It’s tough to preview an offseason, or gauge the likelihood of certain moves, when the new faces of Vancouver Canucks hockey operations – particularly new general manager Jim Benning and new president Trevor Linden – have shallow track records as top NHL decision makers. Linden has already proven himself an effective salesman and alliance builder in his new job, but he’s never worked in an NHL front office (or any hockey front office for that matter). We’ve seen Benning give advice in documentary snippets from hockey operations meetings, but this is his first go as an NHL general manager.
Though Linden and Benning have given a myriad of interviews since taking over, we know little about their plans or preferences. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone even has a good sense even of how the dynamic duo’s internal decision making process is going to work.
There’s one major data point available to us, however, and it speaks volumes. It’s the way that Ryan Kesler saga has, to this point, unfolded.
By now you know the story. In his introductory press conference, Benning called Kesler a “warrior” and vowed to do what he could to keep the disgruntled former-Selke winner in the fold. Linden met with Kesler multiple times, Henrik Sedin met with Kesler, and finally Benning and Kesler got together. Despite the Canucks’ best charm offensive Kesler was obstinate, according to multiple reports he still hopes to be moved to a contending team this summer.
Now the most common reports are those suggesting that the Canucks will for sure move Ryan Kesler, though only if the offer is right. Benning’s tone has shifted too. The general manager’s latest comments concern being in constant touch with Kesler’s agent Kurt Overhardt and “figuring out” a vaguely defined situation. Benning’s recent answers and refusal to comment further strongly imply that the solution at this point is a deal, not Kesler agreeing to stay in Vancouver.
While Kesler reportedly wants out, he does appear to be cooperating with the Canucks to some extent for now. Here was Jason Botchford’s take on Ryan Kesler’s trade request, from an appearance on the Scott Rintoul Show earlier this month:
The word out of [Kesler’s camp] is that, y’know, Benning’s a great guy, but he’s inherited a mess, and they don’t think this roster has enough skill to win soon and they want to win. So Ryan Kesler goes back on the trade block, and we go through all of this again. ….
Both his side and the Canucks side when they met – Benning, [Kesler’s agent Kurt Overhardt], and Kesler – they agreed that they weren’t going to say anything – they were going to shut their mouths, and let this play out – because they don’t want this big hullabaloo and the circus that encompassed Roberto Luongo, and some of the things that we’ve seen around Vancouver.
Obviously both the Canucks and Kesler’s side have followed that script to a tee so far. Now the big question is whether or not Kesler is willing to expand the list, so as to help “great guy” Benning create an auction situation that includes more than just the Anaheim Ducks (still reportedly interested) and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The latest reports, that surfaced this weekend from a source we would’ve considered dubious during the Mike Gillis-era, have suggested that the St. Louis Blues are talking with the Canucks about a potential Kesler trade. That’s a very interesting nugget, particularly since the Blues weren’t included on Kesler’s initially reported list of six destinations he’d agree to be traded to. So is the list expanding?
From the Canucks perspective, more possible Kesler suitors is gravy, but there’s a balancing act here. This is a club that, once Kesler is dealt, will still have nine partial or modified no-move or no-trade clauses on the books. Working with other players on a three-dimensional transaction of this nature is a process that the team will surely have to go through again in the coming years as Benning and Linden attempt to steer the club back to contender status. It’s on Linden and Benning to make sure that Kesler feels better about the outcome and this process at its conclusion than, say, Luongo does about how his unending trade saga played out. Low bar, that.
But we’ve digressed somewhat, because already – even without knowing what types of players the Canucks are targeting in a potential Kesler deal – the way this has unfolded tells us a lot about the post-Gillis Canucks, and what the new management team sees as a priority.
That priority: competing for the postseason immediately. This is not going to be a slow, patient, bottom-out rebuild. If it was up to the club, Kesler would be staying put. Instead Kesler is the guy driving the bus on the Canucks’ decision to trade a core, veteran skater – something the Aquilini-era Canucks have never done in nearly a decade.
Kesler is an excellent player and irreplaceable for Vancouver in the short-term, but he’s also a high value piece who may be starting to lose his fastball. For a team with just one capable forward line, getting multiple younger pieces for Kesler is something of a no-brainer.
After Gillis was fired, we criticized him for a lack of strategic coherence – for never committing to either an all-in posture or a full rebuild. It might appear now that these decisions were beyond his pay grade.
As for Linden and Benning, Kesler has probably done them a massive favor. We likely know what Linden and Benning’s larger, stubborn directive from ownership is – sustain success and build a contender (not that it’s a secret) – so getting a return on a Kesler trade that straddles both goals is key. It could define this next era of Canucks history.