Just a few years ago when the Vancouver Canucks were still fresh off their dishearteningly close Stanley Cup Final defeat, the team had stripped itself of a sure future. Like most teams on the cusp of winning a championship, former General Manager Mike Gillis took a risk. He decided that trading numerous draft picks and prospects in order to put together a ‘win now’ roster was the way the Canucks needed to move. Close but no cigar.
There was a stark reminder of both the failure and sacrifices made by Vancouver management when the dust settled and the Stanley Cup was making its rounds with the 2010-11 Boston Bruins. The team had depleated itself of youth and depth. Fortunately for the club, the roster that Gillis and company had constructed was so strong that the team excelled the following regular season, and the one after that. It wasn’t until 2013-14 that the Canucks found themselves on the outside looking in.
After two straight years (2011-12 and 2012-13) of finishing high in the standings and being a favorite to win the Cup only to lose in the first round of the playoffs, the team finally made massive personnel changes in the 2013 offseason. The following year, with Gillis still at the helm but with a brand new philosophy and coaching staff, the Canucks suffered their worst season in almost a decade. This of course led to Gillis’ dismissal, and he was promptly replaced by Jim Benning.
But just less than two years of being general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Benning has somehow managed to address both depth and youth in the system through various trades, signings and through the NHL entry draft. The incredible part is that he hasn’t just tried to fix the glaring problem. Someway, somehow, he has put together one of the strongest top-15 prospects in the league and built an NHL roster full of talented depth players waiting for their chance at a bigger role.
Benning’s Best Depth Acquisitions
He’s made a lot of moves in his time with the club. Both free agent signings, trades and draft choices. Within the collection of changes he’s made have been some gems.
Derek Dorsett ~ 28 Years Old ~ Acquired via trade in 2014
Dorsett might be on the cusp of 30. And he might not be a point producer. But that’s what’s special about this move. The addition of Dorsett to the Canucks lineup has been a focal point of their depth since his arrival in the summer of 2014. He notched a career best year statistically with 25 points and was a physical force in the bottom six. When the Canucks made their 2011 Stanley Cup Final appearance, their success through the playoffs was in large part due to the play of Raffi Torres and Maxim Lapierre. Both of whom filled similar roles to what Dorsett is relied upon for now.
Benning and his staff were so high on Dorsett that they signed him to a four year extension this summer that will take him into his low-30’s. With Brandon Prust coming to Vancouver this year Benning has produced a wildly energetic bottom six that includes players like: Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, Brandon Prust, Chris Higgins and Bo Horvat. Solid doesn’t begin to describe it, and Dorsett is the focal point, the quarterback of the bottom six if you will.
Jared McCann ~ 19 Years Old ~ Drafted 24th Overall in 2014
The drafting of Jared McCann was Benning’s first move at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and boy did it turn out well for him. At 24th overall in an off year for the draft, most teams don’t expect to equip themselves with a top end prospect, but sure enough Benning did just that. McCann has been compared to Ryan Kesler in his playing style and has been regarded as definite NHL material. He needs some serious grooming for a handful of years before he can be relied on as an NHL center but with his consistent development in all three of his Ontario Hockey League seasons he has shown that he is all about improvement.
With McCann in the mix, the Canucks have collected a star studded group of young centers: Bo Horvat (20), Jared McCann (19), Cole Cassels (20), Dane Fox (21) and Brendan Gaunce (21). That is not including Linden Vey or Brandon Sutter who are both still under 27 years old.
Sven Baertschi ~ 22 Years Old ~ Aquired via trade 2015
Once the 11th overall pick of the Calgary Flames in 2011, Baertschi had never been able to make Calgary a home. His fast paced skilled style of hockey just didn’t fit what Calgary was trying to build around. And Calgary just didn’t feel he was what they needed. Hence Benning’s surrendering of a 2015 second round pick for Baertschi’s services. This move has yet to completely pan out, but if Baertschi can build off his late season contributions to the Canucks and his tremendous American League playoff performance, Baertschi might just turn into that top-six forward he was meant to be.
The acquisition of Baerstchi bring a real flow to the Canucks lineup. His presence allows Alexandre Burrows to return to his rightful and most useful role as a line mate to the Sedin twins and gives Vrbata and Sutter a truly skilled player to work with. The combination of Sutter, Baertschi and Vrbata as a second unit could prove to be lethal.
The End All
Time will tell if Benning’s prospects bloom into NHL stardom, but until that time it’s safe to say that in a surprisingly short amount of time Benning has reconstructed a youth safety net that is directly comparable if not stronger than most in the league. His options moving forward in the future seem very bright and so long as his developmental staff take the right direction with each prospect, the Canucks have what seems to be a whole new core ready for action in the next three or four years.
The regular season might be bumpy. Even Benning has indirectly acknowledged that when in an interview with NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley he said, “I’m OK if we take a little bit of a step back in the regular season to make our team better in the playoffs. That was the intent of what we were looking at when we made the moves we made”. But the future in Vancouver is beginning to look a lot like the not so distant past – as bright as can be.