This week, general manager (GM) Jim Benning received a three-year extension from the Vancouver Canucks. I agree with the organization’s management that Benning has done a good job. However, the timing of his extension took some fans by surprise. Should the Canucks have waited until after the 2019-20 season to see how his team did before re-upping his contract? That’s a moot question now.
In this post, I want to review Benning’s work over the past five years, including this offseason, as he’s shaped the team that will take the ice as the 2019-20 seasons begins.
Preparation One: Finding Young Players in the NHL Entry Draft
In this area, there’s some really good news. Drafting well has been one of Benning’s strengths as a GM, and he’s done as well or better than other GMs in his choice of draft picks.
In 2014, he chose Jake Virtanen in round one as the sixth-overall pick. Virtanen is a solid-enough forward, however, Benning missed a few better players who were chosen later than he picked Virtanen. Those include William Nylander at eight (Toronto), Nikolaj Ehlers at nine (Winnipeg), Dylan Larkin at 15 (Detroit), and perhaps the steal of round one David Pastrnak at 25 (Boston). However, in round two, Benning did pick up Thatcher Demko at 36 and Demko looks like he’s going to be a goalie with lots of
In 2015, he chose Brock Boeser in round one as the 23rd overall pick. I recall Boeser surprising Canucks fans as a rookie, and he’s since become part of the team’s foundation.
In the 2017 Draft, Benning made perhaps one of the best draft choices in Canucks history when he chose Elias Pettersson, a player many people thought was simply too skinny as the fifth-overall pick in the first round. Pettersson is both smart and skilled, and he’s only going to keep getting better.
Finally, in 2018, Benning chose defenseman Quinn Hughes in round one at the seventh overall pick. Hughes body of work was confined to five games at the end of last season, but he looked right at home. He can skate like the wind and is an excellent passer.
Preparation Two: 2019 Offseason Moves
This summer during the offseason, Benning was extremely active. Four players left the team: defensemen Luke Schenn, defenseman Ben Hutton, forward Markus Granlund, who never reached his potential and whom Benning simply did not qualify, and forward Ryan Spooner. These players were useful, but really none had assumed a major role on the team.
In their place, Benning added five solid players – two forwards and three defensemen. These include top-six forward J. T. Miller and tough-as-nails forward Micheal Ferland. Ferland plays with such violence that he’s often injured, but if he can stay healthy he will certainly make a positive impact.
Benning also added three solid defensemen. Tyler Myers’ 6-foot-8-frame makes him hard to play against. British Columbia’s Jordie Benn (from Victoria) adds experience, and the young Swede Oscar Fantenberg might be the diamond in the rough.
Suddenly, with these additions, the defense got much better. With Chris Tanev, Alex Edler, and Troy Stecher still with the team, the defense looks solid.
Preparation Three: Signing Brock Boeser
As much as Benning has done to prepare for the season, his one frustration has been the inability to sign restricted free agent (RFA) Brock Boeser to a new contract. However, he’s not the only frustrated NHL general manager. Most commentators believe the Toronto Maple Leafs highly-regarded, young RFA Mitch Marner has become the tipping point for signing RFAs this season. Because he’s likely to command the highest salary, which will set the bar for other contracts, most other comparable RFAs are patient to wait to see what Marner signs for.
Certainly, that Marner hasn’t signed yet isn’t Benning’s fault; however, it is his problem because his own team’s preparation won’t be complete until Boeser signs. And, as it stands, no one is really clear when Marner and the Maple Leafs organization might ink a new deal.
Obviously, Benning believes Boeser is a huge part of the Canucks core. There’s no doubt he would like to sign his young forward as quickly as possible, certainly before the beginning of training camp in September. Whether he’s able to do that or not remains in question.
Preparation Four: Building a Core of Players
On Aug. 20, Benning was interviewed on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid Show. During the interview, he spoke about team makeup. Specifically, he was pleased with the team’s strong core of players, with this summer’s additions augmenting that core.
Obviously, this core includes youngsters Pettersson, Hughes, Boeser, and Demko. Most Canucks fans would include goalie Jakob Markstrom, Bo Horvat, and Edler as part of that solid core group as well.
It surprised me that Benning didn’t make a point to mention Horvat during the interview. Horvat, to my mind, is the team’s heart and soul. Not noting his leadership might have been as simple as Benning just answering the questions that were asked. However, it made me wonder if this really is the season Horvat is named the team’s captain.
Where’s the Team Now?
Under Benning’s watch as GM, the team has drastically changed. It’s no longer the solid, older team carried by the Sedin twins. Instead, it’s a much younger unit with a completely new core of quality players – with more coming.
During the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Benning selected the 18-year-old Russian right-winger Vasily Podkolzin 10th overall. He’s under contract in the KHL and still has a couple of years before he even shows up. But when he arrives, if all goes as Benning believes it will, Podkolzin will fit his bulldog style into a team that will have a couple of seasons to gel.
Obviously, no one knows how good the team will become. However, the Canucks’ organization must believe in Benning’s vision for the future. If it hadn’t, it doesn’t seem likely his contract would have been extended.