Ignoring optics, Benning continues creating space to improve Canucks

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning, right, and head coach Travis Green. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER – After discarding goalie Braden Holtby in the morning, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning on Tuesday evening returned defenceman Nate Schmidt for a full refund.

Holtby and Schmidt were the team’s marquee acquisitions last October, the prime-time players who were supposed to soften the damage caused by the free-agent exodus of goalie Jacob Markstrom, winger Tyler Toffoli and defencemen Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher.

Benning’s decision to buy out Holtby and move Schmidt on to the Winnipeg Jets for a third-round draft pick next year, the same discounted price Benning paid to acquire the defenceman from the Vegas Golden Knights last October, were sound salary-cap decisions.

The two moves created $9.75 million of breathing room for the Canucks, who appeared only a week ago to be close to suffocating. But it was also an admission by Benning about the organization’s failure last season, when both Holtby and Schmidt struggled and the Canucks plummeted to a last-place finish in the North Division.

On a poorer team, Schmidt was unable to play in Vancouver as well as he had in Las Vegas, although Canucks coach Travis Green also gave him slightly less opportunity. Still, it looked like Vancouver might be stuck a while longer with Schmidt’s $5.95-million cap hit until the 30-year-old took Winnipeg off his no-trade list and agreed to go to the Jets, an indication of how eager the Minnesotan was for another new team.

The optics of dumping Holtby and trading Schmidt at a clearance price just nine months after their arrival are terrible for Benning. Keeping them another season would have been worse.

With franchise players Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes still awaiting lucrative new contracts and the roster impressive at the top but with gaping holes at the bottom, especially on defence, the Canucks had to continue to build cap flexibility.

Through two buyouts and two trades over the course of five days, Benning offloaded five of his most inefficient contracts to generate $24.25 million of spending money. Taking on dynamic winger Conor Garland and the giant, risky contract that came with defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes eats up about half of these savings — $12.21 million annually.

Garland was signed to a five-year, $24.75-million contract on Transaction Tuesday.

But including the precious cap room that existed before the flurry of moves, the Canucks head into free agency on Wednesday with $26.09 million of available cap space, according to CapFriendly.com

The actual figure is slightly higher because although the website bible of NHL spending lists rookie Vasily Podkolzin’s $925,000 cap charge as a non-roster (minor-league) expense, the Canucks could tap into another $3.5 million when Micheal Ferland spends another season on long-term injured reserve with his chronic concussion issues.

Even allowing for incoming second-contract bridge deals for Pettersson and Hughes, and a new contract for restricted free-agent centre Jason Dickinson, the Canucks have given themselves $10-million-plus to spend in free agency. That should be enough to find a reliable and experienced backup for Demko, at least two more defencemen — one will have to be good enough to replace Schmidt at No. 4 — and perhaps another centre to upgrade the fourth line.

Of course, Benning’s biggest mistakes have come in free agency, so many fans will understandably view Wednesday more with dread than excitement.

But the GM has ignored the optics and a lot of screaming and done, so far, what he said he would do this summer: create enough cap space to make the Canucks better.

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