PHOENIX – Jim Benning never played much dominoes as a kid. But the Vancouver Canucks general manager badly hopes the pieces will fall his way soon or the National Hockey League team could be staring at another depressing shutout.
Benning confirmed to Sportsnet on Sunday that there is some interest in Canuck winger Thomas Vanek, but he hopes other teams will come calling about the 34-year-old if more prominent trade chips like Buffalo Sabre Evander Kane and Edmonton Oiler Patrick Maroon get moved ahead of Monday’s deadline.
In the past four days, Rick Nash (New York Rangers to Boston), Tomas Plekanec (Montreal to Toronto), Derick Brassard (Ottawa to Pittsburgh) and Michael Grabner (Rangers to New Jersey) all moved off the trade market.
Despite 17 goals and 41 points in 61 games this season for the Canucks, Vanek still doesn’t appear to be at the top of anyone’s trade list for forwards. After initially announcing he would be in their lineup Sunday night against the Arizona Coyotes, the Canucks were to sit out Vanek as protection against injury.
Benning declined to say how many teams have shown serious interest in Vanek as a Plan-B pickup.
Vanek’s lack of playoff success and a dismal post-deadline stint last season after a trade to the Florida Panthers from Detroit aren’t helping his trade value.
With the Canucks partway through a rebuild and on their way to a third straight bottom-five finish, there are immense expectations in Vancouver that Benning will be able to leverage Vanek’s good season for future help.
But people thought the same thing two years ago when Canuck forward Radim Vrbata and defenceman Dan Hamhuis were on expiring contracts and available to other teams, and Benning was shut out. Both players left Vancouver for free when they became unrestricted free agents.
The fundamental difference this deadline is that Vanek, unlike Hamhuis and Vrbata, doesn’t have trade protection in his contract so Benning has the ability to make a deal unencumbered by what the player wants.
If he fails to move Vanek, Benning will be as unpopular when this deadline passes as he was lauded 12 months ago when he managed to acquire solid prospects Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin for outgoing veterans Alex Burrows (to Ottawa) and Jannik Hansen (San Jose). Those deals look ever more lopsided now in the Canucks’ favour.
But whatever goodwill Benning generated then has been lost during another dismal winter for the Canucks.
There has been plenty of trade conjecture about Canuck defenceman Ben Hutton, who was scheduled to play Sunday but was scratched by Travis Green the previous four games, part of the coach’s tough-love approach to the 24-year-old. But Hutton isn’t a player teams looking to load up for a Stanley Cup run this spring are going to target, and the trade field for Benning on a player like that is going to be far bigger after the season.
“I’m not naming anyone, but at the draft is when there is more opportunity to make a trade for a player for the future,” Benning said. “And there’s not a lot of free-agent defencemen on the market this summer, so teams may look to add a defenceman (in trade).
“Ben is a young defenceman that we’ve invested in. I think for the first time in his career, he’s going through some adversity now. I think he’s learning to focus more on the ice and off the ice. This adversity will serve him well in the long run.”
But Benning added that the Canucks, after signing Erik Gudbranson last week to a three-year, $12-million extension, have an extra defenceman at the NHL level “that we could use to bolster our forward position next year.”
Vanek hopes he isn’t traded and told reporters on Friday that he’d be happy to sign another one-year contract with the Canucks for the chance to keep playing with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have yet to say if they’ll retire this summer or play another season at age 38.
Vanek added, however, he’d like a no-trade clause in his next deal because uncertainty this season and last is negatively impacting his family, which includes three children in elementary school.
Interestingly, Benning didn’t rule out the possibility of a NTC on a future deal for Vanek even though he has been steadfast in excluding them in recent multi-year contracts for Gudbranson, Bo Horvat, Sam Gagner and Michael Del Zotto.
“That’s something we’ve shied away from giving out because it ties your hands,” Benning said. “But I understand it from the player’s perspective and sometimes that’s the only way you can get a free agent. We look at each case individually.”
Benning understands he faces severe criticism if he fails to make a trade and Vanek leaves the Canucks as a UFA next summer.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you have to have another team that wants your player enough to do a deal,” Benning said. “We’ve made all the calls.”