VANCOUVER – For the many critics of Jim Benning who think the last seven years have been hard on them, just look at what time and losing has done to him.
Looking pallid and exhausted, sounding almost emotional at times, the beleaguered general manager emerged Thursday amid the Vancouver Canucks’ five-game losing streak to tell reporters that his team’s awful start has been wearing on everyone.
“Of course, I feel responsible; I'm the leader of this group,” Benning said. “The moves we made this summer, I would have never envisioned we got off to this start. But we have. Now we have to deal with it and we've got to figure it out. You know, it's hard. I'm not going to sit here and say it's not hard. It's really hard. But you know, with what's going on in B.C. right now with the people out in Abbotsford and the floods that they're dealing with, that's not easy, either. This is what we call life.”
The 58-year-old Benning seems to have aged at least two years for each of his eight seasons in charge of the Canucks.
Vancouver has made the Stanley Cup playoffs twice during his tenure – once on each side of the full rebuild Benning orchestrated – but has gone unexpectedly backward since what appeared to be a young team’s breakthrough in the Edmonton playoff bubble two summers ago.
The excellent young players Benning drafted and developed, supported by a few key veterans, no longer look like a “team,” and the Canucks have lost their identity during a 5-10-2 start that has them ahead of only the expansion Seattle Kraken and dreadful Arizona Coyotes in the Western Conference.
The task of leading the group looks too onerous at this stage for 23-year-old star Elias Pettersson, who missed the last half of last season with a wrist injury and most of training camp with a contract impasse, and heads to Game 18 Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets with three even-strength points – all assists. Linemate Brock Boeser, 24, goal-less during the current 0-4-1 losing streak, hasn’t been much better.
But the ineptitude that trumps all else is the Canucks’ league-worst penalty killing that has allowed 19 power-play goals in the last 10 games. That’s as many extra-strength goals as the Vegas Golden Knights yielded in the entire 56-game pandemic season of 2021.
Shorthanded, the Canucks have been so mesmerizingly horrible that a lot of people haven’t noticed the leaden power play has been blanked in nine of its last 10 games, leaving Vancouver with a special teams deficit of 19-3 during that time. It’s a wonder the team managed to win twice.
But it’s no wonder that the bulk of the blame, accompanied by increasing hostility, had landed again on Benning.
Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, which matched in one game the Canucks’ power-play output of three goals in 10 games, ended with scattered chants of “Fire Benning!” inside Rogers Arena.
“It's upsetting,” Benning said during his 20-minute press conference. “It's really upsetting because I think as a management team, this last, you know, seven-plus years, we've worked really hard to draft well and develop our players properly. It's wearing on all of us. The fans are frustrated. I get their frustration; we're frustrated. But we need to figure this out and get back on track and start winning hockey games and play like I believe we're capable of.
“My whole career is based on trying to figure things out to help build teams that are competitive, that are successful. Figure out solutions to our problems -- how we can get to where we need to be so we're winning hockey games (and) we're having fun. That's not going to change for me.”
Unless owner Francesco Aquilini decides to change GMs for the first time since he fired Mike Gillis – with $10-million left on his contract – in 2014.
But Benning emerged from his Tuesday summit meeting with Aquilini with the ownership family’s apparent continued support. For now.
“I'm not going to worry about that,” he said of his job security. “That will be an ownership decision. And if they get to a point where, you know, they don't feel like I'm doing a good job and I need to be replaced, they'll make that decision.
“Like I told you, I like this group. I like this group of players. I think, along the way, what we tried to do is make sure that with our younger players, we surrounded them with veteran players so they could learn from them. But now we've kind of handed it over to that younger group of players that we've drafted and developed. And with that responsibility, comes a lot of pressure. Now we've got to work with these guys to get them to play to their potential ... so we can start winning.”
It would be helpful for everyone involved if that happened soon.
Benning didn’t make any promises when asked about the employment security of head coach Travis Green, whose staff has Vancouver at 32nd in penalty killing and 27th on the power play despite improvements over last season in five-on-five play.
“We're looking at everything,” Benning said. “We're trying to find solutions to our problems. Travis and his staff are working hard. This is wearing on them like it's wearing on all of us. This is something that I didn't expect to kind of happen after ... the moves we made the summer. But it's happening and we have to deal with it, and we've got to find answers and get things back on track.”
It's difficult for the Canucks to change general managers in mid-season, especially since right-hand man John Weisbrod will probably leave whenever Benning does, and for every team that gets an in-season bump from firing its coach, for five others it’s a sign of surrender.
Benning could try to make an impactful trade, but that is fraught with risk given his position of weakness and the vultures from other teams circling the Canucks hoping a desperate GM will make a mistake. For now, it appears the Canucks will try to ride out this latest hurricane.
“We're looking at everything right now,” Benning said. “I've been working with the coaches, the coaches work with the players. We've been talking to agents about their players to just see where they're at and what they're thinking and how we can help. I've looked to the outside, talking to other general managers from other teams to see what's available.
“We're going to have to regain our confidence as a group and as a team. We're going to have to do a better job, obviously, on the PK. And I believe some of our players need to regain their confidence to play to their potential. And if we can figure those things out -- you know, it's going to be hard, it's not going to be easy -- but I think if we can figure those things out, we're going to have to string a group of wins together now to get back in it. We're going to keep working hard to find solutions to our problems. We still want to be a playoff team.”
Given the Canucks’ first 17 games, it may already be too late for that.