Jim Benning still looking for top-six forward to bolster Canucks roster

Vancouver Canucks' Bo Horvat protects the puck from Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Tuesday December 10, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Through 31 games, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning likes what he has seen. But he’ll like his team even more if he can acquire another top-six winger before the NHL’s trade deadline in February.

Benning confirmed Wednesday in an interview with Sportsnet that he is looking for another winger who can score if a deal “makes sense.” He also said he plans to open contract negotiations for starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1 and whose status would affect the Canucks’ plans for the 2021 Seattle expansion draft.

The health of injured winger Micheal Ferland, one of Benning’s key free-agent signings last summer, could affect the Canucks’ need to add another player, although the GM emphasized that Ferland’s departure from Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs is unrelated to the concussion that had kept him out for five weeks.

The 27-year-old was signed in July to a four-year, $14-million contract to bring more finish and physicality to the top six in Vancouver. But he has scored just one goal in 14 games and survived only four periods in his return from a concussion before getting re-injured.

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“With all of our players, we’re always concerned when they have injuries and Ferland is no different,” Benning said. “Before we signed him this summer, we did our due diligence. We had our doctors involved with the Carolina doctors. . . and we were satisfied with the information we got.

“He doesn’t have another concussion; that’s not the problem. We’re hoping to do whatever we need to do from an organizational standpoint to help him get better because I think we’re a better team with him in our lineup. I don’t know how long he’ll be out for, but I think we’ll get him back.”

Benning said Ferland, who had 17 goals in 71 games last season with the Carolina Hurricanes but missed time with a concussion, was seeing “specialists” late Wednesday for his upper-body injury.

Ferland was targeted by the Canucks to fill a first-line role beside star centre Elias Pettersson, but coach Travis Green dropped the winger down the lineup after only two games. Ferland had six hits upon his return in Saturday’s 6-5 overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres, and in just six shifts against the Maple Leafs he registered three hits, including a knockdown of Alex Kerfoot that may have caused his latest injury.

The Canucks, 15-12-4 and three points out of a wild-card playoff spot after Wednesday’s loss, were looking for top-six forward help even before Ferland was hurt.

“I try to keep in contact with all the other general managers in the league, and if there’s something that fits and makes sense, we’ll look at it,” Benning said. “I like the chemistry we had in the team at the start of the year. I thought we had a good combination of youth and skill and speed and some veteran players that provided the glue for us and could kill penalties. I’m excited to see what our group looks like when we get healthy, and then we’ll go from there.”

Benning said the return last week of Antoine Roussel from major knee surgery last spring helps the Canucks, and Josh Leivo has filled a top-six hole since joining Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson on Vancouver’s second line a few games ago.

Besides Ferland, the Canucks are still without veteran checking centre Brandon Sutter (lower body), key penalty-killer Tyler Motte (foot) and top defenceman Alex Edler (upper body).

Benning said he hopes to re-sign Markstrom, the 29-year-old starting goalie who has twice taken short leaves from the Canucks due to his father’s battle with cancer and subsequent death.

Rookie backup goalie Thatcher Demko, 24, has started 12 of 31 games and been mostly impressive. It is unclear how the Canucks would keep both Markstrom and Demko through the Seattle expansion draft in 18 months.

“There’s a lot of time between now and the expansion draft,” Benning said. “We’ll figure that out as we get closer. Thatcher is a young goalie in this league and he’s learning what it takes to be competitive and consistent every night. I think this is a good learning experience for him and we think he’ll get even better down the road.”

But Benning wants to keep Markstrom.

“Yes, that’s my plan,” he said. “That’s our goal. Jacob is an important guy in our locker room. He was a player we thought we could develop into a No. 1 goaltender. We’ve seen him get better and better every year. He’s had some interruptions this year with his father, but we’re past that now. We need him to be kind of where he left off last year.”

The Canucks end a five-game homestand Thursday against Carolina before continuing their difficult schedule with road games Saturday in San Jose and Sunday in Las Vegas. Sutter participated in Wednesday’s optional practice and said he hopes to play Thursday.

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