Canucks’ performance will dictate future of GM Jim Benning

Ryan Miller made 31 stops for the 41st shutout of his career and the Anaheim Ducks beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-0.

VANCOUVER – A decade ago, when a handful of emerging young stars had the Vancouver Canucks on an upward trajectory that would eventually take the National Hockey League franchise to a pair of Presidents’ Trophies and the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the team was 22-13-4 on the final day of 2007 and general manager Dave Nonis had started negotiations with ownership on a contract extension.

Then the Canucks collapsed in the second half of the season when an avalanche of injuries included top-three defencemen Mattias Ohlund, Kevin Bieksa and Willie Mitchell. Owner Francesco Aquillini fired Nonis on April 14, 2008.

A month ago, the rebuilding Canucks were a surprising 14-10-4 and a contract extension for general manager Jim Benning had been broached with hockey-operations president Trevor Linden and the Aquillini family.

But since first-line forwards Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi joined second-line centre Brandon Sutter on the injured list in the first week of December, the Canucks have gone 2-9-1 and appear to be collapsing again.

And when Linden was asked Wednesday during a mid-season state-of-the-union press scrum about that extension for Benning, his answer was suspiciously non-committal.

“I’m not really going to get too into that at this point,” Linden said. “I think it doesn’t serve anyone, any purpose. I think we’re focussed on having a good second half here. I know that Jim’s focussed on that. He came into a challenging situation and I think we’re trending in the right direction. I like the job Jim’s done. But beyond that, I think we’re focussed on the next couple of months and the deadline, and then finishing and having a good season.”

It’s not surprising that ownership, who deal with Linden on a weekly basis, would wish to see how this unpredictable season plays out before deciding whether to retain Benning. The NHL is, after all, a bottom line business and Benning is in his fourth year as the Canucks’ general manager.

The team finished in the bottom three the last two seasons but there is little doubt that Benning, with rookie-of-the-year candidate Brock Boeser as a centrepiece, has built the deepest prospect pool in franchise history.

But while everyone waits for more of the future Canucks to join Boeser in the NHL, the wait on Benning could be problematic because the organization has weighty decisions to make before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, especially regarding potential unrestricted free agents Erik Gudbranson and Thomas Vanek.

Benning gave up a lot – the equivalent of first- and second-round draft picks – to acquire Gudbranson from the Florida Panthers two years ago. And if the Canucks aren’t going to re-sign the 25-year-old (as of Sunday) defenceman, they absolutely must trade him rather than get nothing on July 1.

And if they re-sign Gudbranson, they’ll probably need to trade another player from a blue line that is crowded enough that third-year pro Ben Hutton is being healthy-scratched.

“When you talk deadline plans moving forward, a lot can happen,” Linden said. “We constantly talk as a group about where we’re at and where we need to be.

“We’re going to do what’s right for the organization. I think that we’ve done that in the past; we’ll continue to do that as we march through the next seven or eight weeks. We’ve got some good future pieces in our organization and we’re going to continue to keep our eye on that.

“Jim. . . has a team-building mindset, and he’s going to continue to have his eye on the future.”

Benning did some of his best non-draft work as GM at last year’s deadline, leveraging looming UFAs Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen for good prospects Jonathan Dahlen (from Ottawa) and Nikolay Goldobin (from San Jose).

Gudbranson should get the Canucks a prospect and a pick if Benning is allowed to move him. The trade value for Vanek is less certain, but the 33-year-old, who signed a one-year contract last summer, has 12 goals and 28 points as Vancouver reaches the halfway mark of its season Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.

Vancouver’s five-game road trip is a chance to show off Boeser, the 20-year-old who leads all rookies with 21 goals and is the best Canuck freshman since Pavel Bure.

Decimated up front by key injuries and the retirement of Derek Dorsett, the Canucks could have Baertschi (broken jaw) back in the lineup this weekend for the first time since Dec. 9.

But Linden revealed that Horvat (broken foot), Baertschi’s linemate, may not return until after the All-Star Break at the end of January. He was projected to miss four-to-six weeks after he was hurt on Dec. 5.

Among the many issues also addressed Wednesday by Linden, whose summit took attention away from Canucks players after they were hammered 5-0 Tuesday by the Anaheim Ducks:

  • Goaltender-of-the-future Thatcher Demko won’t be rushed up from the American League to try rescuing the team.
  • There have been no negotiations on an extension for Gudbranson.
  • Boeser is an exceptional player and the Canucks will look this summer at potentially re-signing him a year before his entry-level contract expires.
  • He likes the impact new coach Travis Green has had on young players and the Canucks’ more attractive style of play.

“There are some positives based on what’s happening here and around our organization,” Linden said. “We just have to stick to it. It’s been a challenging time, but I think we’re capable of getting some guys healthy and getting our game back on track.”

Whether they do could determine who is general manager next season.

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