After his seventh season on the job, there was some speculation as to whether or not Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning would be back for an eighth. It’s now become clear he will return, and he re-signed head coach Travis Green to stay with him, though a certain section of the fan base will still question if keeping the GM is the right call.
That’s because Benning’s tenure has been divisive, to put it mildly. Some of what he’s done can be measured as a success, and some of it seems to have deviated from a plan and perhaps leaves you wanting. Depending on which Canucks fan you ask, the answer to whether or not Benning should have returned might be different.
If you’re looking for the rosier picture, well, Benning got this team at least part way through a rebuild and constructed a new core that has set the team up well. By selecting Elias Pettersson fifth overall, Quinn Hughes seventh overall and Brock Boeser 23rd overall, Benning found great value at the top of the draft and brought in superstar talent to build around. Getting a young core to move confidently forward with is often the toughest part of rebuilding.
Benning wasn’t perfect selecting in the first round, but he put them on the right track.
Even outside of Round 1, Benning was generally successful at the draft. Thatcher Demko was a second-round pick in Benning’s first year at the helm. William Lockwood, who made his NHL debut at the end of the season, was a third-rounder in 2016, and the team is high on his potential now. Michael DiPietro was grabbed in the third round, Jack Rathbone in the fourth and Nils Hoglander in the second. You can’t hit on all of these picks of course, but Benning has on a few and that bring lots of promise.
At the same time, Benning has taken a lot of flak for two things in particular: cap management and draft pick accumulation.
Even as the Canucks were rebuilding, Benning did little to add more than the bare minimum of draft picks — aka “lottery tickets” — for a team just looking to hit on some future potential. Only twice have the Canucks held more than the seven draft picks teams start with, choosing eight times in 2017 and nine times in 2019. They made less than seven picks in three of the seven drafts Benning has been in charge of. In 2021, Vancouver has eight picks.
The cap management issues are rooted in the construction of the bottom-end of the lineup and Benning’s general approach to free agency. Loui Eriksson ($6 million AAV), Antoine Roussel ($3 million) and Jay Beagle ($3 million) were all July 1 signings made to try and add a veteran presence to accelerate on-ice results. Instead, those three combined for $12 million in salary in 2021, didn’t even make up a fourth line and have limited the Canucks’ ability to make other helpful moves — such as, perhaps, re-signing Tyler Toffoli last summer. More on that later. It’s not just the monetary commitment to these players, but the term on each of these deals has led to other problems.
And those aren’t the only free agency misfires either (Sam Gagner, anyone?).
Looking at the team’s on-ice record under Benning, we see a franchise that made the playoffs in Year 1, stepped back into a rebuild to miss the post-season four years in a row and, when they returned in 2020, were the surprise team of the bubble. The Canucks had a whole lot of promise heading into 2021, but a slow start put them in such a hole they could never really climb out of it. There were some extenuating circumstances that contributed to the Canucks’ disappointing season but, in the end, it was a step back.
Benning’s job building this team up is still incomplete and it’s an open question if he can get them to become an every-year playoff lock and, eventually, a Cup champion. He brought in the core and drafted well, but should they be further ahead with better cap decisions and more draft pick acquisitions?
Every GM of a Canadian NHL team is under the microscope and every move is analyzed and then analyzed again. That pressure will heighten now for Benning. With all eyes on him this off-season and how he adjusts the roster, we look back at some of the best, and worst, moves he has made so far as GM of the Vancouver Canucks.
Trade: Nick Bonino, second-round pick, Adam Clendening to Pittsburgh for Brandon Sutter
Look, we’re not dragging Brandon Sutter here. He’s been a solid grinder for the Canucks on the third line and a stable leader for the team. But the price paid to get him was quite high.
Consider that Bonino might be the better of the two players anyway and when you throw the other assets on top, the Canucks came out on the wrong end of this one. Benning called Sutter “a foundation piece for this group going forward,” which is high praise for a no-doubt bottom-sixer who hit 30 points just once for the Canucks. Bonino, meantime, has had double-digit goal totals in each season since the Canucks traded him and went over 30 points three times. His underlying numbers are better than Sutter’s, his contract situation has always been more favourable and they both can play the third-line centre role.
This trade can also be used as an example of the questionable cap management in the bottom-six. When the trade was made in 2015, Sutter was about to head into the last year of his contract, so Benning signed him to a five-year extension with a $4.375 million AAV that expired after this season. Bonino, who played just one season with Vancouver, still had two years left on his contract at the time of the trade, with a $1.9 million cap hit. He hit free agency in 2017 and signed a four-year deal for a $4.1 million AAV with the Nashville Predators. In between he helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2016, finishing third in team scoring with 18 points in 24 games during the run.
Trade: Jared McCann, second-round pick, fourth-round pick to Florida for Erik Gudbranson, fifth-round pick
The timing of this one was odd because it was made after the Canucks missed the 2016 playoffs, which they whiffed on by 12 points. The Sedins were ageing, there were some questionable decisions made by the team at the deadline and it seemed wise to considering re-tooling. Instead McCann, a first-round pick of Benning’s in 2014 who had just completed his rookie NHL season, was sent to the Panthers along with two better draft choices for a hulking defencemen with no offensive upside and an expiring contract.
Gudbranson could still be a useful piece, but not in a prominent role. He played three playoff-less seasons in Vancouver and Benning gave him two contract extensions — a one-year, $3.5-million deal, followed by a three-year deal with a $4 million AAV that he finished out with Nashville this season.
Non-trade: Keeping Radim Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis in 2016
We mentioned the questionable deadline decisions above and here they are.
At the 2016 trade deadline, Vancouver was eight points out of a playoff spot and seemed in seller mode. Radim Vrabata and Dan Hamhuis were in the final seasons of their contracts and of use in the rental market. Vrbata scored 13 times in 63 games for the Canucks this season, which followed a 31-goal campaign. Hamhuis was still averaging over 21 minutes a night in Vancouver as a top-four option, the kind of player who usually moves at the deadline.
The caveat here is that both players had some trade protection. Vrbata had a modified no-trade while Hamhuis had a full no-trade. But even Hamhuis said he had expected to be traded in the lead-up to the deadline. Benning said post-deadline that the offers just weren’t good enough.
“It wasn’t from a lack of trying,” Benning said. “We really didn’t get a lot of offers. If we got a concrete offer where we could recoup assets and draft picks, or young players, we would have done it.”
Instead, both players finished the season with the Canucks and then signed elsewhere as free agents in the summer.
Between these non-moves and the trade for Gudbranson a few years later, it was a missed opportunity for Benning to start the accumulation of picks and prospects for a long-road rebuild. Benning failed to maximize picking up what he could for players on expiring contracts. It’s worth noting that two years after the Vrbata and Hamhuis decisions, Benning did trade Thomas Vanek’s expiring contract to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline for Jussi Jokinen and Tyler Motte. The latter has turned into a serviceable NHL player for the team, but depending on who you ask, this could be another example of the GM just not committing to a rebuild through the draft.
Trade: Erik Gudbranson for Tanner Pearson
We’ll get into the better trades made by Benning now. While the initial pickup of Gudbranson wasn’t the greatest return, it was somewhat fixed by acquiring Tanner Pearson.
Pearson made an immediate impact on the Canucks, scoring nine goals in 19 games after the deadline and then following that up with a 19-goal season in 69 games and eight points in last summer’s bubble. In this troubled season, Pearson managed 10 goals.
He’s been a decent complementary contributor in the top-six and then re-signed for three years at a lesser cap hit (going from $3.75 million to $3.25 million) just last month. Whether or not you think that contract is a good one or not — and ignoring the overall asset management from where this trade tree began — getting Pearson for Gudbranson was a win.
At least they got back a productive player to make up for the initial trade.
Trade: Marek Mazenec, third-round pick, first-round pick to Tampa Bay for JT Miller
This trade was made with a high degree of risk to it.
The Canucks had just missed the playoffs for the fourth season in a row and the lowest they picked in that time was 10th overall. But Benning gave up a first-rounder anyway to get Miller, who had been solid with the New York Rangers, but mildly underwhelming with Lightning.
The first-rounder was conditional: if the Canucks missed the 2020 playoffs, they would keep the pick and give Tampa Bay their unprotected 2021 first instead. It clearly defined a two-year window for the Canucks to get to the post-season, which was far from a certainty at that point.
It worked out. Miller has become a leader on this team and scored at a better than point per game pace in his first year with Vancouver. He’s been used as a centre at times this season to make up for Pettersson being out to injury.
The Canucks won a round in the playoffs last year, lessening the blow of losing a first-rounder a little bit more.
Trade: Tim Schaller, Tyler Madden, second-rounder, 2022 conditional fourth-rounder to Los Angeles for Tyler Toffoli
Here’s where the Canucks assuredly left the rebuild, acquiring a rental scorer in Toffoli to help give them the boost they needed. He didn’t disappoint. In 10 games before the NHL season had to be paused due to COVID-19 in 2020, Toffoli scored six goals and 10 points.
Toffoli got injured in Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, missing the rest of that series and all of Round 1 against the St. Louis Blues. When he returned against the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2, Toffoli shot out with a one-goal, three-point effort in a 5-2 win in Game 2 that evened the series. He added one more assist the rest of the way as the Canucks were eliminated.
It was a win of a deal for Vancouver, but it should perhaps have been even more so. Writing in the Players’ Tribune, Toffoli said he wanted to come back to Vancouver and could have seen himself finishing up his career there, but that no contract offer was ever made. So, instead, he signed as a free agent with Montreal and scored 28 goals this season.
Perhaps had Vancouver not committed so much to the depth areas of their lineup, Toffoli could have been retained.
Trade: 2022 third-round pick to Vegas for Nate Schmidt
This was simply a good move that took advantage of market conditions. Vegas was signing free agent Alex Pietrangelo and desperately needed to clear cap space to do it. So, Benning swooped in and dealt a future third-rounder for a top-four defenceman who logged an average of 20:09 in ice time this season.
Now, it wasn’t Schmidt’s best season and he does make just shy of $6 million against the cap, but he still projects as a top-four blue liner for the next few years. Perhaps under normal conditions in a regular season he will be in a position for bounce back. But either way, acquiring that sort of player for absolute pennies on the dollar is a nice pick up for a team that has designs on the playoffs.