The Vancouver Canucks are starting their 50th year in the National Hockey League and are the only team in league history to go 0-3 in Stanley Cup Finals.
Complicating the quest for their first Stanley Cup is the need to actually make the playoffs. After four-straight seasons without a playoff game — and more than eight years since they last won a playoff series — the Canucks have been rebuilt by general manager Jim Benning and his staff.
Sportsnet sat down with Benning for questions and answers ahead of what, one way or another, will be a memorable golden-anniversary season for a team with a few emerging stars and a handful of new veterans in their prime to help them.
Sportsnet: Your team had a tough training camp and hectic pre-season with mixed results. You scored lots of goals but conceded a lot, too. Are you ready for the regular season?
Benning: It wasn’t a perfect schedule. When you do a training-camp schedule, you have to do it like a year out. So it’s been hard from that perspective with eight games in 11 days. We have a lot of new players and the practice time Travis (Green) and the coaching staff had with his guys, even trying to play the full team together with three games in four nights at the end, it was hard. But I’m excited about the guys we signed this summer. They’ll help supplement the skill of the young players we already had. From that perspective, I’m looking forward like everyone is to see the full team.
Sportsnet: Whatever that full team is, it will be up against the salary cap for the first time since you became GM five years ago. Are you concerned about salary and roster limits?
Benning: Not really. Before we even make moves to sign players, we talk about what it looks like cap-wise for us, roster-wise. Out of all my years here, this is the year we have good depth in the organization. I’m happy that we’ve gotten to this point because now when we call up players — there’s no getting around injuries — we’re going to be able to call up players who can be part of our group.
Sportsnet: But isn’t your depth on defence still thin compared to what you have up front?
Benning: Olli Juolevi played (Friday) night for Utica and had a real strong game. So we’re getting Olli up and going down there. Get him lots of minutes and get his confidence up, so he’s a guy we feel we can bring up at some point and get him games. (Ashton) Sautner had a good camp and we know what he is — he can be a call-up guy for us on the third pair. Jalen Chatfield and Guillaume Brisebois had good camps. The point I’m trying to make is I feel we have good depth on defence with young players. And if we do have injuries back there, these guys can come up and play NHL games.
Sportsnet: But the health of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev is still paramount?
Benning: We signed Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn because they’re good, experienced players and hopefully they’ll take some of the heavy-lifting off Edler and Tanev so we can keep those guys healthier throughout the course of the year.
Sportsnet: Since you live downtown, close enough to walk to Rogers Arena, fan feedback is probably never far away. Do you get the sense Canuck Nation is especially excited about this season with the players you’ve added to the team’s young core?
Benning: I think our fans are really excited about our young players. And the people who watch the games, they understand how Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn are going to help us out, how J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland are going to help us out. They’re in their primes. It’s been a different feel at training camp this year. There’s more of a calming effect because these are guys that have played in the league and have experience. That calming effect, everybody sees it. The players we’ve had here, like Bo (Horvat), they’re excited. We traded for (Tanner) Pearson at the end of last year, traded for Josh Leivo halfway through the year. This is their first camp here, so they’re still like new players. We brought in Quinn Hughes at the end, Thatcher Demko halfway through the year. We have a lot of players we didn’t have a year ago.
Sportsnet: Your opening-night lineup Wednesday could have eight or nine guys who weren’t on the Canucks this time last year. Are you glad you open with just four games in 13 days — with lots of practices in between?
Benning: My biggest concern when you bring in so many new players is how are they going to mesh, how are they going to fit together? The faster we can get them playing as a team and competing as a group, as a manager that’s my biggest concern. The skill-sets of the players we have, you can see. But Travis (Green) has a system he wants to play and these players have to figure out how to use their skill within that system. We’ve got some practice days and those will be important for us.
Sportsnet: You’ve been roasted a couple of previous summers for your free-agent signings, but the response to the contracts you’ve added or signed this summer seem pretty positive. Are you feeling any love?
Benning: I’ve always tried to do what’s best for the organization. I think we’ve drafted well. We’ve tried to develop these young players in a winning environment. (Criticism) is part and parcel of taking this job, and if you don’t have thick skin, it’s not going to work here.
Sportsnet: Why does nobody outside the dressing room mention the P-word? We all know playoffs are the goal this season, but why don’t you just say so?
Benning: That’s why we play the games. We play the games to see where we are as a team. We want to keep moving forward. That’s why we talk about the next step, and the next step for us is being competitive right to the end of the year. At the end of the day, making the playoffs and giving our young players that experience… that’s always the goal. But that’s why we play the games. That’s why we play an 82-game schedule.
Sportsnet: To get there, Elias Pettersson will have to lead the attack. He doesn’t turn 21 until November. Are you worried about the expectations everyone has for the Calder Trophy winner and the possibility his second NHL season might actually be harder than his first?
Benning: He’s such a focused person, first of all. He took the summer to work out and get stronger. It was a learning experience for him last year playing an 82-game schedule with our travel. This year, he knows what to expect. He’s such a unique player and is so focused at what he’s trying to accomplish that I don’t really worry about him.
Sportsnet: Pettersson has two years left on his entry-level deal, but Brock Boeser is already making nearly $6 million a season in just his second contract — and that’s a short, bridge deal. Do you think younger players getting bigger paydays earlier in their careers is shortening the window to win for NHL teams?
Benning: I do. I think it has changed. We’ve kind of seen it this summer with these RFA guys. What we’ve seen is young players having success at an earlier age because they’ve been put in certain situations… and they’ve taken advantage of those opportunities. We have a plan, as far as pay structure, that we need to be diligent with and follow. Because what happens now is you don’t get to keep everyone.
Sportsnet: Why not?
Benning: The old way, you drafted players and developed them and you got to keep them for eight or 10 years to have success. Now, you draft well, and with young players coming in and having a lot of success, coming out of their entry-level deals they’re getting a lot more money in bridge deals than they used to. So that kind of shortens your window with the group you’re trying to keep together. We’re going to be no different.
Sportsnet: So you can see a time when you’ll have to choose which core players to keep because you can’t afford them all?
Benning: That’s what happens now when you draft well and have success. You can’t keep them all, and have to decide who you’re going to keep and who you’re going to move on.
Sportsnet: Does that increase the urgency to win when you have impact players on entry-level deals?
Benning: It does, but it’s also about the development of those players. It’s important that they play meaningful games in February and March, and to make the playoffs and get playoff experience so they see what playoffs are all about and how hard it is. These are experiences our young players need. That’s why I tried to help this summer by supplementing them with some guys that are in their prime and are proven NHL players.
Sportsnet: Is the rebuild over?
Benning: One thing I heard in the media a lot was: Why didn’t you do a full rebuild? Well, what is a full rebuild? We had a lot of contracts that were not moveable (five years ago). We tried to draft well and supplement the drafting with free agents we thought could help the team and help the young players to develop. We’re going to keep drafting well and developing our players so when they’re ready to step into the NHL, they can have success. I feel now we have pieces in place that are going to be core pieces for many years. Five years ago, I couldn’t have said that.