VANCOUVER – If free agency wasn’t a small step back for the Vancouver Canucks, then Tuesday’s news that top winger J.T. Miller would be unavailable to start the season due to COVID-19 issues certainly was.
Judging by predictions and projections from numerous sources, not many people think the Canucks will be back in the playoffs in 2021. But general manager Jim Benning says his team hasn’t taken a step back and isn’t going to – even with Miller and depth defenceman Jordie Benn unavailable to start the season Wednesday night in Edmonton.
In an interview with Sportsnet.ca, he told us why.
Sportsnet: Were you able to enjoy training camp at least a little before the Miller news broke Tuesday?
Benning: It’s disappointing, but this is just the time we’re living in. Players get tested every day and things change by the hour. You’re going to have to adapt, do things on the fly. That’s just where we’re at. We’re going to have to be flexible. I think we have good depth. I’m still excited about the season.
SN: What did you like about what you saw in camp?
JB: Well, I really like our defence. I like Nate Schmidt; I think he’s going to be a real good addition because he's another skill guy that can move the puck up quick to our forwards. He had a good camp. Olli Juolevi had a good camp last summer (before the playoff tournament), and I thought he has continued that and looks ready to play. I like the depth of our defence.
I like the combination of the veteran players we have along with the young players, too. I'm pretty excited about our group. (Brogan) Rafferty, (Jack) Rathbone, (Jalen) Chatfield, Juolevi – we've been drafting and developing these kids on the back end and I think they're going to get games this year. That gives us depth. I like that part of our team.
Our goaltending, I think, is going to be good with bringing in Braden Holtby, an experienced guy that has played in the big moments before. So I like him. (Thatcher) Demko had a solid camp.
And then there’s our combination up front with youth and speed and that veteran presence.
SN: With a top four of Nate Schmidt, Alex Edler, Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers, plus that young depth you mentioned, is this the best defence you’ve had as Canucks GM?
JB: We’ll see how (Travis) Hamonic fits into the group, too. But like I said, the combination of the experienced guys with the younger guys, I really like that group.
SN: And, yet, there is a fairly universal feeling around the league that having lost the players you did in free agency, and especially goalie Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks have taken a step back.
JB: I don't think we've done that. I think we've improved our team. And the thing that was real noticeable to me in camp was the experience that our young players got playing in the playoffs last year. They've come back that much stronger. Now they know what it takes to compete in the playoffs and I think they all benefited from that – the intensity, the focus that you need to be successful. I know playing in the playoffs for Quinn Hughes, Petey (Elias Pettersson), Brock Boeser, even Bo Horvat, coming back from that experience has made them better players.
SN: And it looks like they’ll be joined by another young forward in Nils Hoglander, the 20-year-old who was the story of your camp. You said months ago that you thought Hoglander would be able to play in the NHL this season even though his stats in Sweden were just OK. How did you know?
JB: Because the things that he is really good at, we figured they would translate to the smaller ice surface and the North American game. He may look small but he’s five-foot-nine and 190 pounds and strong on the puck. In the scrimmage the other day, he went behind the net and battled Alex Edler for the puck twice. Eddie’s six-foot-three and 215 pounds, but this guy came out with the puck. He likes to battle. He’s a highly competitive kid. The way he skates, a real good release on his shot, we just thought the things he does well translates to the smaller ice surface. He shows up every day, puts his work boots on and competes.
SN: He continues a pretty impressive talent pipeline that has brought Boeser, Pettersson, Hughes and now Hoglander to the Canucks in consecutive seasons. Will they be joined in May by Vasily Podkolzin when his contract with SKA St. Petersburg expires?
JB: Once he has fulfilled his contract obligations to the KHL, I would like to get him signed.
SN: Is he ready for the NHL like Hoglander seems to be?
JB: We watched him closely at the world juniors. He's first on the puck, protects the puck, takes it to the net, makes good plays with the puck. He'll continue to work on his finish, but he's willing to go stand in front of the net. He's a big strong kid who will retrieve pucks and get rebounds and stuff. So, again, with the things that we think are his strengths, on a smaller ice surface at the NHL level, we think he can make that adjustment right away.
SN: We’ll take that as a yes. You may need all the help you can get with this Canadian division. How hard is it going to be to make the playoffs?
JB: It's going to be hard. Every team is a good team. And when you start playing each team two and three times, you know the games are going to get emotional. All these teams (except Ottawa) have been in the playoffs the last couple years. And if you look, every team has at least two guys that are star players in this league. So, it's going to be a hard division but I think we're prepared for that. With the battle drills and stuff we did in camp, (coach) Travis (Green) has our guys ready to go.
SN: You made a hard decision at the start of last season sending Sven Baertschi to the minors to make room on the roster for Adam Gaudette. With Hoglander and Juolevi here, and Podkolzin possibly arriving before the end of the season, do you expect more tough decisions and veterans on one-way contracts being dropped?
JB: You sign free agents but as you draft and develop, your team gets better. I don't think it's unlike a lot of situations throughout the league. Players that fit into our group a couple years ago, maybe don't fit in now. I look at that as a good thing because we've improved. We've made the team better. There are going to be difficult decisions. But I think it's a positive that we've got younger players that we've developed and are ready to play and step in and help us.
SN: The Dallas Stars had a novel coronavirus outbreak during training camp and several teams, obviously including the Canucks, have had to cancel practices and keep players at home due to COVID-19 testing or contact. How much do you worry that the pandemic may not allow you to complete the season?
JB: In the back of everybody's mind you’re a little bit worried about it. We just have to make sure that things that we can control by following the protocols, following the rules, that we make sure we're diligent in doing those things. I think our players, they know what's at stake and they want to play. They understand why the rules and safety protocols are in place. If everybody stays disciplined and follows them, hopefully, we can get all the games played.
SN: It is the final season under contract for Travis Green, who has been told he’ll have to wait for an extension until there is more financial clarity about the league for next season and beyond. Travis’s lack of security could become a recurring story this season, a distraction. Are you comfortable with this situation?
JB: I'm not going to keep talking about it. Every time we’ve talked, we’ve said we want him as our head coach. There are six other coaches that are in the last year of their deal with their teams, in the same situation. We've told Travis that... we want him around here. He's done a good job. And we want to continue that relationship. But we're just going to wait to see more what the financial landscape looks like in the whole business before we get another contract figured out. But we want to figure it out.
SN: Having seen your team improve from one of the worst in the NHL to a playoff team last season that won a couple of rounds, are you more excited about going into the season than you were three or four years ago?
JB: I'm excited to start the season and see where we're at, to see the continued growth of these young players that we've drafted and developed. I think the future of our organization here, the next three to five years, it looks really promising... (with) the core of young players we have now. They're going to be with our group, hopefully, for a long time. They just continue to get better and better. That bodes well for us.