Ben­ning gets ex­ten­sion; Lin­den asks fans to be pa­tient

Club shows it has faith in di­rec­tion GM is tak­ing by stock­pil­ing young tal­ent

The Province - - FRONT PAGE - Ben Kuzma bkuzma@post­ twit­

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.


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