It’s a truism that players and coaches don’t tank at the NHL level. They’re always at least playing for their next job.
In a league governed by perverse incentives at the bottom of the standings, where the worst teams receive the best chance to select franchise-altering talent at the top of the NHL draft, it’s obvious that NHL management teams occasionally do tank.
Not Jim Benning, though. The Vancouver Canucks general manager hates losing.
In his first off-season as GM, the club held their annual season ticket holder meeting, where the most supportive customers are allowed to ask management questions in an open forum. One fan asked Benning about tanking for Connor McDavid.
In one of the most telling moments of his managerial tenure in Vancouver, Benning’s reaction was stone faced. Like he’d eaten something far too sour for his liking.
Benning comes from a scouting background and despite the top of the 2016 NHL Draft class including a variety of players with the star potential Vancouver is desperate for, he can’t stomach the losing that has given his club a shot at landing one of those players.
“It’s hard to lose hockey games,” Benning told Sportsnet this week. “I want to be completely honest with you, it’s hard to go through what we’re going through with the team right now. I believe if we didn’t have all these injuries that we could be competitive, but it’s hard losing.
“I guess the silver lining in it is that we’re going to end up with a high draft pick and end up with a real good player in the draft.”
When I last touched base with the Canucks general manager, the club hadn’t yet gone on an eight-game losing streak. They were looking at picking somewhere between sixth and ninth overall, rather than – lottery luck permitting – potentially owning a pick in the top-three. At the time, Benning strongly implied that he was most interested in selecting a defenceman with his club’s first-round pick.
“There’s some good high-end defencemen in the draft this year and we haven’t drafted a defenceman in the first round in 10 years,” Benning said at the time. “So all things being equal and depending on where we end up, if there’s a forward that we just feel like, ‘hey we’ve got to draft this guy because he’s going to be a star’ and then we can find a defenceman in another avenue, then we’ll go about our business like that.”
Now it seems that Vancouver’s recent swoon has changed that arithmetic somewhat. And quite rightly.
“Now all of a sudden we’re picking in the top-three and it’s a whole other scope of player that we’re looking at,” Benning said. “Right now we’re in a position where we’d be getting a first-line player, and a player that potentially could be a star player in the league.
“We have some work to do, I’m going to get out here now and see all these top players again. I’ve seen them through the course of the year but I’ll see them again. We’ll have our scouting meetings and decide what to do, but whatever we decide to do, we’re going to get a really good player.”
It’s a small consolation for Benning, who constructed this team to make the post-season.
Holding onto Ryan Miller despite significant offers and trading for Brandon Sutter weren’t moves designed to strengthen the club for the future. Vancouver hasn’t made all-in moves designed to vault the team into a playoff spot at the expense of the prospect pool, but these were transactions designed to help the team compete now. The goal was to strengthen the Canucks’ hand as the organization undergoes what was, at one time, billed as a ‘competitive rebuild’.
In Benning’s view, that competitive-style rebuild was sabotaged by a rash of injuries, including nine players recently being out of the lineup.
“We’ve had half of Utica up here playing right now,” Benning said. “From that perspective it’s been hard because we’ve had so many injuries to key players, like losing Edler and Tanev on defence.”
There’s no doubt that injuries to players like Sutter, Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler have hurt the club. Even if everything had broken their way, this iteration of the Canucks was likely to be a fringe playoff team.
With the way the NHL is structured, being a bubble playoff team is arguably the worst spot to be in. When a team finds themselves mired in that mushy middle ground, they’re not a real contender and aren’t drafting high enough to land the sort of game-changing star player that can help a team win a championship down the road.
A high pick in the 2016 NHL draft is precisely what the Canucks need long term. As distasteful as the losing has been for ownership, management, coaches, players and fans, landing star-level talent is the only way forward.
Even if it’s not the way management drew it up.