What the heck are the Canucks doing?
This has been a question with no clear answer ever since Hurricane Tortorella sunk the S.S. Vancouver two springs ago, leaving a franchise that had annually contended for Stanley Cups out of the playoffs and without an identity.
In 18 months since John Tortorella was fired as head coach, the Canucks have remade the organization’s front office from top to bottom. This restructuring began when franchise icon Trevor Linden replaced Mike Gillis as President of Hockey Operations. Linden then lured former teammate Jim Benning away from the Boston Bruins to be Vancouver’s general manager, before naming 57-year-old career minor-leaguer Willie Desjardins head coach.
The Canucks followed their front office hires by making expensive long-term commitments to veterans Ryan Miller and Brandon Sutter, solidifying a core that has stayed intact since Ryan Kesler was traded to the Anaheim Ducks at the 2014 NHL Draft.
The results? Sometimes good, sometimes bad and occasionally very ugly.
That the Canucks rebounded from a disastrous 2013-14 season by posting 101 points and making the playoffs last season, it was a definite success. That they flamed out with a disappointing first round loss to the Calgary Flames and were left with little salary cap space, an aging core, zero lottery pick prospects and seemingly unsustainable advanced metrics, it comes as little surprise that Vancouver has won only 12 of its first 34 games in 2015-16.
Granted, the Canucks are only one point out of second place in a poor Pacific Division, and it seems feasible that Vancouver could squeeze into the playoffs and maybe win a round in the current playoff format.
The optics of Pacific Division standings aside, there is not one category where the Canucks are still an elite team. They could even be in the running for Auston Matthews, the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, if not for the Sedin twins’ dominance.
As much as the Sedins’ Yeoman-like work could single-handedly lift the Canucks to the postseason, this veteran core has displayed that it’s too weak to contend for a Stanley Cup, yet still too strong for the franchise to nab top-of-the-heap draft picks.
Speaking exclusively with SI.com earlier this week, Canucks general manager Jim Benning made it rather clear that he’s aware that this is where his team is at, and that it’s all part of his plan.
“I am happy that we could put some wins together and even though we haven’t really played like I think we’re capable of and still be in the race,” he said.
“But we’re in a transition stage right now where we have some older players. Our goal is to be competitive and try to compete for a playoff spot, along with developing our young players. If we can keep playing our young players and be part of a team that makes the playoffs, for us this season that would be a successful season.”
Not making moves to target an immediate Stanley Cup run, anxiously clocking their prospects’ progress? Sounds like a rebuild.
Except ‘rebuild’ can be an ugly word to say around Benning. He prefers ‘reload.’
Where other organizations in a similar position [see the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres] might pursue a full-scale rebuild, sell off their veterans to acquire draft picks and silently hope to finish in last place, this isn’t how things usually work in Benning’s reloads.
This wasn’t Benning’s philosophy when he joined the Boston Bruins as assistant general manager to Peter Chiarelli in 2006. At the time, the Bruins, similar to today’s Canucks, had nosedived in 2005-06 after winning division titles in two of the previous three seasons.
Bringing Phil Kessel to the NHL at age 18 and shrewd acquisitions of veterans Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, rather than a complete rebuild, had the Bruins back in the playoffs within two years. They were Stanley Cup champions within five.
Benning joined the Bruins on the heels of an eight-year run with the Sabres, where he primarily served as the team’s Director of Amateur Scouting. With Buffalo, Benning’s staff had a draft record unmatched during that time period, helping the franchise navigate on a shoestring budget through a bankruptcy in 2003 to back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 and 2007.
Benning’s current goalie with the Canucks, Ryan Miller, along with Ales Kotalik, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Daniel Paille, Clarke MacArthur, Drew Stafford and Patrick Kaleta were Benning draft picks that were factors on those Sabres conference finalists that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2007.
So when Benning says: “I don’t worry so much what other people are saying about our club, I like our young players,” he does have the track record to back it up, even if it sometimes looks like Vancouver is a rudderless ship.
A measure to gauge if Benning can navigate the Canucks to the Promised Land might be that Vancouver is deeper in young talent at this stage in its development than his teams were in Boston and Buffalo.
Jared McCann, a first-round pick in 2014, could be suiting up for Canada in the World Juniors later this month. Instead he’s on pace for a 16-goal season in the NHL, although he’s slowed considerably since opening the season with five goals in nine games.
Ben Hutton has already played top-four minutes on defense, a year after playing his junior season for the University of Maine. Even 19-year-old Jake Virtanen has been a Canucks regular, although he’s battled injuries and is currently on loan to Team Canada for the World Juniors.
All of these players, although at times maddeningly inconsistent, have made some mark in the NHL, although not much of a ripple in national headlines. At age 22, Hutton is the oldest of them. They could all be in the AHL, juniors or college, which is the more time-tested method of developing players of their age; instead, they’re doing it in the best league in the world.
The way Benning says his system works, it’s to identify future core players early, deal with unavoidable growing pains in the NHL and rely on veterans as mentors.
“When you think a young player can come in and make your team, you want to make sure you have enough veteran support to help bring them along,” Benning said. “So when things are not going well, the veterans can show them the ropes.”
Right now, things are not going well for the Canucks. They’ve lost three out of four on a six-game road trip. In their most recent loss, in Philadelphia on Thursday, they also lost Henrik Sedin to injury. He joins forward Brandon Sutter in the infirmary. Sedin is day-to-day; Sutter could return in late January.
These injuries will force the Canucks’ youngsters into even larger roles; roles that they’re probably not yet prepared for, that they hope to eventually grow into.
“I think with any young player in the league, unless it’s a real superstar like a Connor McDavid, there’s going to be some growing pains,” Benning said. “We have to stay patient.”
Given his track record, there might be finally be an answer to what the heck the Canucks are doing: trusting Jim Benning’s track record. It might seem unconventional, but his methods have worked before.
Does that mean that the Horvats, McCanns and Huttons of the world, or that Brock Boeser, their first-round pick from last 2015 who’s tearing up the NCAAs with North Dakota, will become the next Kessel, Pominville or Vanek? Of course not.
It might not work, but this is the Canucks’ plan. Time will tell if it’s a good one.