Q&A: Canucks GM Benning on trade deadline, playoff race

Jim-Benning-Vancouver-Canucks

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – There is a lot of time this week for Jim Benning to take a bow.

With the Vancouver Canucks’ bye week followed by the National Hockey League All-Star Game, the general manager’s team doesn’t play again until next Monday.

Unless the struggling Vegas Golden Knights win their game Tuesday in Boston, the Canucks will spend the week in first place in the Pacific Division. The Canucks, who lost 201 games over the last four seasons and were given little chance by odds-makers to make the playoffs this season, have won 11 of their last 14 games and eight in a row at home.

They are on pace for 97 points.

Heck, Brandon Sutter is actually healthy and even Loui Eriksson is playing well and getting cheered.

So, yes, this would be a good time for Benning to say “I-told-you-so.” But he won’t. In a sit-down interview with Sportsnet, he talked about how excited he is for his team, whose chemistry he wants to protect ahead of next month’s NHL trade deadline, and how he wants to keep a good thing going.

And damn the “dead money.”

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SN: For the first time since 2012, when the Canucks last won the Presidents’ Trophy, Vancouver has three players going to the All-Star Game: Elias Pettersson, Jacob Markstrom and rookie Quinn Hughes. How significant is this for the organization?

Jim Benning: I’m excited for the guys that are going. With Petey and Quinn, we drafted them and they’re going to be a big part of our future, so for them to go and hang out with the best players in the game, it’s going to be exciting for them. For Jacob, he’s worked hard for this. When I got here (in 2014), we worked with him and developed him. He’s put in the work, he’s had a good season for us and is a leader on our team, so I’m happy for him that he’s getting the recognition he deserves.

SN: Markstrom seems to be getting better by the month, which means he’s probably getting more expensive by the month, too. Are you still confident you can re-sign your goalie before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1?

JB: He likes Vancouver and has been here a long time. He’s been with (coach) Travis Green a long time. He likes the guys on the team and the guys like him. We’re going to get that figured out so he can remain playing for us.

SN: It’s always tricky to determine the market for goaltenders. But with Pettersson and Hughes eligible for potentially huge contract extensions after this season, do you need a hometown discount on Markstrom?

JB: We’re not going to get a deal done unless it’s a fair deal. At the end day, it has to work for them and it has to work for us, so it has to be a fair deal. We understand that. We want to work towards that.

SN: The happiest we’ve seen you in six years as GM in Vancouver was the night you drafted Quinn Hughes seventh overall in 2018. At age 20, is he even better than you thought?

JB: I was so excited to get him because the two hardest positions to get are a No. 1 centre that can score and a power-play defenceman. I knew he could be that defenceman we needed to take the next step. What Quinn has done this year hasn’t surprised me. As he keeps getting stronger, he’s just going to keep getting better and better.

SN: With these big contracts looming, is the dead money on your payroll going to become more of a burden?

JB: We’ve got these good young players and we want to make sure they develop properly. Maybe people from the outside think we’re wasting money or spending too much money. But when I look at J.T. Miller, how much value is there in him playing with Petey and Brock (Boeser)? And Antoine Roussel, what’s his value playing with Jake Virtanen and (Adam) Gaudette?

SN: We meant dead money like Sven Baertschi in the minors at an NHL salary of $3.37 million, the buyout charge on Ryan Spooner and Gary Bettman’s cap-recapture penalty on Roberto Luongo.

JB: We’re going to be fine going forward. We’ve got lots of cap space, a lot of expiring contracts, in the next couple of years, so I don’t worry about that.

SN: Since you mentioned J.T. Miller, whose acquisition last June for first- and third-round picks sparked a lot of criticism, do you feel vindicated by the outstanding season he is having?

JB: I don’t look at it like that. I knew at the time we were getting a real good hockey player. He’s made such a big difference for our young players. He has come from winning organizations. He has played in the playoffs and knows what it takes to win. The intangibles that people don’t see that he brings to our young players, you can’t measure that stuff. I’d do that trade all over again.

SN: As good as Miller has been with 17 goals and 46 points, how concerned are you about your other big winger acquisition, Micheal Ferland, who suffered a concussion and has played just 14 games and scored once?

JB: (His current injury) is not concussion-related this time. You always worry about players, but we did our due diligence this summer with the doctors before we signed him. I’m hoping he’ll be back in the next couple of weeks.

SN: Can he still make an impact?

JB: He’s a proven, good 5-on-5 player. He’s not a perfect player. It’s pretty hard to find perfect players. I think Travis has done a good job with the fit and matching players. I’m excited, when Ferland’s 100 per cent healthy, to see what he does when he comes back because he’s going to help us 5-on-5.

SN: You just had your pro scouting meetings, five weeks ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Are those meetings more fun when you may actually be a buyer at the deadline after several years of trying to sell assets?

JB: We’re getting to a point now where we’ve drafted well and are developing players in the minors. We’ve got guys down there that we need to get them some games up here. (Justin) Bailey has three hat tricks. He’s playing good and it would be nice to have a look at him (in the NHL). We’ve had some defencemen (like Brogan Rafferty) who have had good seasons and we’d like to get a look at them. There are some players down there now ready to play NHL games.

SN: How does that impact your deadline thinking?

JB: In other years, we were scrambling to find players. Now we’ve got guys who are waiting for their chance. That’s exciting for us.

SN: Does that mean you won’t be looking for another top-six winger which you said in December you were targeting?

JB: I’m not saying that. I’m going to be in the marketplace. But I’m not necessarily going to sacrifice draft picks to make the team better for two months. I hope that we keep competing and win our share of games because I want to make the playoffs. But on rentals, I’m going to be careful that we’re not going to be giving up high draft picks or the prospects we’ve worked to develop just for help for a couple of months.

SN: Is this thinking also a reflection of how much you believe in the players who have your team into first place?

JB: We’ve got these young players who are having good seasons, and we’ve surrounded them with character players that are good in the room and add something to our group. We have a group of guys that likes playing with one another and playing hard for one another. I want to make sure if we do do something, we don’t wreck the chemistry in the group that we have right now. I really like the chemistry in this group.

SN: Do you think broken chemistry contributed to some of the high-profile coaching firings we’ve seen, like in San Jose and Las Vegas?

JB: It’s a high-pressure business. A lot of good coaches have gotten fired. Every organization has its own reasons for making changes, but I’ve been real happy with Travis and his staff. Like I said, I like the chemistry they’ve developed with our group.

SN: We’re not suggesting you’ve been close to firing Green, who has been here 2 ½ seasons, but do you believe the patience required to develop players also applies to a new coach?

JB: That’s my philosophy. He’s a good coach and has done a good job. The players keep getting better. Our team has shown a resiliency. We’ve got guys who are workers this year and they make the whole group, on any given night, work and compete. I’m pulling for these guys.

SN: You expected your team to be better, but are you surprised it’s in first place?

JB: We don’t look at that so much. We look at the process and doing things the right way, working with our young players to develop them and make sure they keep getting better so we have success over the long term. I like the direction we’re going in. This is going to be the start of some good years for us going forward.

SN: So why not take a bow?

JB: I’ve always been more concerned about doing the work. For me, the fun part is building your team. Is it fun adding pieces to see what this team will look like in two or three years? Yeah, for me, that’s the fun part about this job and the business. I like doing that and I think it’s what I’m good at. I’ve taken some criticism along the way, but I’m just going to keep doing the work.

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