Well, that didn’t work. What didn’t work? Pretty much EVERYTHING tried in year three of the Vancouver Canucks‘ Jim Benning tenure. The Canucks had their worst offensive year in team history, managing just 182 goals and finishing the season with 69 points. Coach Desjardins was fired the day after the season ended. It was the first year neither Sedin led the team in scoring in a decade. It, uh… it wasn’t good.
Jim Benning Tenure
After such a great start, Benning’s next two years were straight downhill. In the previous administration’s push to get the Stanley Cup, a lot of the future had been sacrificed. That’s to be expected, but replacing those absences with current NHL players didn’t work. They were going to have to do a rebuild the slow, painful way.
Year Four, 2017-18
With Desjardins fired, a new coach would have to be brought in. But who? One who worked with the team’s youth would show the team looking to rebuild. Bringing in a veteran would show a continued push to regain their top-of-the-league standing from a few years past. Youth won out as Travis Green was promoted from the AHL. He was gaining some traction in NHL circles which no doubt encouraged the team to keep him. Still, a promising sign was that he had worked in the Canucks organization already and was known as a good communicator. If a rebuild was going to happen, it might as well be right from scratch.
Speaking of which, the team decided to walk away from Ryan Miller, fully handing the net to Jacob Markstrom. He was backed up by new arrival Anders Nilsson, giving the Canucks 11 feet and 430 pounds of goaltender. If games were won by mass, they had a step on everyone between the pipes! But the defence still had holes in it, so vets were signed to short-term deals. Erik Gudbranson‘s disastrous first year got him a second look, but only for one year. Offensive specialist Michael Del Zotto scored a two-year deal, despite his injury history and irregular scoring. The two-year deal was okay, but for $6 million? If that didn’t show the Canucks’ desperation for blue-line scoring, nothing would.
They needed to do something up front, too. In 2016-17 Henrik Sedin managed 50 points, and Daniel Sedin 44, in full, 82-game seasons. This was going to be their last year and couldn’t be counted on for much more. Bo Horvat could probably expand on the previous year, but whether he was a very good third-line centre or an acceptable second-line one was undecided. What they DID know was he was a part of their future, signing him to a six-year, $33 million contract. They sniped Thomas Vanek, rolled the dice on Alexander Burmistrov, and… gave three years – and $9.5 million – to Sam Gagner. Just those three signings alone are about as erratic a list as you’ll find for one team.
While the team brought in a half-dozen free agents and expected them to all play major roles, they made just one pre-season trade. In another hopeful move, Jim Benning swapped AHLers, getting Derrick Pouliot for Andrey Pedan and a fourth. Later in the year, they brought in veteran Nic Dowd for prospect Jordan Subban when injuries started piling up, but the big moves happened when the team was lost. Remembering the lesson from Year Three, Benning flipped Vanek for 14 games from Jussi Jokinen and a young fireball, Tyler Motte. They also pried Brendan Leipsic out of the Vegas Golden Knights for an unused Philip Holm.
Nothing Earth-shattering, but at least they were using assets when the year was lost.
In a draft year that was all about Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier, Vancouver’s eyes were on one thing: a defenceman. Yes, the draft was absolutely loaded with centres – another weakness of the Canucks Jim Benning tenure – but there were two defencemen who would solve a lot of their issues. If either Miro Heiskanen or Cale Makar were available by the fifth pick, they were going to the Canucks. Alas, both were taken by the time Vancouver’s choice came around. Instead of one of the big, sturdy centres available, they selected a whip-thin kid who not only wasn’t playing centre, but he wasn’t even in the top Swedish league! Elias Pettersson ended up pretty okay anyway, even if fans had to wait a year to see him.
Again, it’s too early to judge most of the picks from this year, but Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich look like they’re rounding into form. Mike Dipietro is putting up solid numbers in Utica, and Jack Rathbone has five points in his first three professional games. In short, 2017 is looking like a solid draft so far for Vancouver.
The Verdict, 2017-18
A big part of the story for the Canucks’ season was injuries. The plan certainly looked like the team was getting some short-term veterans signed to shield their young guys, which is fine as it is, but only six players made it to 70 games. This, ironically enough, likely extended Jim Benning’s tenure as a handy excuse for the failures to fans. As for those fans, they had a far bigger story to distract themselves with the Sedins’ retirement. The legendary skaters wrapped up their careers as symbolically as possible. It wasn’t an auspicious start to Green’s career, but this was a team in transition in just about every way. If there was pressure on anyone, it was squarely on Benning.
Benning changed a lot of his players and a lot of his staff in 2017-18. Despite words to the contrary, this was an assembly of parts, not a team – and a lot of those parts were leaving. Only one of his free-agent signings was an unqualified success. This season could be a qualified success if his draft picks are actually as good as they look. The team just needed to continue the slow, natural progress they finally started.