Q&A: Canucks' Jim Benning on the expansion draft, busy off-season

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning. (CP Photo)

VANCOUVER – In his lifetime in hockey, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning can’t remember another week with as many agenda items and ongoing discussions as this one.

Already in the first post-Stanley Cup buyout window, National Hockey League teams are jockeying ahead of Saturday’s roster freeze for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft next Wednesday. The entry draft starts two days later, followed by the opening of free agency on July 28.

The Canucks are trying to use the expansion draft as leverage to add a good player from a team with protection issues, but so far nobody is selling.

With the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million USD and not many assets he can afford to trade, Benning will find it difficult to fulfill his pledge after last season to be “aggressive” in upgrading Vancouver’s speed, skill and depth. Still, the roster will look different a couple of weeks from now.

In a short interview on Wednesday – halfway through his hectic week – Benning told Sportsnet that pressure is still building on teams to make their best deals before the roster freeze. The GM predicted activity between the expansion and entry drafts, didn’t rule out a Canucks buyout despite the absence of one so far, said Elias Pettersson’s injury recovery is “on track” and revealed the team would like to add a Russian player to ease the transition of rookie Vasily Podkolzin to Vancouver next season. And, Benning insisted, “there is no Nate Schmidt situation.”

(Editor's note: This interview has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.)

Sportsnet: What is this week like from a management standpoint?

Jim Benning: The expansion draft has added another wrinkle. I think teams, this week they're trying to figure out what the protection lists are going to look like and... if they're looking at other things trade-wise, they're looking to maybe move money or moving a player out to try to recover some sort of an asset. There's a bunch of things going on. Once the expansion draft is over and Seattle's got their team picked, then I think the next stage is teams are looking at trades to make their teams better and, going into the (entry) draft, maybe trying to acquire picks. And then the following week, we have unrestricted free agency in a flat-cap world. So there's a lot of things going on all at once here.

How different is it from when the Vegas Golden Knights joined the league in 2017?

When Vegas joined the league and we went through that expansion process, there wasn't the same issues that we're dealing with now.

What happened to the great asset re-allocation some were predicting before the Seattle draft? Are you surprised there haven’t been more trades?

Everybody understands you're going to lose a player, right? Some teams that have a lot of depth, they know they're going to lose a player and in a flat-cap world, they may be okay with that because they've got to sign other players. And then there's the teams that maybe only have one real good player to lose that want to move that player to get some sort of an asset back. But these types of things seem to happen around a deadline and I guess the deadline is Friday, Saturday morning. I still think there could be some things that happen, but it might not happen until the deadline hits.

Even being aggressive, how difficult will it be to improve the Canucks given your lack of cap space and expendable assets?

We'll see how that plays out in the next couple of weeks. We've put a lot of work in here and we'll see how it all plays out. I can't answer that question now.

Are you seriously considering trading the ninth pick of the draft?

We're looking at everything. We're keeping all of our options open. We meet every day and I go through with our hockey-ops group what's on the docket for that day, the conversations that we're having, and we discuss things and then try to figure out what's best for our organization.

After reports that both the team and player may be looking for a trade, can you bring us up to date on the Nate Schmidt situation?

There is no Nate Schmidt situation. Teams call us about our players all the time and sometimes that gets out there. But he hasn’t asked to be moved or anything like that.

So you expect him back with the Canucks next season?

We listen to teams whenever they ask about our players. You don’t rule anything out, and if I think there’s a way to improve our team, I’ll consider it. But he hasn’t asked to be traded.

A buyout of Jake Virtanen seemed semi-automatic because, regardless of his serious legal issues, he far underperformed his contract last season, you need cap space and his age makes a buyout pretty painless. But nothing has happened since the buyout window opened last week. Should we assume you won’t be making one?

That's too early to say. We have until the 27th (with this window). And then if players go to arbitration, there’s a second window. So it’s too early to say.

Other than the massive buyouts of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in Minnesota, it has been pretty quiet across the NHL. Are teams waiting for expansion clarity?

I think that's what all the teams are thinking right now: Let's get through the expansion draft. And I expect, after the Seattle expansion team is named, next Thursday is going to be a busy day going into the draft.

Elias Pettersson posted a video of himself shooting pucks and said his injured wrist “felt really good.” Is his recovery on track?

We had a conversation with him at the end of the year (and) even the games he played this year, he needs to continue to work hard and get stronger and keep developing. We're expecting him to come in and have a big year for us next year. Everything is on track. He's going through the rehab and should be ready for training camp.

What about Vasily Podkolzin? In a normal summer, he’d have come from Russia for a development camp. When will he be in Vancouver to acclimate and get ready for training camp?

He's planning on coming here at the beginning of August to start working out and getting ready for the season. That's his plan. We’re going to sign some guys and have good depth this season and... like any other player, he’s going to have to come in and have a good camp. But everything I've seen from him... I believe that he can be part of our group next year.

Would you like to acquire another Russian player to make Podkolzin feel more comfortable and give him a teammate to speak to in his first language?

We've talked about that and we're looking at that. I think it would help... having another Russian player on the team. So, we're looking at that and seeing if there's a fit that works either through trades or free agency. We may look to do something like that.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin, of course, had each other. And now you have them in hockey operations. We understand they’ve been coming in early and staying late. How has that dynamic been so far?

It's been a real enjoyable experience for, I think, our hockey-ops group so far. They're humble guys, they want to do the work, they're learning a lot. We're keeping them involved with the daily discussions we have. They're part of our hockey-ops group trying to figure everything out.

How much pressure do you feel during these hectic summer weeks to get the team turned back in the right direction so that you start next season much better than the last one?

I believe in our core group. We didn't have Petey for three months and we got off to a bad start. I'm not going to make excuses; it wasn't a good year. Our guys weren't happy with the season we had. They're all going to be in top shape when they come back. I'm going to do what I can do to make the team better and make it harder to make the team so we have a competitive training camp. I think we're all looking forward to getting off to a good start and having a good year next year.

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