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 right. Here’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.