The conventional wisdom was that the 2019-20 season was the prove-it year.
Jim Benning has been running the Vancouver Canucks since the summer of 2014 and in that time has seen his team pick in the top 10 of the draft every time but once. One playoff appearance in 2015 — a six-game first-round loss to the Flames — has done little to paper over the lost trades, poor signings, and weird drafting record.
This is a team that finished 23rd in the league last season, then spent its loads of cap space somewhat unwisely this summer. The sacrifice of a first-round pick to acquire the admittedly good JT Miller from Tampa was, most people thought, the last act of a GM desperate to wring any regular-season success out of his roster. Miss the playoffs again (a fairly likely scenario, by the way) and Benning would be as gone as that first-round pick, with which Tampa would surely hit a home run.
Under Benning’s watch, the Canucks — who spent most of his tenure trying to be competitive before the Sedins retired — are 11 games under .500. Something, everyone figured, had to give if they didn’t make the playoffs in 2020 with the way they splashed cash and assets around.
But we’re talking about conventional wisdom here. And the way the Canucks operate is anything but conventional.
Jim Benning got a reported three-year extension over the weekend, which will keep him in contract until the end of the 2022-23 season. It’s a tough one to figure out, but if nothing else it shows he’s good at keeping the owners happy.
One can reasonably argue that Benning has added a lot of talent to the team through the draft since 2014. Jake Virtanen was a big miss at No. 6 overall that year; they could have had William Nylander, David Pastrnak, or Nik Ehlers. Jared McCann (traded for Erik Gudbranson) and Thatcher Demko (the perpetual goalie of the future) were nice adds later in that draft.
The next year they got Brock Boeser at 23 overall. Grand slam pick there. But then in 2016, it was Olli Juolevi (instead of Matthew Tkachuk or Charlie McAvoy, for example) and a bunch of other guys who haven’t sniffed the NHL. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes followed in successive seasons. But let’s say this: When you pick sixth, 23rd, fifth, fifth, and seventh, you should get three very good young players. Doing so isn’t necessarily an accomplishment, especially if the other 29 guys you drafted in those years have played a combined 227 games for your organization.
I guess the argument would be that he could have missed on Pettersson, Hughes, and especially Boeser. That’s certainly true, but one needs to also consider the talent with which Benning has surrounded those future superstars, and the insane prices he paid for it. This was done in large part because Benning has so heavily pursued mediocrity — to some extent, that’s to keep the Aqulinis happy — in the name of barely making the playoffs.
Nonetheless, this team has well over $29 million tied up in Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter, Tanner Pearson, Sven Baertschi, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for each of the next two seasons. Combined, those guys contributed more than nine goals below replacement level to their teams last season. Only Roussel and Beagle were positive contributors, both barely so.
And so you have to ask, what is the future of this team under Benning? Depending upon how much the salary cap goes up next season (presuming there’s no lockout ha ha ha) there’s no big money coming off the books next summer besides Chris Tanev, who they should have traded two years ago, and Jacob Markstrom. Boeser, by the way, remains unsigned.
Apparently Canucks ownership trusts Benning to find replacements on the cheap — which has not in any way been his M.O. — and also find ways to leave space for the massive, double-digit AAVs both Hughes and Pettersson could require after 2021. Eriksson won’t be off the books by then.
So to borrow a Mark Borowiecki question: “What’s the plan here?” The Canucks still don’t look like a playoff team, they’re still going to be capped out for at least a couple more seasons, and a good chunk of their fanbase still loathe this management group.
And all that gets you a three-year extension? Well, that’s hockey.
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks’ left wing depth seems… not as bad as I would have thought?
Arizona Coyotes: I’m sure the broadcasters do a good job but the thought of listening to a Coyotes game on the radio is not appealing.
Boston Bruins: Cam Neely says no one saw it coming that Backes would age out of being any good so fast. C’mon man!
Buffalo Sabres: So this is going great.
Calgary Flames: Man, when that Brodie deal got signed everyone loved it. Then they moved him off Mark Giordano’s pairing and it became more of a thing of, “Oh I guess Giordano makes everyone look good.”
Carolina Hurricanes: Not a lot to say about new signing Chase Priskie except to say I think he’s a fringe NHLer. He was definitely the best drafted player who flipped to UFA on Aug. 15 — by a mile — but he had one big season in college, at age 23, in a weak conference. With that said, Quinnipiac was plus-37 when he was on the ice last year, and plus-23 with him off. He juiced goals for by a lot, and cut back a little bit on goals allowed.
Chicago Blackhawks: Like Chicago, every NHL team should be mega-staffing up their analytics departments with puck and player tracking arriving this season. Imagine thinking you can get away with not-doing that.
Colorado Avalanche: I really hope the shoe drops on all these RFAs soon. It’s stressing me out.
Columbus Blue Jackets: I really think this is gonna be a grim season for the Blue Jackets.
Dallas Stars: This is like the third “we gotta ask if these guys are Cup contenders” story I’ve seen out of Dallas this summer. I truly do not get it. The conclusion here is the right one: Almost certainly not unless they get bounces all year. And you can say that about two-thirds of the teams league-wide, so.
Detroit Red Wings: Hoo boy, okay.
Edmonton Oilers: How many times do you suppose we’ve heard this about an Oilers prospect in recent years?
Florida Panthers: I think teams tend to over-retire numbers, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it also makes it less special. For Roberto Luongo to be the first one the Panthers retire only makes sense.
Los Angeles Kings: Very cool. Thank you, Kings.
Minnesota Wild: Nooooooo.
Montreal Canadiens: Wait a second, you’re telling me the Canadiens lost an over-hyped trade that was supposed to solve all their problems? Pretty interesting.
Nashville Predators: This is the kind of stuff that’s really smart to say about a guy who has 10 games of NHL experience.
New Jersey Devils: Slow down.
New York Islanders: The Islanders have agreements in place with two of their three RFAs. Doesn’t say which ones, but you’re picking from Josh Ho-Sang, Anthony Beauvillier, and Michael Dal Colle, so I bet you have a pretty good guess who’s on the outs right now.
New York Rangers: This is the 10000000 percent correct take.
Ottawa Senators: …… ah.
Philadelphia Flyers: Yes. Next question.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins seem to lose a lot of assistant GMs but I’m not sure it’s a huge deal.
San Jose Sharks: This is great news. I love it. Long live Joe Thornton.
St. Louis Blues: Never get mad about the NHL Network player ranking lists. They’re intended only to piss you off.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Yeah one thing no one talks about with Tampa getting swept by Columbus is that Victor Hedman missed the first two games of the series and was clearly running wellllllll below 100 percent for the two he did play.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Hmmmm, I doubt it.
Vancouver Canucks: The overwhelming majority of Canucks fans in here are pro-Benning and pro-extension. This is one of those “Russian bots” things, I’m quite sure.
Vegas Golden Knights: He absolutely did not.
Washington Capitals: Christian Djoos is a replacement-level player. Not worth getting worked up one way or the other.
Winnipeg Jets: Crazy that it’s gotten to this point. I have my concerns about Laine’s game but that shot alone should be enough reason to be optimistic that he’ll be a valuable player for years to come.
Gold Star Award
Very cool that Mike Milbury gets to be on TV despite saying he doesn’t care about player and puck tracking and won’t use it to analyze the game.
Minus of the Weekend
It’s very weird that the KHL thinks it’s a big deal to have the Stanley Cup in Moscow. You wouldn’t see the NHL getting excited if some North American guy brought the Gagarin Cup to, like, Connecticut.
— HC Dynamo Moscow (@dynamo_ru) August 17, 2019
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “FreeBobbyFarnham” wants to make big waves.
Lucas Wallmark (C)
CAR 2020 2nd
MTL 2021 3rd
Pierre-Olivier Joseph (LD)
Gustav Forsling (LD)
Nick Bjugstad (C,RW)
Jonathan Drouin (LW,RW,C)
Uh, okay, uh, how about that?
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Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.