Coming into the 2020-21 season, expectations were high for the Vancouver Canucks. A team that beat the defending champ St. Louis Blues in the playoff bubble had a fun young core led by the likes of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes, plus a goalie on the cusp of greatness in Thatcher Demko.
But this was far from a good season in Vancouver. Injuries, severe Covid problems and underachievement relegated the Canucks to an afterthought in the North Division and many in the market were calling for GM Jim Benning's head, particularly after former Canuck Tyler Toffoli soared in Montreal.
"I can safely say this season has been the biggest challenge since I've been in the business for 40 years as a manager, scout and player," Benning said. "From the collective challenges every organization faced to what we dealt with specifically as a team, this was a season like no other."
Benning still has ownership on his side however and he also just re-signed coach Travis Green to a two-year extension, so there will be consistency of message in Vancouver. As for the rest of the organization and specifically the roster, the GM knows he cannot stand pat in the off-season.
"As for the results, no one is more disappointed than me," Benning said. "I am accountable and responsible as a GM. I care about this team - we all do. Our owners, coaches, players and staff all want the best for the team - they want to win. What we saw last year in the playoffs is where we want to return to. It's an important off-season, we need to make changes and the work has already begun."
According to Benning, the priority right now is to sign pending restricted free agents Pettersson and Hughes to contract extensions. From there, the Canucks will be "aggressive" in their off-season moves, pursuing trades, free agency and buy-outs. That last one is interesting.
Despite cratering in the standings and with Pettersson, Hughes and Demko combining for just $3 million in cap space for 2019-20, Vancouver had a final cap hit higher than all but three NHL teams, more than $86 million to be specific (naturally some of that was on LTIR). A buy-out on a veteran player not earning their cap hit only seems prudent and it's a bit of a wonder why it didn't happen sooner.
Benning also pointed to a group of Canucks in the 23-to-24-year-old range whom he expected to make a leap this season but did not. One has to wonder if any number of those players could become trade fodder and it's worth noting that Adam Gaudette, 24, was already traded to Chicago at the deadline this season.
Overall up front, Benning would like to ice a team with three scoring lines that plays with speed. He wants to improve the bottom six, but also wants to see better results from the top six. Rookie Nils Hoglander was singled out for praise and the Canucks anticipate having 2019 first-rounder Vasili Podkolzin under contract soon.
On the back end, Benning is hoping to bring back veteran Travis Hamonic and the GM also really liked what he saw from rookie Jack Rathbone in his eight-game stint with the club.
But it all must come together again in Vancouver and that vaunted young core must be supported. To that end, Benning was happy to re-sign Green, as he believes the coach has the right connection with those young stars.
"They like him, they trust him," Benning said. "If I look at other successful teams that hired a young coach who grew with the team, that's what I see in Travis with these young players. We'll have to add more players to support these young players but I see Travis continuing to grow with the young players we have."
For the sake of Canucks fans, let's hope Benning and Green can pull the team back out of the basement. Because there's still a lot of potential to unlock in Vancouver and it would be a shame to waste it.