It’s been more than six years since the Vancouver Canucks hired Jim Benning as the team’s general manager. The former scout-turned-GM has attempted to help the team transition through a rebuild. Benning has made great moves but quite a few questionable trades and signings as well.
Ryan Kesler Trade
The Ryan Kesler trade was the first big move Benning made in Vancouver. The forward was unwilling to be a part of the direction presented by the new GM, and Kesler handcuffed Benning because he was only willing to waive his no-trade clause to the Chicago Blackhawks or the Anaheim Ducks. Although they attempted to get him to expand his list of teams, they were unable to do so.
The Canucks ultimately traded the forward and a third-round pick to the Ducks for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa, a first-round pick and a third-round pick in the 2014 NHL draft. They hoped Bonino would be able to replace Kesler’s scoring.
“Bonino was an important piece,” Benning said. “Ryan scored 25 goals for us last year. [Bonino] scored 22 goals last year, so being able to replace [Kesler’s] goal production for our team next year, and he can play the power play and he’s a playmaking center iceman, I thought that was important.”
Bonino scored 15 goals and had 39 points in 75 games before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Brandon Sutter in the offseason. Sbisa may have been one of the worst defensemen on one of the league’s worst teams during his time in Vancouver before the Vegas Golden Knights selected him in the expansion draft. The Canucks selected Jared McCann with the Ducks’ 2014 first-round pick, then traded McCann to the Florida Panthers in a trade involving Erik Gudbranson. They traded the Ducks 2014 third-round pick to the New York Rangers for Derek Dorsett.
This trade did not go as either side had hoped. Kesler didn’t win the Stanley Cup and is on long-term IR. His demands put Benning in a tough spot due to his short trade list, and the trade resulted in the Canucks ending up with only Sutter and Tanner Pearson in 2019-20, which is pretty underwhelming considering the caliber of player that Kesler was. Although Pearson has been great this season, Sutter has not been impressive over the past five seasons.
Signing Radim Vrbata
Besides the Kesler trade, signing Radim Vrbata was another big move Benning had made in 2014. Benning added Vrbata as a winger to play with the Sedins. He signed a two-year deal, worth $10 million.
In his first season, Vrbata did not disappoint, scoring a career-high 63 points in 79 games at the age of 33. In his 13th season, he finished top 15 in goals with 31, top 10 in power-play goals with 13 and top 10 in game-winning goals with seven.
His 31 goals led the Canucks as well and while he started the season playing with the Sedins, he was moved to the second line to provide the team with secondary scoring. His second season on the other hand was disappointing. He had a 36-point drop-off, posting 27 points in 63 games. This was statistically one of his worst seasons, leading to him returning to the Arizona Coyotes.
Signing Vrbata worked for the 2014-15 season but did not help the team much the following year. The Canucks had one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2015-16 and that plays a part in his performance as well. Adding Vrbata certainly helped the team in 2014-15, and was the reason the Canucks made the playoffs, making Vrbata a pretty good signing.
Signing Loui Eriksson
After he posted 30 goals and 63 points in 82 games with the Boston Bruins, Benning signed Loui Eriksson to a six-year contract, worth $36 million after the 2015-16 season. Benning had hoped the Swedish forward would provide the team with elite scoring, playmaking, defense, and leadership. Although he has been reliable on the penalty kill and forecheck, he has 38 goals and 89 points in 245 games with the Canucks.
Eriksson’s contract has been disappointing so far and is the reason the Canucks are having cap troubles. Before the 2019-20 season, Eriksson told a Swedish reporter that he believed head coach Travis Green did not trust him.
Eriksson is now in the fourth season of his contract and with 13 points in 49 games, it doesn’t seem he will regain his offensive scoring ability. The Eriksson signing for Benning is among one of the worst moves the GM has made so far. The return for paying an aging forward $6 million over six years has not been there and will likely not be there for his final two seasons.
Trading for J.T Miller
Benning traded goalie Marek Mazanec, a 2019 third-round pick and a conditional 2020 first-round pick in exchange for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s J.T. Miller, who has been stellar in his first season with the Canucks. He has a team-leading 72 points in 69 games and 27 goals, tying him for most on the team with Elias Pettersson. The addition of the 26-year-old forward has been huge for the team as they’ve found the first-line left-winger they’ve needed. He has brought a lot more than his offensive presence to the team, providing the young players on the team with leadership.
“His leadership in the room, his willingness to try to help teach the young players. . . I think if we went through all the players in our group, our young players, J.T. had a hand in all of them improving this year” Benning said in an interview with Sportsnet’s Ian MacIntyre. “He played with Petey and Boes (Brock Boeser), and would be on the bench with those guys, working with them. But also a guy like Jake Virtanen. . . J.T. would work with Jake and I think he had a positive effect on Jake’s game improving.”
Benning isn’t wrong about the 26-year-old’s impression on the younger players, especially Virtanen. Virtanen had a career-high 18 goals and 36 points in 69 games this season. Miller will play a big role in the young team’s qualifying round against the Minnesota Wild, as he has taken part in 61 career playoff games through his seven-season NHL career. As for Benning, adding Miller is the best trade he has made so far, as he did not have to give up too much for a player who has been above a point per game.
A Lot of Misses and a Few Hits
Benning hasn’t had success with a lot of his trades and signings. Along with the Eriksson signing, Kesler trade, he has had a few bad contract extensions. Sutter received a five-year contract worth $21.875 and Sbisa a three-year extension worth $10.8 million. Neither player lived up to their deals, similar to Eriksson.
On the other hand, similar to the Miller trade, Benning has made a few great deals. For example, re-signing captain Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser to team-friendly deals, which will not hurt the team in the future. The two signed short contracts, which have given the Canucks some time for the other overpaid contracts to expire, giving the team some cap space to work with in the future.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.