Benning forced to settle as Canucks bolster young forward pool

Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning discusses why it was so hard to get any picks in return for his assets, like Thomas Vanek, but said they settled for a good young player that the scouts liked.

DENVER – While teams swung for the fences on Monday, the Vancouver Canucks worked some tedious long counts before managing what amounted to a two-out, bunt single. It was something rather than nothing, but the Canucks are still a long way from scoring.

With Thomas Vanek as their best trade chip that nobody else really wanted, the Canucks rented their 34-year-old impending free agent to the Columbus Blue Jackets for B-level prospect Tyler Motte, 22, and journeyman Jussi Jokinen, who was a contract dump.

That desperation deal shortly before the National Hockey League’s 3:00 p.m. trade deadline followed a slightly more encouraging one, as Vancouver general manager Jim Benning sent minor-league defenceman Philip Holm to the Vegas Golden Knights for 23-year-old depth forward Brandon Leipsic, who will get the chance from the Canucks to prove he should play higher than the fourth line.

Leipsic was a scoring star in the minors and junior, where he played in Portland for Canucks head coach Travis Green.

Essentially, Benning added two more bodies to go into the Canucks’ pool of young, skilled forwards whom they hope will produce the core of the next good Vancouver team.

But what Benning and president of hockey operations Trevor Linden failed to do, as you could hear from the exasperated cries on social media, was add any draft picks.

“We would have preferred getting picks back,” Benning told reporters in Vancouver. “That wasn’t available to us. We tried hard here. I had conversations with every team in the league. We would have liked to add more picks. That didn’t happen, but that could still happen before the draft this year.”

But why, Jim? Why couldn’t you get draft picks when other teams did?

“We asked for picks,” Benning explained again. “We wanted picks back. It wasn’t available to us and we had to do the next best thing.”

When it became fairly obvious as the deadline approached that Vanek, who has 17 goals and 41 points in 61 games this season but a dismal playoff record, wasn’t at the top of anyone’s wish list, the mantra in Vancouver seemed to be: “Just get something – anything.”

When Benning got something, the default reaction was: “Well, not that. We wanted draft picks.”

There are no forced marriages in the NHL. Nobody is forced to give up an asset another team demands. Every GM gets to choose whom he gives up for whom.

It shouldn’t really surprise people that a 34-year-old, bought out by a previous GM and on his seventh team in four seasons, and deemed expendable by one of the worst teams in the league, doesn’t cause other GMs to fight each other for a place in the trade lineup.

Benning said at no point did anyone offer him a draft pick for Vanek. The Canucks would have accepted a sixth-round pick, a seventh, anything.

But there were just three teams actually interested in Vanek, and only one of those actually made a concete offer. Maybe he’ll help the Blue Jackets’ power play, maybe not. So the Canucks said yes to Motte rather than get nothing. And they accepted Jokinen, another 34-year-old who is now on his fourth team this season, because Columbus was getting close to its 50-contract limit.

The NHL is a bastion of capitalism. Just as your player is worth whatever you are willing to pay him, his trade value is whatever other GMs say it is. Clearly, Vanek had almost no trade value. The Austrian is a good guy who helped mentor rookie Brock Boeser and surpassed expectations as an end-of-summer pickup. Those are nice things but carried no currency around the NHL. That part is not complicated.

There are, of course, ideological arguments about how the Canucks are rebuilding and whether they should completely sacrifice the few tradeable NHL assets they have accumulated, and support the talented group of prospects they have in the pipeline with an even younger group of prospects behind them.

But then, instead of three dismal seasons and we’ll see about next year, the Canucks will be bad for five, six or seven straight years. And no matter what West Coast hockey fans think of themselves, there are already thousands more unsold seats at Rogers Arena than there ever were in Edmonton or Calgary when those teams were lousy for considerably longer.

The Canucks have only six picks for the seven-round entry draft in June. Benning is missing a fourth-rounder, surrendered to the Pittsburgh Penguins in October to acquire defenceman Derrick Pouliot, the 24-year-old who has logged 51 NHL games this season.

Had Benning acquired a fourth for Vanek, Vancouver might have declared Tuesday a civic holiday. Which is strange because, statistically, only one-in-five players drafted in the fourth round will ever play 100 NHL games. And far fewer than that will make a difference.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.