Jim Benning reminds me of that father of a friend who was a mechanic by trade.
My Dad was an optometrist. He taught me everything he knew about engines — which was exactly nothing. So I’d pull up my poorly maintained 1975 Honda Civic into the driveway of my friend Pat Kimmitt. His father knew engines like B.B. King knows the blues. He could tune your car with a scowl.
Mr. Kimmitt would open the hood, don a look of disdain at the state of upkeep, and begrudgingly have the thing running like a top within 15 minutes. Benning had a clearly defined plan when he lifted the hood on the Vancouver Canucks on May 23, and he has carried it out with speed and precision. Here was the plan:
• Divest the Canucks of David Booth, a player whose commitment to the game was questionable. If you’re not all-in on Benning’s team, then you’re all-out, and that buy-out told us much about Benning’s demeanour. Then we learned even more when he jettisoned a clear mistake by his predecessor in Jason Garrison.
• Apply the same parameters to Ryan Kesler as David Booth. Kesler wanted out and Benning didn’t hamstring himself by refusing to deal him inside the division. He also slyly made a pre-deal with the New York Rangers to get Derek Dorsett for a third round pick, and made sure to get that pick included in the Kesler deal.
• Hire a coach that’s all substance, with no sideshow. Ladies and gentlemen, Willie Desjardins.
• Shore up the goaltending. Many Canucks fans thought Eddie Lack was good enough to go forward with, using Jacob Markstrom as a caddy. Well, Benning isn’t a Canucks fan. He, like everyone else who does not bleed the blue-white-and-green, knew the goaltending wasn’t good enough. So he went out and got the best guy on the market in Ryan Miller, and did not over-term him on a three-year deal.
• Then, on Day 2 of UFA season, Benning did what seems so obvious, setting up the Sedins with Radim Vrbata, a right-winger who can bury the puck. Benning’s smart enough to know that his team success is absolutely Sedin-dependent, and he went into the marketplace in search of Jarome Iginla, settling for Vrbata.
“I only talked to GM Jim Benning briefly,” Vrbata told Craig Morgan from Fox Sports Arizona, over the phone from the Czech Republic. “But from what he told me and what he told my agent (Rich Evans), they were looking for somebody to play with the Sedins, and for somebody to help their power play and who would score goals.
“I will do my best to be that guy.”
We’ve seen this on so many teams that got to a Stanley Cup Final, as the Canucks did in 2011. For the next couple of years they want to re-live the same plan that worked so well, and it almost never pans out. Benning comes in from the outside with no allegiance to the Gang of 2011, and a level of objectivity that’s shown he’s not afraid to break a few eggs to make this omelet.
(Prediction: Alex Edler had better play a whole lot harder this season than he did last, or he’ll be the next to go. And Alex Burrows is on the hot seat as well, though he gets some slack because of his injury-plagued 2013-14 season.)
There are simply too many assets in Vancouver for the Canucks to drop to the bottom of the league the way an Edmonton or Buffalo has. But if they don’t use those assets to get younger — the way Benning turned Kesler into Bonino (26), Luca Sbisa (24), Dorsett (27) and centre Jared McCann at the draft — they’ll hit the same cliff Edmonton and Calgary have fallen off.
This Canucks team will legitimately push for the playoffs, but if we know Benning — and we’ve been, ahem, right about him thus far — he may forego another first-round exit to maximize a couple of veteran assets at the trade deadline.
When you have a blueline that includes Edler (28), Kevin Bieksa (33), and Dan Hamhuis (32 in December), you’ve got options. One of those defencemen may be worth a first-round pick and a legit prospect at the trade deadline, a time when a guy as smart as Benning with a defenceman as valuable as Bieksa can be a lethal combination.