3 critical decisions facing new Canucks GM Jim Benning

Thomas Drance
May 23 2014 10:23AM

If you've watched a television report on the Jim Benning hire over the past week, be it TSN or CTV or Sportsnet, you've probably noticed that there isn't much in the way of quality stock footage featuring the low-profile Boston Bruins assistant general manager. "I guess he's kind of beside Neely here, and he fist pumps, so... yeah." 

For those of us, like myself, who produce reams of digital copy daily - the challenge is similar: if you squint or treat the image like a magic eye, you can maybe make Benning out on the far rightHere's the image we're using over at theScore for the Benning hire, and here's the original photo by Charles LeClaire courtesy of the US Presswire. When I searched Getty's embed-able images of Benning for this post, I found better quality photos of his wife Rhonda than I did of the incoming Canucks general manager...

It's telling that Benning has been such an anonymous figure during his long career as a scout and front office executive, and on Friday that will change. When Benning is introduced in Vancouver he'll be thrust into the harsh glow and officially complete the transition from a no-profile front office functionary in Boston, to the general manager of one of the most heavily followed and scrutinized hockey clubs in the world in Vancouver. Linden's presence and customer service focus may insulate Benning from the burden of media responsibilities in a once-ravenous hockey market somewhat, but he couldn't go Greg Sherman in Vancouver even if he tried. (Who is Greg Sherman? Exactly).

Anyway, let's look at three major decisions facing Vancouver's formerly anonymous general manager right off the bat, and evaluate if he'll even be the guy making them.

Read on past the jump.

Trade Kesler, or keep him?

The decision about what Ryan Kesler's future holds isn't entirely Benning's. First of all, if Kesler wants out, presumably he'll get his wish this summer and also, its been suggested that Linden may be the guy handling that type of big picture determination anyway. "The Kesler thing, to me that's probably ... a Linden decision, in (terms of) 'can they get him to play here?'" said CBC's Elliotte Friedman during an appearance on the Team 1040 on Thursday night. "And if not, then it's probably a lot on Benning on what they can trade him for if they decide to make a move."

Regardless of what Kesler wants, and the latest we'd heard is that he was open to being traded to one of six clubs, the decision on Kesler's future is an existential one for an organization with a new-look front office and a team caught between a desperate need to restock the cupboards, and an understandable, but perhaps misguided, desire to squeeze one final run out of the Sedin twins.

Linden sure sounded like a guy intent on keeping Kesler in the fold this week, perhaps using the acquisition of a top-end winger to play with this summer - most likely on the unrestricted free-agent market - as a balm to sooth Kesler's potential desire to go play on a contending team. Depending on what winger is brought in to help and at what price, it's not a cataclysmic course of action necessarily. Kesler is still a very good player who produces points like a credible top-six forward while also playing excellent two-way hockey, so he's a very useful piece who will be all but impossible to replace at $5 million per season.

But he's also about to turn 30, and appears to be losing his fastball rapidly. From 2009-10 through 2011-12, Kesler was a complete horse on Vancouver's second line. He was a legitimate threat to put up 70 points, he galvanized Vancouver's power-play when bumped up to the first unit, and the Canucks controlled an absurd rate of shot attempts when he was on the ice. Playing behind the twins helped, but it's likely that Kesler was a legitimate top-line quality center during those years. Over the past two seasons, however, while Kesler's has remained productive offensively, he just hasn't driven possession like he used to. 

It could be that Kesler's multitude of injures have caught up to him, it could be that he's handling too much defensive responsibility, or it could be that he's playing with inferior line-mates (although I'd mention that in 2010-11 Kesler dominated while playing hundreds of minutes with players like Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen and Jeff Tambellini). Either way, Vancouver isn't going anywhere with a second-line that just keeps its head above water. 

What Benning, Linden and company decide to do with Kesler will set the tone for their entire summer, it'll tell us basically everything about the priorities and vision of the team's new management group. It's a tough call, but if the return is right, the timing is too.

Hire a new head coach

With Benning installed as the Canucks' new general manager, the attention will turn to the search for a new head coach. The search, which Linden suggested could take months, will reportedly consider at least four candidates, including: Los Angeles Kings assistant, blue-liner development specialist, and last summer's also-ran John Stevens; long-tenured former Predators head coach Barry Trotz; inexperienced Bruins assistant, and penalty-killing whiz Doug Houda; and well-regarded Texas Stars head coach Willie Desjardins, who has significant ties to Medicine Hat as the former coach and general manager of the WHL club that counts Linden among their most high-profile alumni.

The bright side: no matter which coach the Canucks hire, he'll very probably be an upgrade.

Of course, because it's Vancouver and this has been a topic of conversation (and defamation allegations) for at least the past eight months, there's some question as to whom in the Vancouver front office will have the final say on the identity of the 18th head coach in franchise history. Not that it was a rock solid report, or anything, but some worthwhile context: "I have a feeling the coach is going to be a lot of Linden, the way he's talked about it, about 'the teacher', that says to me that he has a specific idea of what he wants in mind and he's going to have a big impact," Friedman told Jeff Paterson of the Team 1040 on Thursday. "To me, that's a Linden a decision."

Continued Friedman a bit later on in the interview: "It sounds to me like the coaching is going to be as much Linden, maybe more Linden, than it will be (Benning)."

The "teacher" comments Friedman is referring to? They're from the press conference where Linden announced the firing of John Tortorella per Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun:

“A career coach, one who's been experienced at many levels, a teacher, able to communicate well with his players on many levels, understands that different players needed to be communicated with differently, someone that has a real distinct style of play and believes that their style of play is the way to success."

Yeah that sounds like the president may have something, or someone, specific in mind...

Is the Brynas platoon the answer in net?

The upper-limit of NHL salary cap is projected to come in somewhere around $69-70 million for the 2014-15 league year. The last time the salary cap was that high, back in 2012-13, the Canucks had 9.33 million in combined cap-hits tied up in two players, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, who could never share the ice. This time around the team could have just a fraction of that locked up in goal, with Eddie Lack, Jacob Markstrom and Roberto Luongo's retained salary combining for just $3.15 million.

Of course the 2012-13 Canucks got what they paid for, at least. If the 2014-15 Canucks can get even just league average goaltending - ~.913 overall, ~.919 at even-strength - from Lack and Markstrom at that price, that's a huge boon to the club. The problem, and it's a major one, is that Lack doesn't seem like a player you want starting 60 games at this point in his career, and Markstrom doesn't seem like a guy capable of performing well enough to credibly spell Lack 30+ times next season.

Canucks goaltending coach Rollie Melanson's record working with goaltenders is pretty impressive, but this would be his greatest test, and an incredibly risky proposition for a team that sounds intent on returning to May hockey. 

We'll have to see, and hopefully we'll hear more about this (and more about how the front office is going to be structured) when Benning Q+A's with fans and meets the press late Friday morning. It's probably worth noting, however, that Ryan Miller-to-Vancouver rumors are about to heat up (especially with the California teams ruling him out this week), and that it's looking like it will be a buyers market for unrestricted free-agent goaltenders this summer. The Canucks would do well to bring in a quality veteran, a guy capable of doing more than just caddying for Lack.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Jeff
May 23 2014, 11:12AM
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Benning might want to target Peter Budaj. Montreal may want to move him to have Tokarski back up Price for next season. Budaj has a low cap hit and is more than capable of starting 30 games.

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#2 Josh W
May 23 2014, 11:22AM
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Thought exercise for a second. Let's pretend the Canucks do decide to acquire a backup goaltender for this season, what happens to the other goalies?

Van has Eriksson developing in Utica and I see them wanting to keep him as the starter down there to develop for another year.

Cannata should be in the ECHL or as an AHL backup but he doesn't really factor in here.

Lack and Markstrom can't both stay in Van with a third goalie so who leaves and who stays? Markstrom has one year left at $1.2M and is an RFA. Lack is being pay $1.15M for another 2 years and then is a UFA. You can't necessarily give up Markstrom as you paid Luongo for him (and Matthais). I doubt you can move either goalie for anything of value since the goalie market is flooded as is.

So if a Veteran comes in, which goalie would leave and where would they go?

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#3 Ted
May 23 2014, 11:25AM
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I'm hoping Benning breaks up a lot of the roster. Dealing Edler, Higgins, Hansen...maybe Schroeder etc, depending on the return, would be a good. The team is beyond stale.

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#4 Mantastic
May 23 2014, 11:37AM
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@Jeff

that's a bad idea. look at Budaj's sv%, if you're trying to get to league average goaltending, budaj isn't the one going to drive it upwards.

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#5 Mantastic
May 23 2014, 11:39AM
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@Josh W

i agree, won't Markstorm or Lack get lost on waivers if they get sent down to the AHL?

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#6 van
May 23 2014, 12:39PM
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Why not sign Reimer? Wouldn't cost too much and would have a reasonable cap hit.

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#7 greG
May 23 2014, 02:49PM
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@van

Reimer. Just what Vancouver needs...another meltdown cant get the job done Luongo.

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#8 clitsome
May 23 2014, 03:02PM
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i don't understand why everyone is so intent on wasting free agency money on a goalie. lack was pretty good for his first season coming back from hip surgery. The biggest need is a scoring winger not a ryan miller

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#9 van
May 23 2014, 03:06PM
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@greG

Another Luongo at half the cap hit without the ridiculous term at 26 years old sounds pretty great. Happy to go with Lack, but in a 1A/1B situation for his first season until we have a better idea of how good he is.

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#10 #FireLinden
May 23 2014, 03:33PM
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Hilarius. Just what Linden needs to do, get Kesler to play for Vancouver. And especially if Kesler doesn't want to be here, what motivation it would be for any player to play in on a club only because they begged you to stay. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, Leaky Luongo.

If Trevor is able to convince Kesler to stay instead of leaving you can write off accountability. Oh yea, there was never any accountability here with the Canucks...no diff. lol. Benning is going to wish he never came or he's going to put a .45 to his head when it's all said and done. Gordon Ramsay couldn't right this sinking club.

Ramsay - " Your team is stale! Your recipe is old and never worked and yet your cooks are lousy!"

The Sedins - "But but but we're not the worst team this year. We still think we have the team to do it... it was the coaches fault! He made me block shots, it gwave me an OWWIE!"

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#11 martin holmes
May 23 2014, 04:07PM
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@Jeff

wh cares about him his wife is gorgeous

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#12 martin holmes
May 23 2014, 04:10PM
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Jeff wrote:

Benning might want to target Peter Budaj. Montreal may want to move him to have Tokarski back up Price for next season. Budaj has a low cap hit and is more than capable of starting 30 games.

Who cares about him his wife is gorgeous

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#13 Goon
May 23 2014, 04:18PM
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Josh W wrote:

Thought exercise for a second. Let's pretend the Canucks do decide to acquire a backup goaltender for this season, what happens to the other goalies?

Van has Eriksson developing in Utica and I see them wanting to keep him as the starter down there to develop for another year.

Cannata should be in the ECHL or as an AHL backup but he doesn't really factor in here.

Lack and Markstrom can't both stay in Van with a third goalie so who leaves and who stays? Markstrom has one year left at $1.2M and is an RFA. Lack is being pay $1.15M for another 2 years and then is a UFA. You can't necessarily give up Markstrom as you paid Luongo for him (and Matthais). I doubt you can move either goalie for anything of value since the goalie market is flooded as is.

So if a Veteran comes in, which goalie would leave and where would they go?

Could they not push Markstrom down to the AHL for another year and play him in a tandem with Eriksson, then call up whichever of Markstrom and Eriksson looks to be the better bet the following year?

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#14 Goon
May 23 2014, 04:19PM
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clitsome wrote:

i don't understand why everyone is so intent on wasting free agency money on a goalie. lack was pretty good for his first season coming back from hip surgery. The biggest need is a scoring winger not a ryan miller

I don't think anyone is suggesting going out and getting Miller or Hiller, just a capable, reliable backup who can play for a season or two while the other goaltending prospects develop - a couple million bucks at most.

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#15 mike
May 23 2014, 05:25PM
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It sounds like they are going to keep kesler. If that's the case, then they need a scoring winger for him. I dream of Moulson in that role.

If things go south, then at the trade deadline in march, they can deal both Kesler, and Moulson, and really go for the rebuild.

Until then it's apparent, Linden and Benning believe in the core, and expect to make the playoffs.

Really though they are in a win-win situation. if they make the playoffs they win, if they dont, they'll get some serious return for those two players. Toss in an edler and you have the makings of a March Rebuild.

Who knows. guess we'll have to wait and see. In the mean time, i'm hoping we get Dal Colle in the draft this spring!

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#16 HPC
May 24 2014, 02:15AM
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@martin holmes

Well unless your getting his wife's vagina tonight why would you care?

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#17 JFR
May 24 2014, 02:12PM
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I don't really see the coach being one or the others decision. I'm sure by hiring Benning they have the same vision for the team. I like Stevens as the coach myself. He has developed Doughty, Martinez, Voynov w vets like Rieger and Mitchell. Outside of Doughty, I believe the Canucks have greater talent 1-6 w Corrado coming. The most disappointing part of the season for me was the lack of continuity on Defense. It seemed like everyone was doing there own thing and were caught out of position multiple times a game. In my eyes Lack was very impressive because he faced an Onslaught almost every game. How many periods began with break always or bad penalties.

The defense could be a Strength, with a rejuvenated Edler. Tanev and Hammy are shut down guys and Garrison and Corrado providing some offense. Corrado showed some defensive ability, but also a knack of getting his shot through traffic, which is a skill unto itself.

To me if you can't get fair value for Kess and he wants to play with an upgraded linemate Ala Stasny... Then don't trade him just to "Shake things up" at 5 mil he is a value and a center position of Sedin/Kess/Santo/Richarson is a good one. Unfortunately we didn't get to see that very much atfer Xmas. A low key front office will be a refreshing change for this Nucks fan. As they say, "Poop runs down hill" and the divisive front office making dumb decisions like keeping 2 #1 goalies was a big part of the problem....get back to normal and get back to winning

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#18 C.A. to the rescue
May 25 2014, 02:57AM
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Was waiting for this type of Canucks Army article. You guys are the best. So sick of reading pompus, unknowledgeable Province/Sun articles who don't have a clue anymore. Seriously, how many questions can Benning get about drafting Lucic and Marchand before people realize HE WASN'T WITH BOSTON WHEN THE WERE DRAFTED. (Zomg)/ end rant

I see the goalie issue as a major concern next season. No cause I think either goalie is terrible, but cause the workload combined with heavy travel in the west will be a monumental challenge. Poor Lack got injured in 19 straight starts for Van this yr, imagine the possibilities of 50+ games. That's a lot to ask.

But the biggest challenge this summer will be a player, Kesler. Just as the biggest challenge last yr (and yr before) was a player, Luongo. Both appear to be in eerily similar situations. Both asked out, both gave a measly list of destinations and both were not moved as a result. Now they're trying to placate Kesler into staying, just as they placated Luongo into staying. That is until Lu got extra angry during mid season and resultingly had to be traded while team was making a playoff push. Canucks lost their netminder, and team sunk like a ship. Anyone else want to see that happen again when Kesler gets pissed cause someone fed him turkey instead of chicken at the arena? Or someone called him Bieksa instead of Kesler? As a fan and business student, I'd have no desire to see that situation arise again. And you know it will. Kesler is a registered hot head, it's gonna happen.

Time to trade Kes, say your goodbyes. Tell him he can get Luongo'd or give a list of at least 10 teams he'll go to. Then trade him for the best package including a young tough mins centre (Coots, Jenner, Stephan) and a winger. Get er done Gillis, I mean Benning :)

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