It is not hard to find critics of the Vancouver Canucks’ owners. You can start with any of the general managers and presidents who have worked for Francesco Aquilini’s family, although getting former senior employees to talk on the record may be difficult, complicated by ongoing career aspirations in the National Hockey League.
The Aquilinis are highly-involved local owners who, at times, pay too much attention to what people outside their hockey operations department think of them and their team – in a market going into its 50th year in the NHL and still aching for its first Stanley Cup.
The Canucks haven’t won a playoff series since losing the 2011 Cup final. The current team has missed the playoffs four straight seasons.
This makes the Aquilinis’ – Francesco, Luigi’s eldest son, is the managing partner – three-year contract extension for general manager Jim Benning both surprising and impressive.
The greatest threat to any major rebuild in professional sports is ownership. Do the guys paying the bills have the patience and fortitude to suffer the pain required to demolish and start over? Will their bankroll and ego allow it?
Trevor Linden, the co-architect of the Canucks’ rebuild, endured four seasons before leaving last summer as president of hockey operations, shoved out after an ideological clash with the Aquilinis. It was clear then that the owners preferred Benning, Linden’s hire as GM, over Linden.
But it was unclear until now just how much Francesco Aquilini believed in Benning.
A contract extension, first reported Friday by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, was anticipated. The Canucks finally tilted their trajectory upwards last season, propelled by a new core built around young stars Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser. And Aquilini had said in a letter to season-ticket holders last spring: “I’m confident we’re on the right path.”
So Benning, who said in June that he wanted a new contract but hasn’t spoken much about it since, wasn’t going into the 2019-20 season on an expiring deal. He was getting an extension. But nobody foresaw what is believed to be a three-year extension, which would give the 56-year-old general manager a total of four more years under contract for the Aquilinis.
The Canucks will officially announce Benning’s extension next week.
For context, consider that if Benning is still in charge at the end of his deal, his nine-season run as GM would put him one year away from matching the Canucks-record tenure of Pat Quinn, one of the few genuine franchise icons, who ran the hockey team for previous owners from 1987 until 1997.
Quinn’s teams made the playoffs seven times, and went to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final. Benning’s teams have made the playoffs once. And that 101-point campaign in 2014-15 during Benning’s first season was largely fool’s gold, the last gallant gasp of the dying team he inherited. It muddied the Canucks’ priorities and delayed their rebuild.
The four seasons since then don’t mean Benning has done a poor job, although he has made mistakes. He has failed to maximize some assets before losing them, and several of his free-agent signings and a couple of his trades have been colossal flops.
Only now are the Canucks facing the salary-cap consequences of the $36-million signing of Loui Eriksson in 2016, and the acquisition a year later of Sam Gagner, who was turned into this summer’s buyout of Ryan Spooner.
When the Canucks eventually agree on a new contract with Boeser, part of the NHL’s great unsigned restricted free-agent class of 2019, Benning and his spartan staff will have to prove it can dance the salary-cap limbo.
But considering what was inherited five years ago, Benning (and Linden) rebuilt the Canucks almost from scratch.
Horvat was the top pick of former GM Mike Gillis’ final draft but started with the Canucks under Benning and ex-coach Willie Desjardins as a 19-year-old. Benning drafted Boeser 23rd in 2015, the same year he took Adam Gaudette 149th. Pettersson was a fifth-overall pick, Quinn Hughes seventh, goalie Thatcher Demko 36th.
The Canucks are convinced that Russian power forward Vasili Podkolzin, the 10th pick in June, will join their core group in two years after his Kontinental League contract expires.
Trades for Tanner Pearson, Josh Leivo, Sven Baertschi and J.T. Miller have improved the Canucks’ forward depth, and the July 1 signings of defencemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn will make Vancouver better if – big if – veterans Alex Edler and Chris Tanev stay healthy. The Canucks struck on college free-agent Troy Stecher, and Benning appears to have hired the right coach in Travis Green.
The Canucks still have to improve at least another 12 points to get back to the post-season, but they have a lot of the right pieces to do so.
When Benning snared free-agent winger Micheal Ferland on July 10, he appeared to be all-in on next season. It looked like 2019-20 would be a referendum on the general manager’s reign, a make-it-or-break-it year.
It may be still for Benning and Green. But the Aquilinis have given their general manager more time than anyone expected to complete the job he started.