VANCOUVER – It wasn’t the frantic fan base accustomed until recently to division titles, nor the intense daily inquisition by the media that gave Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning pause as he worked this season without a contract extension. It was his daughter, Isabella.
“My daughter’s in Grade 8 at Little Flower Academy and she absolutely loves her school,” Benning said Wednesday. “She was like, ‘Dad, you better not wreck this for me.’ So besides the pressure from fans and media, there was pressure internally, too. I’m happy for my family.”
The Bennings are at peace after Canucks president of hockey-operations Trevor Linden announced a three-year contract extension for the general manager, who is undertaking the most significant and painful rebuild in franchise history.
Peace in the fan base? Not so much.
In the last four years, Benning has been at times as popular as pipelines on the West Coast. The Canucks, immune for a decade to the typically short life cycles of professional sports teams, plunged towards the bottom of the National Hockey League when their lineup finally atrophied and there weren’t nearly enough young players in the system to replace the older ones.
But, honestly, the worst thing Benning did was orchestrate his best season with the Canucks immediately after replacing previous GM Mike Gillis in 2014.
That 101-point campaign in 2014-15, when the Canucks made the playoffs and should have beaten the Calgary Flames in the opening round, muddied management’s message about priorities and the need to get younger. It obscured the inconvenient truth that the team was teetering at the edge of a cliff.
The Canucks essentially climbed a tree to get a little higher before toppling into the abyss. At the 2015 draft, Benning shed veteran defenceman Kevin Bieksa and incumbent goalie Eddie Lack for draft picks as the reconstruction began. But it was a full two years after that before Linden finally uttered the R-word and said what everybody should have seen: the Canucks are rebuilding.
Benning made some mistakes, especially the spectacular $36-million free-agent signing of Loui Eriksson that was largely cheered when it occurred in 2016 but will be a drag on the Canucks for another four seasons after this one.
But he also built, almost entirely through the draft, the deepest and most talented pool of prospects ever assembled by a Canucks administration. Rookie of the year candidate Brock Boeser is the first of the superboys to arrive in the NHL but others are lined up: forwards Elias Pettersson, Kole Lind, Adam Gaudette and Jonah Gadjovich, defenceman Olli Juolevi, and goalie Thatcher Demko.
That drafting, coupled with the player development occurring under the watch of Ryan Johnson and Scott Walker, is what earned Benning a second contract.
Francesco Aquilini and the Canucks ownership family are rewarding Benning with the opportunity to see his rebuild through.
“I always try to be pretty honest with Francesco and the Aquilini family,” Linden told reporters at a Rogers Arena press conference. “It’s challenging, no question. But they’re very supportive, they understand where we are in the process. They understand there are no shortcuts in the process. They understand it’s going to take some time. I think that they’ve shown their support with the news today.
“There’s only one way to do this and that’s to be patient and stick to it. We’re not going to solve our problems on Feb. 26 at the (trade) deadline. There’s no easy fixes on July 1 (in free agency).
“If money could buy us out of this situation, if there was a magic bullet that could help us, we would certainly look to it. It’s sometimes challenging, sometimes hard. I understand that from our fans’ standpoint. (But) I know they’re excited about the future; they can see some of the young players.”
They should see another before the end of the season when Gaudette, a fifth-round Benning pick in 2015 who leads the NCAA in scoring, finishes his college season at Northeastern and gets fast-tracked to the Canucks.
Next fall, there could be two or three more who make the Canucks.
But neither Benning nor Linden was trapped Wednesday into predicting when the Canucks might actually be good again – good enough to make the playoffs and good enough to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
“Losing is never fun,” Benning said. “I knew coming in it was going to be a lot of work. The tough part of it, if you draft well, is the development (time) of those players. You can’t seem to get them up and going fast enough. I look at our group and feel we made some real strides this year.
“We play a fast style game now. Our guys have worked hard and been competitive, so I think we’re headed in the right direction. I really do.”
Benning, who built his management career on his ability to draft and develop players, said the group of prospects the Canucks have is “exceptional” by NHL standards.
“I don’t know when we’re going to be good,” Benning said. “But I think if we’re doing things the right way, I’m hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”
All fans have to do is wait. Longer.