New Canucks general manager Jim Benning faced the fans and media for the first time on Friday, and it was quickly apparent that his commendable accomplishments over a long career in hockey stand out far more than his public speaking skills. Though he was forthright and balanced, Benning doesn’t seem to have the sharpest tongue. He ducked multiple questions on Friday with the old “it’s my first day on the job!” dodge, he started a large number of sentences with a distracting, drawn out “well,” and his syntax is littered with “like” and “y’know.”
In a telling moment towards the end of the Q&A with season ticket holders that preceded Benning’s formal introduction on Friday, the modest lifelong scout was asked about his immediate plans for the near future and he listed an itinerary. No seriously.
“From here I’m going to the announcement,” Benning joked, “then on Sunday we’re flying to Toronto, and we start the scouting combine on Monday, so we’re going to be there through the following week interviewing the players for this years draft, after that we’ll start in on interviewing for the head coaching position and from there we’ll head right up to our meetings in Whistler, and that’s about where it ends for me right now…” at which point Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden jumped in, put a halt to the rambling, and talked about “definitely hitting the ground running” and interviewing “the next crop of Vancouver Canucks, which is really exciting.” Essentially, or at least as it seemed to me, Linden threw his new general manager a lifeline in that moment.
Read on past the jump.
It’s not that my first impression of Benning was wholly negative on Friday, because it certainly wasn’t, he came across as knowledgeable, and humble, and hard-working, and honest. But in this new Canucks front office structure, it’s clear where the energy and big-picture strategic vision is coming from – and it’s coming from the handsome, well-spoken guy with the final say on hockey matters.
Which of Benning or Linden would have their finger on the button for real was perhaps the biggest question going into Friday’s introductory press conference, and it was ultimately answered about 30 minutes before Benning and Linden took any questions from the press. “I believe in a collaborative approach,” Linden said during the Q&A with season ticket holders, while complimenting Benning’s experience as a scout, a “builder”, and a guy who has “certainly … been involved in transactional situations.” Benning meanwhile was deferential: “On every decision we’re going to sit down, we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to talk to our people, and at the end of the day Trevor will make the decision.”
In describing their interview process, and their shared vision for the team, Benning and Linden both used words like “character,” “high-chracter,” and “the right kinds of players,” to describe their high-appraisal of the Canucks’ core – lambasted as “stale” by outgoing head coach John Tortorella just six weeks ago. “Our core players are high-character people,” Benning explained of why he’s optimistic this club can turn their fortunes around quickly. “For whatever reason things didn’t go right last year, but I think we’ll be able to turn it around this next year.”
That “core”, stale or high-character depending on who you ask, is mostly comprised of guys on no-trade clauses, and Benning put a target on their backs when he indicated that he’d be willing to approach such players about waiving their no-trade clause if it would result in a deal that might improve the team. As for the one guy in that core who is willing to move on, to one-of-six teams at least, Benning sounded like a guy who was reluctant in the extreme to see the Ryan Kesler era in Vancouver come to an end.
“I love the way Ryan Kesler plays, he plays hard, he competes hard, he’s a big bodied guy, he plays the way you win with,” Benning opined during the Q&A, and later during his introductory presser he referred to Kesler as a “warrior.” Continued Benning: “But I haven’t met Ryan Kesler yet, I haven’t had a chance to talk to him, so I don’t know what his thoughts are. If it’s up to me I’d like to try and keep him.” That meeting should happen in the next week or so and its outcome will presumably dictate much of Vancouver’s off-season.
Benning and Linden both also gave their young goaltenders, the Brynas duo of Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, a strong vote of confidence. Linden told a story (twice, actually) about how Canucks goaltending coach Rollie Melanson inserted structure into Jose Theodore’s game and helped him become a star, and Benning essentially said that he’d “trust” Melanson and Linden’s judgement in net.
Quality goaltending has covered any number of sins for the Canucks over the past decade – from Byron Ritchie on the power-play, to Andrew Ebbett on the third-line. Going into next season with Lack and Markstrom between the pipes seems an enormous risk for a club that seems dead set on qualifying for the postseason again. Of course, it’s also super affordable, and for a team that’s desperate to add depth; spending just over $3 million in cap-space in net is desirable to some extent.
If Melanson, Lack and Markstrom can pull it off then it begs the question: has a goalie coach ever been nominated for the Jack Adams?
On the subject of coaching, Benning and Linden both suggested that NHL experience isn’t a must. Linden talked again about his “profile” of a desirable candidate, and it sure sounds like he’ll have most of the input on who is behind Vancouver’s bench next season. From the qualities he listed – a guy who has won at different levels, a communicator etc. – it sure sounded to me like Texas Stars head coach Willie Desjardins has a serious shot at this.
At the conclusion of the press conference, I came away with the overall impression that not much is likely to change this summer with the Canucks. The organization will chase some “grit” for the bottom-six surely, they’ll try to keep Kesler of course, they’ll roll with inexperience in net (unless their expressions of faith on Friday are some sort of cynical effort to further drive down the asking price of Jonas Hiller and Ryan Miller), and they’ll find a new head coach.
Under Linden and Benning the Canucks are not suddenly assuming a “banners fly forever” all-in posture, and neither are they dismantling for the future – they’re looking for sustained success, which was essentially the mantra under Mike Gillis, Dave Nonis and Brian Burke. Miss the playoffs as a Canucks general manager, after all, and you’re out. Beyond those internal forces of inertia, this press conference just sounded significantly less radical in scope and ambition than Gillis’ introductory presser back in 2008.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing. What Benning lacks in charisma, Linden lacks in experience. Benning may not seem like he has a pulse when he’s asked about, say, his immediate schedule as he takes on his new job as Canucks general manager, and Linden sounds like a bold guy with all of the world’s energy when he takes on the same question. Benning springs to life talking about his resume in hockey, however, and Linden’s resume in hockey, aside from his accomplishments as a player, isn’t a thing that exists.
“I started from the ground up,” Benning explained of the path he took to become Canucks general manager. “I started as a part-time scout, then I became a full-time scout, then director of amateur scouting, then director of player personnel, to assistant general manager. So I learned every step of the way and at this point I feel I’m ready…
“I have a good foundation about what it takes to win… I was happy every step of the way, but I’m grateful for the opportunity today.”
Between the two of them they’ll be trusted to steer an 83 point team back to the postseason, and quickly. An odd couple, like Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, it’ll be fascinating to see how they complement or clash with one another going forward. On Friday, at least, they seemed like two guys with a shared vision, two guys who are going to need each other a whole lot.