Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre, sat down with general manager Jim Benning at the prospects tournament in Penticton, B.C., to talk about the Vancouver Canucks’ busy summer and what might follow it.
SN: You built new coaching staffs in the NHL and AHL, added five free agents — one-quarter of a lineup — on July 1, negotiated all summer to get Bo Horvat re-signed this week, and found time to add Thomas Vanek. Did you actually spend any vacation time on your acreage outside Portland?
Benning: I ended up getting about three weeks out there. But I was on the phone all the time. There were players to sign. I have an office down there, so I worked from there.
SN: So you didn’t ride the horses?
Benning: My wife and my kids rides the horses, but I don’t do that.
SN: Too busy tracking social media to see what people are saying about you?
Benning: [Pause] No. I try to do the work that’s right for the organization, but I’m not on top of everything people are saying about me.
SN: Yeah, me, neither. What did you set out to achieve this off-season?
Benning: We wanted to accomplish two things. One, we wanted to bring more skill into the team. We were the second-lowest scoring team in the league last year, so we wanted to upgrade the skill of the team. And second, we wanted to add depth to our group. We don’t want to be 22 or 23 players deep (when choosing an NHL roster); we want to be 28, 29, 30 players deep.
As far as the skill content, we added Sam Gagner and Thomas Vanek. And our scouts really like (Alex) Burmistrov. They think he’s an offensive player just coming into his own. And trying to add skill on the back end, we signed Michael Del Zotto. He’s always been a guy who can move the puck up ice and is good on the power play. And we added Patrick Wiercioch back there to give us more depth.
SN: Your boss, hockey ops president Trevor Linden, finally used the R-word after last season and told us the team was rebuilding. How does adding all these experienced players, when you have kids trying to make the team, fit a rebuild?
Benning: This is the start of my fourth year. We’ve gotten to the point where we drafted well. Some of of these players have now finished junior or finished college, and we’ve got good depth in our prospects pool. Young players like Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin are ready to compete for a spot on our team. But we don’t have to rush them. If they’re not ready to perform at the NHL level, we have enough depth that we can develop them properly (in the minors).
We also signed some undrafted free agents. We signed Griffen Molino and Zack MacEwen and think they can develop into NHL players. We traded for Jonathan Dahlen, who’s another young player we’re excited about. We signed Philip Holm, who’s 25 years old and was playing on the Swedish national team.
SN: But is there still room on your NHL team for some of these kids, even with the older players you signed?
Benning: Sure, there’s room. But they’re going to have to earn spots on the team. If they come in and have good camps and are consistent every day, we’ll make room for them. It’s like with Troy Stecher last year. He came into camp and was good in camp, then was good in the exhibition schedule and we made room for him. We brought him up early in the season (from the AHL) and he played the rest of the year with us.
SN: And if kids earn spots on the Canucks, you’re willing to send other players on one-way NHL contracts to the Utica Comets?
Benning: That’s part of the decision we made to add depth this summer. We realize we could have some guys in Utica on one-way contracts, but that will just give us good depth if we have injuries at the NHL level.
SN: You were a 69-point team last season, although you lost your last eight games and basically collapsed after veterans Alexandre Burrows and Jannik Hansen were traded at the deadline. Your captain, Henrik Sedin, just said he thinks the Canucks can make the playoffs. Can you really improve by 25 points this season?
Benning: We’ve added players who give us more skill and more depth. Our young players are going to be another year older. (New coach) Travis Green is going to be fair but demanding and make sure players play to their potential. We want to be competitive, and if everything comes together… that’s why we play the games — to compete for a playoff spot.
SN: But much of the criticism directed towards you the last couple of years was fuelled by unrealistic expectations — expectations that management was partly responsible for creating. Are you worried that simultaneous talk about the playoffs and rebuilding confuses people?
Benning: I don’t think there’s a mixed message. The fans, when they come to our games, they want the team to be competitive. But they also want to see us draft well and develop our players to be NHL players. That first year, I signed some guys and we had a good year. We had 101 points but went out in the first round of the playoffs. And since then, we’ve kind of had to take a step back and try to rebuild.
We’ve had a couple of tough seasons with injuries and didn’t have the skill and depth (to overcome them). We’ve developed younger players like Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund, Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher and Jacob Markstrom. We’ve moved towards rebuilding the team. We’ve tried to get younger. It’s the growth of those young players we need to continue in order to get better.
SN: The depth, especially in the prospects pool, is remarkably better than it was when you inherited the team. But is it where you need it to be?
Benning: It takes time. When you draft a player, whether they go back to junior or back to college, it takes them a couple of years before they begin the pro process. Some guys make the jump (straight to the NHL) but most guys have to play a year or two in the American League. I thought we had an excellent draft last summer. Elias Pettersson is going to be an excellent player for us. But he’s still a kid who weighs 165 pounds and is going to have to get physically stronger. We have to wait for that. It takes time, but I believe we’re getting to the point where these guys are starting to play and are going to be real good players.
SN: How will Travis Green help you? On the surface, he seems pretty similar to the guy you fired, Willie Desjardins: demanding coach, with a background in junior and the minors and no NHL coaching experience.
Benning: I think one of Travis’ strengths is day-to-day communication with the players. He has a good feel for the players and where they’re at. If you’ve watched his teams through the years, they play hard and they play fast. He demands that they play a certain style of game. And we have the depth this year that if players aren’t playing well, he can sit guys out and give other guys an opportunity to play. He’s going to be demanding and firm with the players to get their best.