Jim Benning has been part of plenty of these days, when a new general manager gets announced and everyone in the organization immediately gets nervous for their jobs. So he would not promise front-office changes on his first day as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, because he knows how that would play. He purposely avoided the image of a guy looking to remake an entire organization in his own image.
In fact, Benning promised very little except for this: “We’re going to be about hard work … to get this thing going back in the right direction.”
There was a lot more “us” and “we” on Friday than there was “me” or “I.” The son of a fireman and a nurse, raised in the blue-collar north end of Edmonton, you could likely Google-image “meat-and-potatoes guy” and get a picture of Benning, side part and all.
He under-promised in his first meeting with the media, but, boy, does he reek of a guy who will over-deliver. And, sorry, Canucks fan, but he won’t start hating the Bruins. In fact, you should be thanking the Bruins for facilitating this move, because Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has lost a major piece of Boston’s intellectual property to the Canucks employ.
“I started from the ground up,” Benning said. “A part-time scout, a full-time scout, director of amateur scouting [for Buffalo], director of player personnel, to assistant GM [in Boston]. I learned every step of the way, and I feel at this point that I’m ready.
“I’ve paid my dues.”
Any fool can show up at the draft and pick seven players. And that same fool can wade into the free-agent market and offer-sheet the top available UFAs, a list any decent hockey fan could recognize simply by accessing capgeek.com.
What Benning’s scouting background affords him is the ability to be better than many of the other 29 GMs on more days than not, something Canucks fans have not been able to say about their GM very often over the past 40 years. The advantages of sleep doctors and quiet rooms don’t kick in unless the guys using them are better players than the other team has.
What Trevor Linden is hoping for in Benning is that he has the eye that can turn double-digit first-round picks into serious players, the way David McNab does in Anaheim, or David Conte in New Jersey. Who can pull off a Zdeno Chara deal at least once in his career, the way Chiarelli did in Boston, and perhaps have the guts of a Brian Burke to make a Phil Kessel-type trade as well, or the wheeling and dealing that landed the Sedins back at that 1999 draft.
“After the first interview I really felt we did share a lot of the vision,” Canucks president Trevor Linden said. “The values, on what it takes to win, to win consistently and sustainably.”
The GM game has evolved so much from the days when Detroit would place the great Hakan Andersson over in Sweden and he would find player after player that nobody else even knew about. Today, the great finds come when a team like Chicago has cap issues the way they did when they won its first Stanley Cup in 2010. Benning must be the GM who relieves that cap-crunch team of contracts like Andrew Ladd’s and Dustin Byfuglien’s, the way Rick Dudley did when he was running the Atlanta Thrashers.
He must be a sleuth who can identify players most likely going to market or, even better, players with untapped potential whose salary some team would be willing to drop. The way Darryl Sutter relieved San Jose of a relatively unknown goaler named Miikka Kiprusoff all those many years ago.
You need a GM who can look at two similar body types in Bryan Bickell and Ben Eager and know that one will pan out and the other won’t. Stan Bowman knew that. And, of course, you need a GM who doesn’t just hire a coach, but one who hires the right coach.
The Canucks, we believe, will see a slow but steady trickle of veterans being traded away over the next three years. We suspect Benning has an eye for a return that’s far better than David Booth, Keith Ballard, Derek Roy or even Zack Kassian.
You need a guy who can make the call on whether the Canucks veterans are truly Ryan Kesler’d out — and then know which of Anaheim’s young, available prospects will become impact players.
“I’ll try to speak with him in the next week,” Benning said of Kesler. “If we feel we need to approach a player and ask him to waive his no-trade clause, we’re willing to do that.”
There are miles between Vancouver and, say, Anaheim or San Jose. That’s because most of Vancouver’s assets are 28 and older, while the Ducks and Sharks are loaded with sub-23-year-old prospects.
Enter Benning, the quiet anti-Mike Gillis, who didn’t even wear a bold tie on Friday let alone promise a bold move.
This guy? He might be boring, Vancouver. But we believe he’ll be an excellent GM.