A constant criticism of the Canucks under the Presidency of Trevor Linden and the management of Jim Benning is that the Canucks have little or no long-term plan. The reasons given for this are many, whether it be ownership meddling, misplaced competitiveness, or sheer incompetence. The general idea seems to be that the Canucks need to rebuild, while the management team seems insistent on moving in a different direction, making moves that conflict with a rebuild and show them to be a confused bunch. The signing of Loui Eriksson this summer led to a new round of these oft-repeated critiques.
As I showed in a previous article, not only are there ways other than rebuilding to build a contender, but the rebuild does not even seem to be the preferred method. Read that article for evidence that the Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins, and Lightning all built their teams through a process of gradually reinvigorating their cores, rather than tearing everything down and building from scratch. This is the process that I believe Jim Benning is attempting to recreate.
A small note here, on the difference between being competitive and truly competing. Benning and co. have received harsh criticism in the past for saying that they want their team to remain in competition for the playoffs, when the team obviously needs high draft picks. In the case of each of the teams mentioned above, the teams continued to add talent to their roster year in and year out, providing a competitive environment where improvement was always expected. However, these teams did not necessarily go into each season with a roster that could reasonably compete for the Stanley Cup. The worst seasons, and subsequent highest draft picks, were a natural result of aging talent, youthful mistakes, injuries, and strong opponents, rather than a concerted effort to be non-competitive. This is the path that I believe the Canucks began last season. The Canucks said they wanted to be competitive, made moves towards improving the team, and set an expectation of winning games, yet everyone and their dog knew that the Canucks would end up in the basement of the league, and sure enough, they did. Which goes to show: there’s a major difference between being competitive and truly competing.
That being said, we can probably expect the Canucks to go through a few more losing seasons. Next season will almost certainly be another lottery season, and the team is unlikely to do anything more than flirt with the playoffs for at least three more years. The reason for this is pretty simple; the Pacific Division is the strongest it’s ever been. With Edmonton having Connor McDavid, Calgary having Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and Arizona having Dylan Strome and Max Domi, the youth movements in those cities are already in full swing. As well, the California teams are not quite ready to start dropping off yet. The Canucks time to rise will be when the Kings, Ducks, and Sharks begin to age out of competitiveness. Until then, it’s a good time to collect prospects.
In examining the routes that Chicago, LA, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay took to perennially contending, a few common threads popped up. Not only were these trends contrary to what the mainstream hockey media spouts about rebuilding, but they seemed to mirror much of what Benning and Linden have stated their intentions are. By combining what the Canucks management say they want to do with what successful teams have done in the past, the outline of a long-term plan for the Vancouver Canucks begins to emerge.
Part One: Allow the core to age naturally, only trading off pieces when replacements are available. Glean high-end draft picks from subsequent diminishing point totals.
Part Two: Make moves to improve the team every season. Attempt to compete each year to instill competitiveness in team, but accept losing seasons without resetting process.
Part Three: Close age gaps on team to facilitate gradual influx of young talent. Having a roster with a diverse age range allows for a “bridge” between the incoming rookies and ever-aging veterans, and avoids too much pressure being put on either group. Also allows for salary cap flexibility. Benning inherited a team with a sizeable age gap.
Part Four: Focus on maintaining or adding high-character players with leadership qualities and winning experience to support, mentor, and take pressure off youth.
Part Five: Reinvigorate the core over several seasons, replacing piece by piece with incoming young talent that is developed patiently.
While my research leads me to believe this plan can end in long-term success, and thus I find I end up agreeing with the direction that Benning has taken the Canucks, I will note one specific area in which Benning and I seem to disagree. Personal character is a quality that seems necessary for championship hockey teams, but is entirely intangible and difficult to quantify. While winning experience can be easily qualified, another previous part of my research has shown that adding players who have won championships doesn’t seem to be a major priority for Benning.
Instead, Benning focuses on the intangibles of character and leadership, which has seen him “zero in,” on certain players that he, or others in the organization, think of as having positive personal attributes. I believe that this is why Benning seems to pay a little extra in most of his deals. Time and time again, the person adding a small bonus to get a trade done is Benning.
While I don’t necessarily think that seeking out specific players is a bad thing, the cost for this “character tax” seems to consistently be draft picks. My analysis of the modern dynasties did show that they all traded draft picks of their own while building their teams, including second rounders, but they also kept enough picks to develop a stable of late-round talent. With scouting reportedly being Benning’s strongest suit, it would be nice to see him hold on to just a few more selections.
With all that being said, this has only outlined what I believe to be Benning and Linden’s intentions. As we all know, intentions do not always lead to results. Building a team in the style of the LA Kings or Tampa Bay Lightning is one thing, but actually crafting a lasting contender requires all that along with astute talent assessment, asset management, and no shortage of luck. It will be quite some time before the end result of the Benning regime can be fully measured, but for now, we can look at how Benning’s moves stack up when viewed through the scope of my outlined plan.
The only thing I won’t be judging here is Benning’s drafting, as it’s simply too early to tell after only three drafts. Same goes for free agent prospect signings. However, early returns, including picking Thatcher Demko, Nikita Tryamkin, and Brock Boeser, seem quite promising. It’s obvious that the plan will only work out if the team manages to draft quality talent consistently.
The Good: Moves that are indisputably positive regardless of context
-Not much to talk about with this trade, but experience on the farm is nice, and it only cost the relatively useless Lain.
-One of a few examples of how draft picks can be dealt judiciously to fill in the age gaps left by previous management. Pedan represents an already partially developed asset that can be used at the NHL level a lot quicker than a 3rd rounder would be.
July 2, 2014: Signing, Radim Vrbata for 2 years @ $5 million average
-Despite Vrbata’s poor second season, this short-term contract was still a bargain for a top-flight UFA, and helped the Sedins to continue carrying the team’s offense.
February 23, 2015: Release, Tom Sestito
-When character is important your development plan for young players, you have to get rid of people like Sestito, someone who seems every bit the doofus off the ice that he is on it.
-An even better example of the concept of trading a draft pick for an already partially developed player. In this case, it seems that Baertschi was on the cusp of a breakout, paying huge dividends thus far and into the future.
-Though Jeffrey was also a veteran presence, Conacher brought a bit of NHL playoff experience to the Comets, and helped them reach the AHL Finals.
-Any sort of return for a prospect you don’t intend to sign is a positive.
June 30, 2015: Trade, Kevin Bieksa to the Anaheim Ducks for a 2016 2nd round pick
-This is a good example of when it is best to cash in on a veteran. Bieksa’s on-ice play was beginning to deteriorate, and younger players were ready to take on his minutes. A 2nd rounder may seem like a low price given everything Bieksa had meant to the franchise, but it was obvious that his future returns would continue to diminish.
August 26, 2015: Signing, Adam Cracknell for 1 year @ $575,000
-Not much to talk about here, but Cracknell was a serviceable veteran that allowed a player like Brendan Gaunce more time to develop in the minors.
-Trading the highly disappointing Jensen and a low pick for a player that has upside and helps fill in the age gap is a win all around. Etem’s late season quality of play gives even more reason for optimism.
January 19, 2016: Signing, Mike Zalewski for 1 year@ $575,000
-In contrast with trading the underachieving Jensen, rewarding a hard-working player like Zalweski with a contract sends the right message throughout the organization.
February 24, 2016: Trade, 2017 5th Round Pick to the Edmonton Oilers for Philip Larsen
-A low risk, high reward gamble on a player that had no interest returning to the NHL if it meant going back to Edmonton. If he doesn’t pan out, it’s no real loss.
April 26, 2016: Contract Extension, Markus Granlund for 2 years @ $0.900 million average
-Although the trade for Granlund itself was questionable, locking up a young, NHL forward who helps fill in the age gap is the right move. Doing so with a cap hit that can be buried in the minors is even better.
June 16, 2016: Contract Extension, Sven Baertschi for 2 years @ $1.85 million average
-I doubt anyone will complain about locking up the promising Baertschi to a very reasonable bridge contract. The team will have to pony up eventually, however, if Baertschi continues to break out.
July 1, 2016: Signing, Michael Chaput for 1 year @ $600,000
-Chaput brings a ton of winning experience to the Comets, having won both Memorial Cup and Calder Cup championships.
July 1, 2016: Signing, Chad Billins for 1 year @ $600,000
-Billins also brings Calder Cup experience to the Comets.
July 1, 2016: Signing, Jayson Megna for 1 year @ $600,000
-With more and more quality prospects beginning to play on the Comets, keeping a large veteran presence there is key. Megna helps that.
July 1, 2016: Signing, Borna Rendulic for 1 year @ $600,000
-While Rendulic brings experience to the farm like the above three, he is also young enough that he still has some NHL upside.
July 7, 2016: Contract Extension, Jacob Markstrom for 3 years @ $3.67 million average
-Markstrom is the de facto starter for the next few years, and this is a low salary for a starter. It ends right around when Thatcher Demko is expected to establish himself.
July 12-19, 2016: Re-signing, Mike Zalewski, Alex Grenier, and Andrey Pedan to 1 year deals
-Grouping these together for convenience’s sake, these re-signings were no-brainers whether the players play for the Canucks or Comets. All three have NHL upside.
July 13, 2016: Re-signing, Richard Bachman for 1 years @ $650,000
-This move deserves its own special mention, as it gives the Canucks an eligible goaltender to expose in the expansion draft.
The Bad: Moves that are indisputably negative regardless of context
-This one is just poor professional scouting, it seems. Forsling had already shown a great deal of promise overseas, and Clendening had yet to show anything at the NHL level, a fact that hasn’t changed after more than a few address changes.
April 8, 2015: Contract Extension, Luca Sbisa for 3 years @ $3.6 million average
-Whatever the team sees in Sbisa, it must be highly intangible. By almost every measure available, Sbisa is a bottom-pairing defenseman at best, and while he can bring some unique physical elements to the team, him being paid like a top-4 player is restricting the team financially, making Sbisa more trouble than he’s worth.
-While Lack’s less-than-stellar performance in Carolina might show that the Canucks were right to give up on him, it seems that Lack’s play in the 2014-15 season really should have warranted a higher return than this. It may be that the team wanted to avoid trading Lack within the West, and goalie markets are tough to predict, but this was an extremely underwhelming return.
July 1, 2015: Signing, Matt Bartkowski for 1 year @ $1.75 million average
-Bartkowski filled a spot on the roster for a year, and that’s somewhat important, but calling a contract that pays the worst defenseman in the league more than a million dollars anything but bad would be untrue.
October 5, 2015: Waive, Frank Corrado
-Whether or not you think Corrado had a spot on the Canucks, he was an asset, plain and simple, and letting young assets go for free is never a positive thing. The Canucks should have pulled out all the stops to hang on to Corrado.
February 22, 2016: Trade, Hunter Shinkaruk to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Markus Granlund
-The acquisition of Granlund itself itsn’t too hard to understand. After all, he brings versatility to the forward ranks and fills in the age gap, which makes him a flexible piece to have in an ever-changing lineup. Giving up on a promising prospect like Shinkaruk so early, however, is puzzling. Shinkaruk was in the midst of a fantastic AHL season, and unless the Canucks had inside knowledge that made them doubt his future, it seems like patience would have been warranted for Shinkaruk.
The Understandable: Moves that make sense given the context of “The Plan.”
-The Canucks blueline was a little crowded when Benning took over, and moving Garrison allowed for Chris Tanev to begin to shine. It’s not a great return for a solid top-4 player, but it helps to stockpile draft picks, especially if you plan on trading some of them for young players.
-Dorsett is a polarizing presence on the Canucks. Some don’t see room for a player of his ilk in the league anymore, but I strongly disagree. Dorsett can play a regular role on the 4th line, continually plays with energy, and is willing to take on nearly the entirety of the team’s pugilistic duties. As the team tries to develop Jake Virtanen and Nikita Tryamkin, two extremely physical prospects, it is nice to know that they can throw huge hits without necessarily having to back it up with their fists every time. Until fighting is removed from the game, players like Dorsett will remain valuable in the NHL.
-A trade where the context of Benning’s plan takes a backseat to the circumstances of the situation. Ryan Kesler demanded a trade, and was only willing to accept two destinations. Getting the serviceable Bonino, a first rounder, and an NHL defenseman is an underwhelming but fair return. The fact that Kesler signed an instant-albatross of a contract with Anaheim makes the trade much more palatable.
-This trade is very similar to the Baertschi trade, minus the eventual breaking out. With a few dominant seasons at the AHL level, Vey seemed to only be held back by Los Angeles’ depth, and was an excellent candidate to explode with the Canucks. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but the chances of Vey succeeding were probably higher than any average 2nd round pick.
July 1, 2014: Signing, Ryan Miller for 3 years @ $6 million average
-This move, like the later signing of Eriksson, was decried as a move in the wrong direction. What was a rebuilding team doing with an aging goaltender? Miller has proven quite useful over the past two seasons, however, as Markstrom has shown both his inexperience and lack of durability. Markstrom has begun to blossom as he’s taken over from Miller, and Miller deserves some credit for this. It seems that Miller’s attitude and personality are a better fit for a mentor-turned-backup than, say, Roberto Luongo. The contract may be a bit high, but that’s to be expected with a UFA, and it conveniently ends when Markstrom’s new one begins.
-McMillan was just a warm body, but at least he got to play in his hometown for awhile.
April 8, 2015: Contract Extension, Derek Dorsett for 4 years @ $2.65 million average.
-I’ve already outlined my reasons for valuing Dorsett above, and with those in mind, this contract makes more sense. It may be in the upper tier for 4th line salaries, but Dorsett’s production and experience probably warrant that. Giving four years to a grinder is always risky, but it does allow the Canucks to maintain some continuity as young faces get shuffled in.
-Once again, if character is important to your team, you have to dispense with players like Kassian. Prust had value for the Canucks for many of the same reasons Dorsett does, although an early injury and a seemingly poor attitude made Prust a poor fit. This trade would be in the “good” category, were it not for that 5th round pick, a great example of the “character tax” that Benning often pays. In this case, his character assessment of Prust seems to have been wrong.
-This trade makes sense in the context of the Pacific Division. The Canucks face a gigantic list of centers than includes Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, and Anze Kopitar on a regular basis. Playing against those players is a daunting task, and the pressure of doing so could severely hinder the development of prospects. Sutter is a player capable of taking on those defensive minutes, allowing someone like Bo Horvat to spend more time developing his offensive game. Bonino, while a superior offensive player, just couldn’t take on such assignments. Sutter is also reported to be a high character guy, and has his family’s reputation, which explains the “character tax” showing up again in this deal. Clendening is a throw-in.
Aug 4, 2015: Contract Extension, Brandon Sutter for 5 years @ $4.375 million average.
-If you buy the argument for acquiring Sutter above, this deal is understandable. It seems in line with what players like Sutter usually make, and it’s quite reasonable when compared to recent deals for inferior players like Darren Helm. Like Dorsett’s deal, this contract will allow for some continuity amongst the youth, especially if the Sedins move on after their contracts expire.
February 1, 2016: Contract Extension, Alex Biega for 2 years @ $0.75 million average
-Biega definitely earned this contract with sheer hard work and dedication. Re-signing him sends the right message.
February 2, 2016: Waive, Brandon Prust
-Prust did not pan out at all, and when his negative attitude reared its ugly head after a near-scratch in New York, it was definitely time to pull the plug. It was nice to see Benning admit to an obvious mistake.
May 25, 2016: Trade, Jared McCann and 2016 2nd and 4th Round Pick for Erik Gudbranson and a 2016 5th Round Pick
-Fans were initially sour on this deal, but came around more once they saw the price tags other right-handed defensemen were obtaining on the market. Trading young assets like McCann and the 2nd hurt, but Gudbranson isn’t too ancient himself. He provides a youngish veteran presence in a key position, and his intangibles are off the charts. Physicality, leadership, and competitiveness are all staples of Gudbranson’s game, and all positive qualities to have around a young organization.
July 1, 2016: Signing, Loui Eriksson for 6 years @ 6 million average
-Signing Eriksson, like the signing of Miller and the acquisition of Gudbranson, sets the expectation that the team is not completely resigned to losing. While the Canucks will undoubtedly still struggle for the next few seasons, Eriksson will help ensure the team avoids being embarrassed on a regular basis. With the Sedins’ future unknown, having Eriksson for six years means that when the young talent is able to take on major scoring roles, they will be taking over for Eriksson, rather than being thrust into a void and expected to take on the entire load immediately. The Edmonton Oilers have shown the danger of this sort of set-up, and the Canucks seem determined to avoid it.
Overall Grade, according to “The Plan”: B-
Benning’s score is hurt by the “character tax,” and the subsequent bleeding of draft picks, along with a few bad judgements on individual players, but overall he seems to be doing a fair job of attempting to replicate the path to team building that the league’s most successful franchises have taken.