Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning is feeling as much pressure now as he ever has. With the team foundering on the reef of high expectations and condensed scheduling, fan confidence is nearing the bottom. Owner Francesco Aquilini had expressed confidence in Benning just three weeks prior, but that’s what owners do, isn’t it? Benning is Aquilini’s man, thick or thin, and will probably be so through the end of this season at least. Aquilini’s ownership is going to be forever marked by this Jim Benning tenure. So for no reason at all, we’re doing a year-by-year look back at Benning’s time in Vancouver and some of his biggest decisions.
Evaluating Jim Benning and His First Year as GM
Jim Benning hates speaking to the media. This we know. He probably views a lack of people in close quarters due to the pandemic as a marked improvement. Nevertheless, part of the GM’s job is to appear in public more often than Wiarton Willie. He dutifully did so on March 5th. Boiling down all the salient points, his total response to the Canucks current problems was: “Dunno. Let’s wait and see.”
Some things haven’t changed all that much since he was introduced by former teammate Trevor Linden in 2014. Then-president of hockey operations Linden said the two were of a mind when it came to the direction of the club, mostly that the 2011 Stanley Cup finalists could return quickly to the top of the league. While there were some nervous glances among fans and media, the team had two more very good regular seasons before missing the playoffs completely. Maybe a quick turnaround was possible. This focus was to guide his early years with Vancouver, and likely what got him hired in the first place.
Benning made his opinions known well enough, despite a clear discomfort with cameras. He wanted a heavy, rough-and-tumble team that could focus on defence without sacrificing scoring. And y’all know what that means…
Year One, 2014-15
The previous season’s disastrous, if brief, experiment with John Tortorella behind the bench saw the team’s scoring dry up, their star goalie leaves, a playoff hero demand a trade, and the Canucks miss the playoffs with a meagre 83 points. There was work to do.
Bring in Radim Vrbata! Wait, what?
Granted, he’s not the player Benning wanted to get in free agency, but Jerome Iginla selected the Colorado Avalanche. Vrbata wasn’t exactly the big banger promised but still worked well with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. The fading stars barely reached 50 points under Tortorella the previous year, but with Vrbata shot back into the 70s. Ryan Miller shored up goaltending in the absence of superstar Roberto Luongo – at least until Jacob Markstrom was ready. While Miller didn’t quite have the cachet of Luongo, he still provided stability and excellent goaltending in his three Canucks seasons.
That’s two good pickups by a team who clearly thinks they can compete. Buying out an unproductive David Booth was also a solid decision.
Ryan Kesler was going. He wanted out and used his no-trade deal to limit Benning’s options to “Anywhere in Southern California”. That he brought back a first-round pick, an NHL defenceman (well, Luca Sbisa) and Nick Bonino is actually pretty impressive. Filling the promise of a quick rebuild attempt, they also got Linden Vey and fireplug Derek Dorsett for draft picks, looking to fill the lineup with players rather than prospects. Agree or disagree, it was clearly the direction they wanted to go. The year went so well under new coach Willie Desjardins that they sent away another pick for Sven Baetrschi.
For a Jim Benning tenure to be a success, strong drafting is essential. It’s what he was known for and continues to be his strength. How was his first?
For as much criticism as Jake Virtanen‘s selection received, this was still a pretty solid draft. Jared McCann and Thatcher Demko are NHL regulars, Nikita Tryamkin played a full season before returning to the KHL. After four years there, he could well be back next season. Gustav Forsling is a classic “tweener” getting over 100 NHL games so far. Always a bit hard to judge a new GM on his first draft, given the scouting instructions were under a different command. Still, easy to see why Virtanen was Benning’s preferred target: big, fast, heavy-hitting, and local. What’s not to love?
The Verdict for 2014-15
Given what they wanted to do, it’s a clear pass. Dorsett was a big part of the team, adding the fire Benning wanted to the bottom-6. The oft-injured but young Baertschi provided depth scoring. Bonino brought skill to their centre position ahead of an up-and-coming Bo Horvat. Vey and Sbisa didn’t work out as well, but not every trade does. The team returned to the playoffs with a 101-point regular season under the new GM and new coach.
They lost in the first round, but not a bad start for the Jim Benning tenure, all told.
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