Benning gets extension; Linden asks fans to be patient
Club shows it has faith in direction GM is taking by stockpiling young talent
Retooling, to rebuilding to rebuilt. The process requires clarity, conviction and patience — and amid the angst of those who pay to watch the struggling product and those in charge of making it worth watching, the hockey operations department travelled the status-quo road Wednesday.
General manager Jim Benning was signed to a reported three-year extension and for a National Hockey League club that struggles to score and will miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons under his watch, the message of getting younger and better was familiar.
And so was providing the right veteran support and environment to properly develop young players.
All that would be palatable if a time frame was attached to the summation. After all, fans can endure pain, but for how long? Three more years? Four? More?
“It’s impossible for me to say,” said Canucks’ president of hockey operations Trevor Linden. “What I do know is we’ve got some exciting young prospects in our group. And it’s exciting. Where those players are next fall, we’ll see. It’s hard to say. I can’t give you a date.
“There’s only one way — patience. We’re not going to solve our problems on Feb. 26 at the trade deadline and there are no easy fixes on July 1 (free agency).
“The 2011 team, the core group was drafted players (9). If money could buy us out of this situation or if there was a magic bullet, we would certainly look to it. I understand that from the fans’ standpoint.”
What Linden also understands is that Benning is an astute judge of young talent. You can quibble with the free-agent signing of Loui Eriksson, who was coming off a 30-goal season in Boston, and parlayed that into a six-year, UC$36 million anchor that has dragged the club down.
His 19 goals in 109 games here are a black offensive hole for a winger who’s now playing more like a checker.
To his credit, Benning has done
an admirable job in building a prospect pool in the last four years that he called “exceptional.”
He’s coming off a 2017 draft that critics labelled the franchise’s best assembly of highly skilled players — Elias Pettersson, Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich and Michael DiPietro — since the Canucks landed Cory Schneider, Alex Edler, Mike Brown and Jannik Hansen in 2004.
Benning hit a home run with 2015 first-round pick Brock Boeser, who’s leading all NHL rookies in goals, and with Pettersson, who’s third in Swedish Elite League in scoring. And drafting future starting goalie Thatcher Demko in the second round of 2014 was a prudent play in Benning’s first draft with the organization.
So was trading depth defenceman Raphael Diaz for a 2015 fifth-round pick that turned into centre Adam Gaudette. He’s leading the NCAA in scoring with 47 points (24-23), was named the Beanpot Tournament MVP and is a Hobey Baker Award nomination as top U.S. collegiate player.
He’s expected to sign with the Canucks when his NCAA season ends, play games this spring and push for a roster spot next fall.
If anything, Benning could be bolder and move veteran players for
more picks. He needs to play to his strengths as a hard-working, humble and dedicated rink rat.
“I knew coming in it was going to be a lot of work,” said Benning. “It’s about the drafting and development of players and you can’t seem to get them up and playing quick enough. But I think we’re heading in the right direction — I really do.
“We have five or six blue-chip prospects and our future is exciting. It’s going to take time and I’m excited about when we get it up and going.”
Benning also dealt aging assets in Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen last season for Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin, respectively. He gave up a second-round pick in a trade for Sven Baertschi and shipped out Hunter Shinkaruk to land Markus Granlund.
“You don’t give up a lot and you bring in two guys like Sven and Granlund who are NHL players — that’s not easy to do in this league,” said Canucks’ captain Henrik Sedin. “It (contract extension) was the right thing to do.
“(Benning) has set a mark of where he wants this team to go and it’s important you don’t bring in a new guy right now and he might want some things to go in a different direction. It was the right decision.”
If anything, the Canucks have
learned about retaining an aging or stale roster after a sobering sixgame, first-round playoff series loss to Calgary in 2015. They moved Kevin Bieksa for a second-round pick and Eddie Lack for third- and seventh-round picks because the club didn’t want to commit to a contract extension and put its faith in Jacob Markstrom.
Maintaining a level of competitiveness in a polarizing hockey market where winning versus a full commitment to a youthful roster is a daily debate can be complicated. Especially if the message from ownership is to accentuate winning because it will ensure good crowds at Rogers Arena, rather than fan apathy.
“Francesco Aquilini is supportive,” stressed Linden. “He understands there are no shortcuts and is excited about some of our young players. He understands our future. Today, we are in a much better place that we were last year, or two or three years ago.
“There’s a lot more optimism about where we are today, even if the results on a daily basis are challenging.”
The Canucks were 14-10-4 and in a playoff position in early December when Bo Horvat suffered an ankle fracture. And with Brandon Sutter already sidelined and Baertschi
then lost to a fractured jaw, they simply didn’t have the depth to sustain the losses.
Aside from the wise free-agent signing of Thomas Vanek, Linden cited a three-year contract for free agent Sam Gagner and a two-year deal for Michael Del Zotto to be as much about leadership as the hope for speed, playmaking and offence.
“It’s about being competitive and not sacrificing the future and providing the environment for our players,” said Linden. “Teams are built by being patient with young players.”
They’re also built by being good defensively.
The Canucks must hope Olli Juolevi, the fifth-overall pick in 2016, can push for a roster spot after being purposely placed in a Finnish men’s league this season and coached by former Canucks defenceman Sami Salo. They must hope gaining strength and confidence will turn Guillaume Brisebois, a third-round 2015 pick, into an NHL blue-liner.
And they must hope they win the 2018 draft lottery and land the consensus first-overall pick in defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.
That’s a lot of hope. And that’s what Wednesday was all about.
The Canucks’ director of hockey operations, Trevor Linden, left, talks to the media Wednesday after the team showed general manager Jim Benning, right, a little Valentine’s Day love by giving him a reported three-year contract extension.