The Canucks have a decision to make.
Their general manager, Jim Benning, is in the last year of his contract. In his fourth year running the team, the question being asked right now – which will become intensified the longer he goes unsigned – is if he’ll be back next season.
Linden on Jim Benning and contract negotiations: "I like the job Jim has done. … At heart, he is a guy who has a team-building mindset and he is going to continue to have his eye on the future." #Canucks
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) January 3, 2018
Looking at his body of work, it’s not an easy answer.
When this season ends, he will have been GM in Vancouver for four years. After a 101-point season in year one, his team finished near the bottom of the standings in years two and three, and are threatening to do the same in year four.
For a manager that stressed the value of developing prospects in a winning environment, his tenure ought to be considered a disappointment. The goal was to be competitive, but for two and a half years the Canucks have been NHL doormats.
But of course, there’s more to evaluating a general manager than just wins and losses.
How Benning has conducted business regarding trades, contracts, and the draft are vitally important.
Also important is the future outlook of the organization and certainly Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson have done a lot to influence that in the past three months.
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) January 3, 2018
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Year 1: Taking over from Mike Gillis and the birth of Trader Jim
Benning was hired in May of 2014, shortly after Trevor Linden was hired as president of hockey operations.
The team the pair took over was an aging one, three years removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, and coming off an 83-point season under John Tortorella.
Bo Horvat had just turned 19, but otherwise the prospect cupboard was relatively bare given the previous regime had been taking a run at a Stanley Cup. The only other prospects in their system to go on to become NHL regulars were Ben Hutton and Brendan Gaunce.
But the team wasn’t in complete disarray. Many of the veterans on the team were past their prime but still effective, and were accompanied with no-trade clauses. Much of the core stuck around, helping the team return to the playoffs in 2014-15.
First order of business was trading Ryan Kesler, who Benning promptly dealt to Anaheim after the centre demanded out while strong-arming the team with his no-trade clause. Less than four years later, Kesler is still performing well with the Ducks while all four pieces received by Vancouver are no longer with the team.
- Hiring Willie Desjardins as head coach
- Drafting Jake Virtanen instead of William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers
- Drafting Jared McCann, Thatcher Demko, Nikita Tryamkin, and Gustav Forsling
- Trading Ryan Kesler and a 3rd round draft pick to Anaheim for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, a 1st round pick (Jared McCann), and a 3rd round pick (flipped for Derek Dorsett)
- Trading Jason Garrison, Jeff Costello, and a 7th round pick to Tampa Bay for a 2nd round pick (flipped for Linden Vey)
- Signing Ryan Miller to a three-year, $6 million AAV contract
- Signing Radim Vrbata to a two-year, $5 million AAV contract
- Trading Gustav Forsling for Adam Clendening
- Trading a 2nd round pick for Sven Baertschi
- Re-signing Chris Tanev to a five-year, $4.45 million AAV contract
- Re-signing Luca Sbisa to a three-year, $3.6 million AAV contract
- Re-signing Derek Dorsett to a four-year, $2.65 million AAV contract
Year 2: Unpopular decisions
While the Canucks were a nice surprise during the regular season in Benning’s first year, the team failed miserably in the playoffs, losing to the Calgary Flames in six games.
The offseason brought a lot of change, with many moves being harshly criticized by fans.
The organization was trying to ‘win now’ while building for the future and didn’t appear to be accomplishing either goal efficiently.
- Drafting Brock Boeser and Adam Gaudette
- Trading Eddie Lack to Carolina for a 3rd round pick and a 7th round pick
- Trading Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim for a 2nd round pick
- Trading Zach Kassian and a 5th round pick to Montreal for Brandon Prust
- Trading Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2nd round pick to Pittsburgh for Brandon Sutter and a 3rd round pick
- Re-signing Brandon Sutter to a five-year, $4.375 million AAV contract
- Trading Hunter Shinkaruk to Calgary for Markus Granlund
- Allowing Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata to leave for nothing
- Signing Troy Stecher as a free agent
- Trading Jared McCann, a 2nd round pick, and a 4th round pick to Florida for Erik Gudbranson and a 5th round pick.
Year 3: Lowered expectations
After a disastrous season where the team fell to the bottom of the NHL standings, the Canucks still appeared reluctant to embrace a full rebuild in the summer of 2016.
Few changes were made to the roster, with the exception of making a free agent splash with Loui Eriksson. Eriksson signed a six-year $36 million contract that became immediately regrettable.
With the team completely out of playoff contention on their way to a 29th-place finish, Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen were traded in deals that were largely applauded by fans and media. The Burrows deal in particular, acquiring a young prospect with upside, gave hope for the future.
After the season, the Canucks made headlines by finally acknowledging that they were in a ‘rebuild.’
- Drafting Olli Juolevi ahead of Matthew Tkachuk
- Drafting William Lockwood
- Signing Loui Eriksson to a six-year, $6 million AAV contract
- Signing Jacob Markstrom to three-year, $3.667 AAV contract
- Trading Alex Burrows for Jonathan Dahlen
- Trading Jannik Hansen for Nikolay Goldobin and a 4th round pick
- Losing Nikita Tryamkin to KHL
- Firing Willie Desjardins as head coach
Year 4: Call it a rebuild
Benning was criticized by some for his decision to draft Elias Pettersson, a talented but skinny Swedish centre, ahead of Cody Glass with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Not many are upset with the move now.
Though the team acknowledged they were ‘rebuilding,’ skepticism remained in the market as Benning signed a number of veteran unrestricted free agents and refused to gift spots on the roster for Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin.
- Hiring Travis Green as head coach
- Losing Luca Sbisa in the expansion draft
- Drafting Elias Pettersson ahead of Cody Glass
- Drafting Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, and Michael DiPietro
- Signing Sam Gagner to a three-year, $3.15 million AAV contract
- Signing Thomas Vanek to a one-year, $2 million contract
- Signing Michael Del Zotto to a two-year, $3 million AAV contract
- Re-signing Bo Horvat to a six-year, $5.5 million AAV contract
- Trading Andrey Pedan and a 4th round pick for Derrick Pouliot
What comes next?
The decision on Benning shouldn’t be ‘does he deserve to be fired’ but rather ‘is he the best person for the job?’
The job of general manager is too important to the franchise than to accept anything less than the best.
That’s the philosophy the Chicago Blackhawks showed with their head coach in 2008, firing franchise legend Denis Savard four games into the season once Joel Quenneville became available.
Drafting is Benning’s biggest strength, and he is certainly strong in that regard. But when you’re picking near the top of the draft in three out of four years, drafting good players should be an expectation.
His trading record is spotty, with the Kesler and Gudbranson trades standing out in the loss column. But recent deals to acquire Derrick Pouliot, Nikolay Goldobin, and Jonathan Dahlen have been positive moves for the future.
Contracts have been a challenge, with the team often appearing too willing to spend big dollars on underperforming players.
Unquestionably, Benning has performed better in the last calendar year, and it takes years to accurately evaluate a draft record.
But if Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is available this summer – he’s unsigned beyond this season and is from Vernon, BC – it may not matter.