Vancouver Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning has been criticized due to the team’s poor start to the season, as they have a 6-10-0 record. With the loss of key free agents in the offseason, the club has struggled to start the season, which has created speculation whether the owners will keep the GM around or not.
Since the lockout season in 2004-05 and before the Canucks hired Benning as GM, the franchise’s owners have made a change to management whenever the team failed to secure a playoff spot. After the club missed the playoffs in the 2005-06 season, the team fired head coach Marc Crawford. After they missed the playoffs in 2007-08, GM Dave Nonis suffered the same fate, and they hired Mike Gillis as his replacement. After five straight postseason appearances, the Canucks missed the playoffs in the 2013-14 season, which resulted in the club’s owners firing Gillis.
Since Benning was hired, the Canucks have made the playoffs twice, in his first season as GM in 2014-15 and recently in 2019-20. The reason behind the lack of playoff appearances could be they were in a rebuild, although most of the moves the GM made don’t indicate the club was intentionally rebuilding. Therefore, if the organization’s past actions are any sign of what’s to come if the Canucks miss the playoffs this season, Benning will likely be on his way out.
If the Canucks’ owners decide to move on from Benning, they have a few options available.
Laurence Gilman is one of the many familiar candidates to Canucks’ fans. After 13 years with the Phoenix Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets, Gilman joined the Canucks as director, hockey administration in 2008 and was the club’s assistant GM before being fired in 2015. While with the team, he was the chief negotiator of player contracts and oversaw the amateur scouting staff. After his departure, he was on the NHL’s Expansion Draft Rules & Regulations Committee, where he came up with the rules and regulations for the 2017 NHL Draft. In 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs hired him as an assistant GM.
Gilman is a great candidate, as he has not only been apart of the franchise in the past, but his skill set is perfect for the next step in the club’s process. In his first stint, he was considered a “capoligist” due to his ability to deal with the salary cap. The 2010-11 roster is a good example of Gilman’s mastery of the salary cap as Alex Burrows had a cap hit of $2 million, while Dan Hamhuis had a $4.5 million cap hit, the highest among the team’s defensemen. The Sedin twins had a cap hit of $6.1 million, which is impressive for two players who would each win the Art Ross trophy.
The only problematic deal he made was Roberto Luongo’s contract. Gilman and Gillis signed the goaltender to a 12-year contract with an average annual value of $5.3 million as the two assumed the goalie would retire before the last few years of his contract, which was legal according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) at the time. The NHL introduced the cap recapture penalty in 2013, which was dubbed “The Luongo Rule” in the new CBA. Despite the goalie retiring with the Florida Panthers, the contract runs through 2021-22, and the Canucks are hit with a recapture penalty of $3.035 million.
The only negative from Gilman’s time came once the NHL changed the rules to punish the club. With the Seattle Expansion Draft coming up this offseason, Gilman can help the Canucks navigate through it the best way possible. He tutored Golden Knights’ GM George McPhee on how to approach the draft in 2017. Since the rules will be the same as the previous Expansion Draft, the former Canucks’ assistant GM could help the team avoid making the same mistakes other teams made in 2017.
Gillis is another familiar face, as he spent six seasons as the club’s GM. He was the GM during the Canucks’ most successful era in franchise history. The current state of the team is somewhat similar to the state of the team when Gillis took over in 2008, except the organization is currently in a cap crunch.
The similarities lie in the core. In 2008, the Canucks already had the Sedin twins, Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Luongo, but Gillis managed to surround them with supporting pieces. The current roster has core pieces in Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Thatcher Demko. Although he’d likely have to wait out some of the poor contracts, Gillis could surround this core with supporting pieces that would propel them into Cup contending status.
Though Gillis’ time as the club’s GM was the most successful, there was a downside. Recently, he made a presentation for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ vacant GM spot, which now belongs to Ron Hextall. The presentation surfaced on social media, and in it, Gillis admits he neglected the drafting aspect during his stint with Vancouver but plans on improving that aspect (from ‘The Armies: Bubble Demko, Lotto Line resurrection and the Mike Gillis dossier,’ The Athletic,’ 01/27/2021). He stated he’d have two scouting teams to increase the amount of information his management team has on a prospect.
Giving Gillis a second chance could prove to be the right decision. He had one real negative during his tenure and has come up with a solution for it. He’s a progressive thinker who will make sure the club is ahead of the curb.
Luongo is remembered in Vancouver as one of the best goalies in franchise history. He retired after the 2018-19 season, playing 19 years in the NHL. After retiring, Luongo moved into a front-office role as he joined the Panthers as a special advisor to GM Dale Tallon. Recently, the former NHL goaltender joined Canada’s 2022 Olympic staff as an assistant GM.
“Roberto joins our group fresh off the ice. I want to make sure that everyone realizes he’s here for more than just the goaltenders. His experience, dealing with these players, understanding today’s athlete – it was only a couple years ago that he was participating.”St. Louis Blues and Team Canada’s GM Armstrong said about Luongo.
Luongo joins associate general manager Ken Holland and fellow assistants Don Sweeney and Ron Francis. He brings the experience of playing with and against the players that Team Canada will consider for the Olympics. The former goalie will also give input on Canada’s head coach as well.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Luongo could return to the team as a GM if Benning were let go. Friedman stated he knows the market and the heat of it, which could either benefit him if he accepted the job or push him away. It would be Luongo’s first experience as a GM, which makes it unlikely, but if he can get an experienced team around him, it could work.
Jim Rutherford recently stepped down as the GM of the Penguins, but he has stated that he is still open to an opportunity elsewhere.
“I know everybody wants to refer to my age all the time. The guy who has the toughest job in the world, who just got elected [78-year-old President Joe Biden] is way older than me. … I feel good. I feel good and healthy, and if there’s an opportunity that presents itself, [I will listen].”71-year-old Rutherford said.
Rutherford has an impressive resume as the GM of the Carolina Hurricanes for 20 years and the Penguins for six. He’s won three Stanley Cups, the first coming in 2006 with Carolina and the next two with Pittsburgh.
The Hockey Hall of Famer has the experience to build a Cup contending team. His run with the Penguins was especially impressive as he surrounded Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with supportive pieces, which helped the club win back to back Stanley Cups. He was able to elevate the team back to the top of the league within two years.
When the Canucks parted ways with their former president of hockey operations Trevor Linden in 2018, Dean Lombardi was rumoured as a serious contender to replace him. He did not replace Linden as he signed a contract with the Philidelphia Flyers, which had no outs for three years. Although Lombardi did not join the Canucks’ front office, he would be a great consideration to replace Benning now.
Lombardi took over as GM of the L.A. Kings in 2006 and built a team that won two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. With Anze Kopitar already on the roster, Lombardi added Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Jeff Carter to build a Cup winning team. He was fired after they failed to qualify for a playoff spot in 2016-17. He is another great option due to his front office experience and his ability to build a winning franchise.
Next General Manager Has a Lot to Navigate Through
With the cap crunch the Canucks are currently facing, the next GM will have to work through quite a bit. Either they will have to trade away some of the contracts with a high cap hit along with a sweetener, or they will have to wait for those contracts to end. If Benning is fired, Canucks’ owners have multiple options to replace him.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.