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The Vancouver Canucks named Jim Benning as their new GM on Wednesday evening, a move that was hardly surprising to anyone.
For one thing, he's arguably the best candidate there was for the job still out there (with all apologies to Ray Shero), and a lot of teams are in the hunt for GMs these days, so having the ability to rope in the most qualified guy before there are any more serious bidders is probably a good idea.
For another, Benning is seen as one of the key architects of the Boston Bruins, a franchise with which the Canucks have been at least nominally obsessed since the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, which the Canucks lost and will therefore never stop thinking about. So now that Trevor Linden is in charge, he seems to have his sights set on building the Boston Bruins West, in no unclear terms. Shortly after his hiring, he went on Hockey Night in Canada and talked about the importance of building a “well-rounded group of forwards,” using the “Boston model.” He further went on to say that he thought Shawn Thornton is “such an important player” in the Bruins' success.
“There were moments of clarity for me in speaking with Jim that we just really connected on a hockey level,” Linden said in announcing the hiring. “Our beliefs on how success is built in the National Hockey League were very aligned.”
So essentially what we have here is a team that wants to be built on toughness, perhaps because that's what the owners want, depending on who you believe.
It's important to note that in addition to being very tough, the Bruins are also very good, but it's tough to say that the one leads to the other. If that were true, Thornton would be a good contributor to the team, and not a boat anchor every time he comes over the boards, but the numbers bear out that, at least in this late stage of his career, Thornton has little to offer an employer besides a willingness to go get punched in the face for the sake of “momentum,” or whatever hokum you want to apply to the enforcer role.
The Bruins are built to win not because of their toughness — flexing-related taunting, dressing-room bullying, and pathological need to play physical in order to be “engaged” aside — but because they have some of the very best players in the league. There is no finer defensive forward anywhere in the world than Patrice Bergeron, for example, and Zdeno Chara is still a massive presence in both the literal and possession sense when he's on the ice. The complementary players that surround those two in particular are very good. David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Dennis Seidenberg, Loui Eriksson, and so on. All are positive players that contribute to the team winning games.
And the Bruins to some extent recognize that it's those guys, and not toughness, which are conducive to winning. As Harrison Mooney put it yesterday, "the Boston Model is a myth.” In some ways, you have to think this nonsense for which they've become somewhat infamous is a bit of a smokescreen. Thornton, for instance, only plays about seven minutes a night in the playoffs because Claude Julien is a good enough coach to realize that he become a major liability (as opposed to a minor one) if he gets any more TOI than that.
But in other ways, it seems the Bruins believe very much in what they're doing. Despite the fact that the tide is obviously going out using players like Thornton in everyday roles — while the Blackhawks and Kings employ fourth lines that can actually score goals — they also say they're not going to do anything they would deem rash in deconstructing the team as-is. How wise that is remains to be seen, because you can blame a lot of their second-round failure this year on luck, but at the same time, it's important to keep in mind that this is a team that believes so much in its philosophy that it traded both Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin (i.e. overreacted to early playoff exits) because they didn't “go to the front of the net,” or whatever.
Remember, it was Jim Benning himself, the new guy put in charge of the Canucks, who said, “In the regular season, we'll miss [Seguin's] speed, but if we get guys we think we can win with, then it is what it is. We're winning here, we're not babysitting,” just months before the Bruins had no ability to handle the Habs in transition and Seguin was a point-a-game player for a playoff team not located in Boston.
The problem is that the Bruins are the aberration in the “toughness wins hockey games” group, and this philosophy, or “culture” as the Bruins call it, exists despite the clear evidence that it shouldn't. And they believe in their ability to carry on this way for at least a few more years to come. Most other teams built on that philosophy — Calgary and Buffalo probably chief among them — have spent most of the last few years in the bottom third of the league, and there's not really a coincidence behind that. It seems likely that the Bruins will make no attempts to make themselves better in terms of skating, or puck possession, this summer. They're reasoning with respect to the lost Habs series was that they didn't get to the net enough, and you need hard players to do that.
The Bruins get away with toughness because of Bergeron and Chara being elite defensive players who drive possession, who just so happen to be tough, and because Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas are/were elite goaltenders behind them.
This is a luxury the Canucks do not currently have. And the likelihood that they will be able to assemble such talent in a relatively short period of time — say, before the Sedins age into uselessness — is small, and probably non-existent. Hell, it's rare that teams do this ever in their existence. Most “tough” hockey players do one thing better than anything else, and that's not-have the puck.
The Canucks tried to go tough last year. They canned Alain Vigneault (who, by the way, is currently looking pretty good to make it to a Cup Final again) and went with John Tortorella. Blocking shots, “heavy hockey,” etc.
Didn't work at all. They were terrible. It turns out they don't have the personnel to play tough, and trying to bang that particular square peg into that particular round hole will never work. Tortorella is already gone as a result. And so if Benning is going to craft the team in that image, then it stands to reason his next coach will espouse that type of hockey as well, with very little in the way of roster changes seemingly in the offing. How do you think it's going to go this time around? A losing bet can't lose forever if it worked a few times in the past, right?
The good news is that Shawn Thornton is indeed an unrestricted free agent this summer, and can probably be had for a song. He'll be such an important player for the Canucks next year in their quest to miss the playoffs.