an eye for the future, something people in Vancouver desperately wanted. Whether Benning was justified in making no deals or not, it still left fans in the dark.
So once again, fans waited for the off-season, trying to get a glimpse into the road map Canucks management had envisioned for the team.
Yet again, a full rebuild didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Much like a Dan Brown novel, there was a hidden key to everything…Brandon Sutter. Foundational Sutter’s injury was a domino that crashed through the lineup, you see. Overplaying Bo Horvat. Expecting too much from the Sedins. Add in the injuries to the defence, and well, Ol’ Trader Jim was ready for retool number three.
So in came Erik Gudbranson at the cost of recent first rounder Jared McCann. Gudbranson, an enemy of advanced stats, but a favourite of “good guy in the room” fans. One of those guys that any time a Canucks player gets hit really hard, someone wistfully says “that wouldn’t have happened with Guddy in the lineup.” A defenceman who didn’t bring much offence with him, but would make life tough on opponents.
Also a new arrival? Loui Eriksson, he of the massive six-year, $36 million contract. A contract that runs until he’s 37 years old.
OFFICIAL: #Canucks sign forward Loui Eriksson to six-year deal
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) July 1, 2016
And once again, it felt like a retool. And once again, all we could do was pray that beyond all logic, that somehow Sutter was the magical missing piece. That somehow Gudbranson was better than we thought and would shore up the defence and maybe find some untapped offensive potential. That somehow Loui Eriksson would manage to squeeze out a few more years of top line production out of the Sedins. That Philip Larsen’s hair would match his offensive production; voluminous.
Yet once again, the Canucks struggled during the season. Gudbranson had surgery done on his wrist after 30 largely ineffective games. Handsome games, but ineffective nonetheless. The Sedins production continued to decline, with questions of their age coming faster and more often. The defence, it was better than the Torts years, but still not great. The offence? It stunk. The lone bright spot on many nights was the play of “defensive fourth line centre” Bo Horvat. Baertschi, Granlund, Tryamkin, and Stecher rounded up the spirit squad. Shout out to the goalies as well, who performed admirably.
It wasn’t enough, though, to generate a lot of excitement.
Burrows, Hansen trades bring hope
Which brings us to this year’s deadline.
Now, take this history we just laid out and add to it a variety of stories that made it feel like the Canucks had no idea what they were doing (Linden and Benning contradicting each other, showing suspect knowledge of NHL rules, sharing too much information with fans, investing heavily into players with old school ‘intangibles’) to even superficial things like Benning’s cadence and tone of his voice, to random things like Nick Bonino lucking out on the linemate lottery and winning a Cup with Pittsburgh. This created a very large perception that Benning was in over his head.
And this is where Benning finally made his first real move towards that hope we talked about earlier. The hope that the Canucks could find a future beyond the Sedins, to one that involved actual offence.
He did this by trading Alex Burrows. He did this by trading Jannik Hansen. Players that were beloved in this town. Players that grew up in this town. Players that many fans were sad to see go. He did this by rolling the dice on Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay “Matte Black” Goldobin, two young unproven kids that have a lot of potential. The kind of potential a Brendan Gaunce just doesn’t have. The kind of potential that a team that has struggled to score goals for many seasons, desperately needs.
What this signals to the fans of the city, fans who have been told repeatedly that they can’t stomach a rebuild, is that the Canucks might finally be looking ahead past next season. No more duct taping the Sedins and the remnants of the 2011 core up anymore to try and gut out a playoff appearance. The Canucks are instead taking chances on exciting prospects that might actually score some goals and aren’t of the ilk of Derek Dorsett.
Hockey futures compares Goldobin to Kovalchuk, if this is the case we win #Canucks
— ☆Cowboy☆Canuck☆ (@cowboycanuck) March 1, 2017
Now, this doesn’t mean there is a guarantee Goldobin or Dahlen pan out. For all we know, they could both end up as busts. But that comes with the territory on a rebuild. You get as many tickets (young players/draft picks) to the lottery as you can and see which ones win. That’s how the process works. Yes, you can screw it up repeatedly like Edmonton, and no, not everyone gets a McDavid to eventually save your franchise from Kevin Lowe’s greasy fingerprints, but it does give you a shot at a better future. At least it’s a plan we can follow.
If you want more optimism, you look at Benning’s work in the middle rounds of the recent drafts. You look at how he is always scouting. 24/7. You see that and you hope he continues to add draft picks and use the main skill he was brought to Vancouver for in the first place; scouting good players.
Forget Trader Jim, people in Vancouver want Drafting Jim.
And yes, some people will be mad their favourite players are gone. But for the most part? You see a lot of happy people online. You see people talking about the future with some excitement instead of the usual dead inside voices usually reserved for Monday meetings at work. The people in this city can not only handle a rebuild, they are dying for a rebuild with proper direction. There will be more excitement surrounding Goldobin’s first game on Thursday than probably any game this year.
Bo Horvat is already a fan favourite in this town. Imagine two or three Bo Horvat’s on this team? That’s the kind of thing that sells tickets.
So yes, this deadline certainly doesn’t excuse the mistakes Jim Benning has made in the previous seasons. Benning tried to sell that he could turn this team around quickly, and it’s painfully obvious that wasn’t the case. And hey, maybe Benning still loves the idea of a retool. For all we know these moves were made purely due to the expansion draft, and maybe come next season he’ll have signed some other 31 year old player to a new six-year deal. So it’s probably too early to buy that “I’m a Jim Benning kind of guy” t-shirt you’ve been eyeing up since Tuesday until we see how next season plays out.
But for one glorious week, Jim Benning has done something people have been begging him to do since he got here.
He traded for the lifeblood of sports fandom.
He traded for hope.