The Vancouver Canucks’ return to the playoffs was over after a single season. Their youth movement short-circuited. Goals-for plummeted, already mediocre goals-against dropped further. That trade for Markus Granlund didn’t provide the offensive boost they are hoping for, but Sven Baertschi produced reasonably well. Jacob Markstrom showed he belonged in the NHL. Bo Horvat had the world dropped on him and came through it okay. There was stuff to build on, here. Still, there were clear signs that the quick turnaround the Jim Benning tenure promised might need more time.
Jim Benning Tenure
There is a difference between building on a newly-discovered foundation and pretending the rest of the building is fine, however. The Canucks were looking for a top-line forward to boost their scoring because, well, because they were. Owner Francesco Aquilini wanted back in the playoffs NOW, and waiting wasn’t going to do that.
Year Three, 2016-17
Granlund had a seriously weak debut with the Canucks, managing just two goals and three points in 16 games. He was hardly in a position of strength, and the team knew it, signing him for two years at $1.8 million.
On the opposite side, Sven Baertschi brought his game back and got a two-year, $3.7 million deal. He wasn’t an All-Star or anything, but if he could produce reasonably well in the middle-six, that was a low-risk signing.
Jacob Markstrom had proved, eight years after his draft, that he was ready to take another step. The Canucks got him for three years and $11 million, expecting him to take the reins from Ryan Miller by season’s end.
Young guys getting signed for relatively modest deals. There was a little risk in there, but otherwise an unexceptional list. Pretty much what you expect from a rebuilding team. Except…
You have to understand. The free-agent market of 2016 was a BIG DEAL. Media outlets were talking about it the year before it happened, for cryin’ out loud. The frenzy was a real thing, and teams who wanted to get a star could. Or maybe not a start, but a scorer. Well, someone who had been a scorer. Or… Lemme put it this way: by the time the smoke cleared, Troy Brouwer signed a four-year deal for $18.5 million. As for the Canucks?
Loui Eriksson, six years and $36 million, with trade protection and a buyout-proof contract. Because, in theory, he would reignite Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. He’d done it internationally, after all. Moving on.
Other than that, the free-agent signings were mostly in-house stuff. Keeping the players they wanted, walking from ones they didn’t, like Dan Hamhuis. So, surely their off-season deals would have likewise minor tinkering? Yeah, no. The team only made one deal, but it was another targeted straight at the rebuild/push-harder division.
The logic, on a guess, was that the 6′-5″ Gudbranson would add some ferocity to the net-front. Yes, they were going to have a full season of Nikita Tryamkin, but the young newcomer was more Gentle Ben than Groot. They wanted toughness and were willing to pay for it. And pay they did.
As the year wore on, the playoffs were clearly falling out of reach. Finally, after walking away from tradable assets in the past (Hamhuis was likely the last straw) Benning moved two long-standing veterans in Alexandre Burrows and Jannik Hansen. The return – Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin respectively – was almost irrelevant to fans. It was a sign that the team management was finally going to let veterans go and start the much-needed rebuild in earnest.
The 2016 NHL draft was going to be another high pick for the Canucks. After years of trying to bring in an offensive defender, they bit the bullet and drafted… well, not that. Olli Juolevi was a highly-touted pick, but more for his all-around game. He was a smart, smooth player who was never rattled. Solid defender. Basically, a hoped-for replacement of Alex Edler when the veteran retired. It was a very safe choice for a team looking for stability.
On the other hand, the next selection was Matthew Tkachuk. If the team wanted an actual offensive talent on the blue line, the highly-touted Jake Bean was available, as was Mikhail Sergachev. Tyson Jost was a local (Penticton Vees) centre, which was another point of weakness for Vancouver.
Past that first selection, it’s still a bit early to judge this draft. William Lockwood and Arturs Silovs are progressing, but time will have to tell. An understandable selection with disappointing results is what we have to go on for now. Without the repeated injuries plaguing Juolevi, 2020-21 might be his third season in the league instead of his first.
The Verdict for 2016-17
The previous year? Bad. This year? An utter disaster. Gudbranson played just 30 games in his first season with the Canucks, and Eriksson’s debut says it all, really. They made two big deals, and neither worked. The off-season between 2015-16 and 2016-17 might be the worst of the Jim Benning tenure – but there are more to come. Still, the Burrows and Hansen deals were a sign that he was learning. And Eriksson’s 24 points in 65 games was surely an outlier! He was a smart player, sound defensively and all, but for that deal the team needs points.