Jim Benning is Desperate for a Playoff Run
Benning’s Plan, Not Ours
When the season began, Benning said the objective was to make the playoffs this year. Most observers – ourselves included – disagreed. Sure, they were going to improve, but there was a lot of room for that. Maybe they’d make the playoffs if everything broke right for the team, but it wasn’t a guarantee.
Then the year began, and the Canucks were off to a roaring start. A difficult November brought them back to earth, but they eventually righted the ship. They have been helped along the way by a faltering Calgary Flames, an uncertain Vegas Golden Knights, the disaster that is the San Jose Sharks, and Edmonton Oilers being the Edmonton Oilers. Suddenly the playoffs not only looked like a possibility but an expectation.
He’s Not Serious, Is He?
Benning took a big swing in the off-season by spending the Canucks’ first- and third-round picks. This isn’t what a rebuilding team is supposed to do. Yes, Calder-winning super rookie Elias Pettersson had an excellent first year. Quinn Hughes had a great-looking debut at the end of last season, but that was all of five games. Surely a veteran GM wouldn’t bank on two 20-year old players to improve the team THAT much, would he?
He wouldn’t. He’d also add a couple middle-six forwards in a free agent signing and those draft picks. Micheal Ferland would add some bite to the top line, acting as a deterrent for opponents targeting Pettersson. J.T. Miller would be on his third team in three years, but otherwise brought a lot to the table. Whether a versatile second-liner was worth a first- and third-round pick was a question a LOT of fans asked.
Everything was question marks and dice rolls. Would Pettersson be a top-ten scorer in the league so soon? Could Nikolay Goldobin, now on a show-me contract, finally earn one of all those second chances he got? Could Brandon Sutter stay healthy for once?
The answers ended up being no, no, and don’t be ridiculous. But a funny thing happened on the way to 2020: the Vancouver Canucks won. A lot. Enough to stay at the top of the Pacific Division for several weeks. Josh Leivo was working out fine. Miller was far better than expected. Hughes lived up to all expectations. And to top it all off, Jacob Markstrom was playing like this was his one shot at fame and fortune. Which, yeah, pretty sure that the Canucks don’t want to talk about that just yet.
Canucks Want the Playoffs, But…
The Vancouver Canucks want the playoffs, sure, but there are a lot of things in their way – not the least of which is their own play. The Canucks have been outshot with alarming regularity, especially at 5-on-5 play. Thatcher Demko‘s numbers are about what you would expect from a rookie goalie left out to dry by a weak defensive squad. The chances they give up are not only plentiful but high-quality.
By any serious metric, Markstrom is why Vancouver can dream of playoffs for the first time in five years. Amazing given the family tragedy he has faced this year – something he shares with Brock Boeser. Boeser, of course, is not only dealing with his father’s ongoing health issues but his own injury troubles.
And injury troubles are something the Canucks know very well because they aren’t allowed to have nice (or in Ferland’s case, mean) things.
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) February 18, 2020
Ferland has had a setback in his attempted return to play this year, unfortunately, and there is some concern about whether he can come back at all. Currently, he remains on long-term injured reserve, along with Leivo, Tyler Motte, and Tyler Graovac. Boeser and Oscar Fantenberg are waiting on the injured reserve list. With Sutter, Antoine Roussel, and Alexander Edler also missing a substantial number of games it was only a matter of time before their record slipped.
That time is now, with the Canucks hitting a meagre 3-4-1 record in February, emphasized by three four-goal losses. It’s probably not a coincidence that the day after getting thumped 5-1 by the Anaheim Ducks – at home, during a week celebrating two of their greatest players – Benning went and got one of the more prized rentals on the market.
Tyler Toffoli isn’t coming cheap, and nor should he. He’s extremely versatile, which fits a team with injuries all along their forward lines. Defensively he is very solid, with a Corsi well above 55% for the year. He can play both special teams with aplomb. He also has a Stanley Cup ring from the Los Angeles Kings‘ 2013-14 run.
Did I mention the Vancouver Canucks want the playoffs? As their owner said, NOW!?
But he did cost. The Canucks had to part with one of their better prospects in Tyler Madden; their second-round draft pick from this year; and utility forward Tim Schaller. In the best possible result, Vancouver has no draft pick until the third round in 2020. And that was for a player who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
The Canucks want the playoffs, but will Toffoli want the Canucks? If they miss this time – a very real possibility if they don’t finish in the top three – will he stay to help them get there beyond this season?
One thing Benning will be hoping for is rekindled magic with former Kings linemate Tanner Pearson. He and Toffoli formed two-thirds of the very effective That 70s Line with centre Jeff Carter. This time out they’ll be flanking the younger Bo Horvat, but with how effectively Horvat and Pearson have been together it’s not hard to picture Toffoli joining them seamlessly. If they work together well, that could help convince him to return.
This does nothing to alleviate the salary cap crunch the team is under for next year. That looming elephant in the room can be jammed back in the closet for a few more months, but not forever. The trade for a rental player signals that the team is going to wait a little bit longer before making the hard decisions that are coming.
The Vancouver Canucks – and their owner, Jim Benning, and their fans – want to return to the playoffs. Now.