One thing about the NHL is that it really is a “what have you done for me lately” business.
It’s a league in which you can’t rest on your laurels and you will be judged based upon your most recent transactions. That can be a double-edged sword. But in the case of Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who over the course of the past 48 hours has done wonders for rehabilitating the perception of both himself as a an executive and the Vancouver Canucks as an organization, that’s good news.
Believe me when I say that I’m just as surprised to be writing these words as you surely are to be reading them, but just one short year after there was a legitimate argument to be made that Benning and the Canucks were the league’s biggest losers coming out of the deadline festivities, there’s an equally compelling case to be made that they’re this year’s biggest winners.
The widespread criticism Benning and the Canucks have drawn in the past has largely been deserved. There’s been a lot of mixed signals with regards to the direction of the franchise ever since this regime took over, both in sentiment and in action. By attempting to half-heartedly “retool” on the fly around the aging core they inherited while the Sedins still had something left in the tank, all they did was delay the inevitable and set the timeframe back by a few seasons for when they’d be ready to seriously compete again.
Last year’s trade deadline debacle was a tough pill to swallow for fans of the team, doing nothing to diffuse the lingering concerns about Benning’s asset management. For a person who was sold as a draft guru upon his arrival in Vancouver, Benning handcuffed himself by being unable to pry any assets for players Radim Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis as they walked out of the door. That, in lockstep with puzzling moves like the Erik Gudbranson trade that soon followed left the Canucks in the unenviable position of being stuck in the middle.
There have been some bumps, but at least it appears they’ve learned from those past mistakes, not wasting any time in getting most of the heavy lifting out of the way before deadline day itself even had a chance to roll around.
Even though they weren’t able to get anyone to bite on Ryan Miller, the two moves they were able to pull off – Alex Burrows for Jonathan Dahlen, and Jannik Hansen for Nikolay Goldobin (and a conditional 4th round pick) – signal a much needed changing of the guard. With Burrows and Hansen now gone, there are only four remaining players from the 2011 Western Conference champion squad: the Sedins, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev. Those that have been clamouring for the organization to let get of the past and embrace the future seem to finally be getting their wish.
Dahlen and Goldobin are most certainly intriguing prospects. Dahlen has ascended up lists thanks to a prolific season overseas that includes a standout showing at the World Junior Championships back in December. Goldobin is a former first rounder who seems to have already surpassed the AHL level of competition after a near point-per-game output this year with San Jose’s affiliate.
Whiles these are positive signs, some perspective is warranted. Only 54.9 per cent of players statistically comparable to Nikolay Goldobin went on to be NHL regulars.
One of his closest cohorts is Chris Higgins, who enjoyed a fine career in the league and was immensely useful, but is hardly what you’d classify as a building block. That figure dips down to just 31.2 per cent for Jonathan Dahlen. Considering he’s only 19 and is playing on an entirely different continent at the moment, he’s optimistically at least a couple of years away from contributing anything of substance to the Canucks on the ice.
Such is life with prospects.
All of which is why what they represent philosophically is just as important to the long-term outlook of the Canucks as the individual players themselves. Even if it’s just based off of grainy YouTube videos or superficial statistical evidence, the two of them provide something that the franchise has sorely been lacking for years: a reason to care, a reason to be excited, and even a reason to be hopeful.
This is why the repeated claims from management and ownership that the win-now moves were an attempt to appease a fanbase that didn’t have an appetite for a proper rebuild, never really passed the sniff test. If anything, the opposite was true. The reason why fan interest in the team was dwindling – what used to be a fun atmosphere and a hot ticket at Canucks games has now turned into a barren wasteland of people who had tickets pawned off on them as a last resort – was because there wasn’t really anything noteworthy to get behind or cheer for.
None of this is to say that they’ve suddenly figured it all out and righted the ship entirely. While these two separate moves are encouraging, they’re ultimately just the beginning in a series of moves that’ll be needed to dig the franchise out of the hole it’s dug itself and win back the fans whose attention and trust it has lost over time.
But If you squint hard enough, you can start to see the outline of a coherent plan that’s been put into action. It may not seem like much, but it’s a start. And you’ve eventually got to start somewhere.