After seven years of tumult, the Jim Benning era in Vancouver has come to an end.
The longtime Vancouver Canucks general manager was fired by the club Sunday, along with head coach Travis Green, after the team put up its 17th loss of the season.
For a GM whose tenure in Vancouver has long been a divisive one, it got particularly ugly at the end. Amid a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday as the Canucks made their return to Rogers Arena, fans in the building made their discontent clear with chants of “Fire Benning!” ringing out from the stands, a jersey tossed on the ice as an exclamation point.
The reasons for the city’s ill will towards Benning aren’t difficult to understand. Despite boasting a core of quality young talent, the organization was plagued by cap management issues and questionable deals for much of Benning’s seven-year run in Vancouver, a run that brought only two playoff berths.
With the organization turning the page and entering a new era, here’s a look back at the best, worst and wildest moments of Benning’s time leading the Canucks.
There was plenty of bad, but it wasn’t all bad.
Amid the chaos, Benning and Co. had a few quality hits that have panned out well for the team. The most notable is the deal that brought JT Miller to Vancouver, a swap that sent goaltender Marek Mazanec and two draft picks to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for the former New York Rangers standout.
It was a risky deal given how Miller’s game had tailed off with the Bolts. But there’s no question now it was a worthy move, with Miller putting up a dominant 27 goals and 72 points in his first year as a Canuck. He’s been one of the few to perform well this season despite the team’s rough start to the year as well, currently leading the club with 23 points through 25 games.
Holy smokes. JT Miller, HELLO. pic.twitter.com/1LDz7xmsIh
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 2, 2021
Benning did well with the acquisition of Tanner Pearson, too, flipping veteran defender Erik Gudbranson to the Penguins in exchange for the winger. The former Stanley Cup champ started well in the first couple years of his Canucks tenure, putting up 12 points in 19 games during his first go-round and following that up with an impressive 21 goals and 45 points the season after. Though he’s come back to earth since, he's become a useful piece for the organization overall, acquired for a favourable price.
A number of other fairly solid additions have been dotted throughout Benning’s tenure, names like Ryan Miller, Radim Vrbata, Troy Stecher and Tyler Motte added via trade or free agency along the way. Conor Garland and, to a lesser extent, Oliver Ekman-Larsson have been two others.
Garland, a dynamic winger who figures to only get better over the course of the five-year deal he signed with the Canucks, has been one of the few on the team to play well through their current struggles. Ekman-Larsson has potential to be a valuable piece for the club too, though his situation is complicated by the financial implications of his addition (more on that later...).
This section figures to be a bit heftier.
For the few hits Benning had during his tenure, there were far more questionable decisions made, and a few flat-out head-scratchers. Even some of those hits were less grade-A moves and more cleanups of past messes.
Getting Pearson, for example, was a quality move for the organization — but going the other way in that deal was Gudbranson, who Benning acquired in 2016 along with a fifth-round pick in exchange for a young Jared McCann, a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick. At the time, McCann was a 24th-overall pick coming off his rookie year in Vancouver, fresh off a quality run in the OHL. Before he was able to truly show his worth, he was shipped out of town for the burly blue-liner.
In terms of the criticisms of Benning’s overall lack of direction, this one sticks out. Over the next few drafts, the team would add players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, quality offensive talents. And yet, here they were just prior, moving McCann — a young, creative forward who’s gone on to become an everyday NHLer — for a bruising defenceman. It was an odd jumble of old- and new-school thinking, made no better by the fact that Benning then signed Gudbranson to a one-year, $3.5-million deal and a three-year, $12-million contract after that.
The finances were often where Benning’s decision-making got muddy. Take the Brandon Sutter deal, which saw the club acquire the winger and a third-round pick in exchange for Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening and a second-rounder. Sutter seemed like a solid two-way centreman at the time, a decent bet for 15-20 goals and 30-40 points. Bonino seemed about the same, but the bigger issue was that he was under contract for two more seasons at $1.9 million per year. Sutter, meanwhile, had just one year left at $3.3 million, and was then given an extension of $4.375 million over five seasons by Benning.
This is no knock on Sutter, who’s been a valuable depth piece and a veteran leader for the young Canucks. But from a business perspective, swapping Bonino for a player with a similar skill-set but a much higher salary seemed an odd move, if nothing else. In the wake of the deal, Benning appeared to point to playoff performance as one of the reasons for trading Bonino and bringing in Sutter — the next season, of course, Bonino played a key role in Pittsburgh's 2016 Stanley Cup run as part of the team's 'HBK Line,' finishing third in playoff scoring for the champs.
It wasn’t just the deals that were made, though, but also the ones that weren't. We mentioned Vrbata as a useful addition for the Canucks — his 31 goals in 2014-15 were tops on a team that still had Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The next year, though, Vrbata and fellow veteran Dan Hamhuis, who was eating more than 21 minutes a night at the time, both headed into the 2016 trade deadline on expiring deals, looking like they weren’t part of the club’s future. Instead of finding trades to bring assets back to Vancouver, Benning let both veterans walk for nothing in free agency.
And yet, neither were part of what is perhaps the biggest mishandled exit of the Benning era — the Tyler Toffoli saga.
Getting Toffoli in the first place was undoubtedly a smart move from Benning and his team. The winger was a valuable rental addition and performed well in his limited 17-game run, putting up 10 points through 10 regular-season games and four more through seven playoff tilts. But those positives were negated by what happened next.
For Toffoli, the love between he and the city was mutual, the former King finding some potent chemistry with his new mates and enjoying his reunion with good friend Tanner Pearson.
“That’s why I wanted to come back to Vancouver,” he wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune. “I could have seen myself finishing out my career there. But hockey is a business, I understand that. And at the end of the day, there was no offer from the Canucks’ end, so we had to go another direction.”
It’s tough to justify giving up multiple assets to acquire a player, seeing that player prove useful, knowing he’d like to return, and then failing to bring him back. Toffoli, of course, went on to sign a fairly reasonable four-year, $4.25-million deal with Montreal, posting 28 goals and 44 points the next season.
Without question, the wildest aspect of Benning’s tenure in Vancouver was the same thing that led to the Toffoli situation falling apart — the GM’s mismanagement of the team’s cap situation. A truly tumultuous journey.
The pattern should be clear from some of the deals already mentioned, the money and term handed out to players like Gudbranson, who seemed to align with an old-school understanding of what the club needed to succeed. That approach was made even clearer in the oft maligned trio of deals for bottom-sixers Loui Eriksson (six years, $36 million), Jay Beagle (four years, $12 million) and Antoine Roussel (four years, $12 million).
Eriksson, coming off a 30-goal campaign in Boston, struggled mightily in Vancouver, requiring three seasons to total 30 goals for the Canucks. In the end, he put up 90 points over 252 games with the organization. Beagle and Roussel were brought in to be quintessential bottom-sixers, key role players and veterans. Which would’ve been fine, to a certain extent, except the club wound up handcuffed by the number of deals given to such players, limiting its ability to address other needs throughout the roster. Other questionable deals for players like Sam Gagner (three years, $9.45 million at age 28) or current defender Tyler Myers (five years, $30 million at age 29) didn’t help, either.
Benning managed to get out from under the three deals he’s most often criticized for — Eriksson, Beagle and Roussel — this past off-season via the blockbuster that brought Garland and Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver. While Garland’s proven a worthwhile addition and Ekman-Larsson can still be a valuable piece for the Canucks’ blue line moving forward, the deal brought its own flavour of cap management issues with it, as 30-year-old Ekman-Larsson will count $7.26 million against the cap for five more years after this season.
Given the presence of Quinn Hughes — who has the talent to be the team’s No. 1 defender moving forward, and is paid as such — it’s worth questioning whether Ekman-Larsson was the name the Canucks needed to swing big on. He has a fair shot of settling in and putting up some quality performances in a Canucks sweater, particularly in the short term, but there’s also a chance that, regardless of his impact, that tail end of his deal will cause trouble for the team’s cap situation.
How that affects the rest of the roster remains to be seen, with most of the Canucks' young core requiring new deals that will overlap with the latter years of Ekman-Larsson's contract. It's that lack of long-term direction that caused the Canucks faithful's patience to wear thin over the course of Benning's tenure. Now, the page turns to the next management group, and the question of what of this season, and this roster, can be salvaged.