I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to dig through the Benning administration’s first year at the helm of the Canucks, trying to find a sign of underlying genius, or at the very least a semblance of a realistic strategy the Canucks fan base can feel comfortable and confident believing in and getting behind.
However, as the organization’s missteps mount, from bad contracts to bad trades, the undercurrent of front office unrest has slowly bubbled to the surface. This culminated in the termination of Laurence Gilman, Lorne Henning, and Eric Crawford – the some of the last remaining builders of the greatest Canucks team that ever was.
It’s hard to blame Trevor Linden too much for this debacle. With no operational hockey experience, it was always clear Linden was hired because he’s a local legend and ownership was in dire need of a PR win. No one in Vancouver should have been fooled into believing he’s actually been hired to run an NHL hockey team. While this episode seems destined to tarnish Linden’s legacy in this city, he’s not really the problem here. This is Jim Benning’s team – full stop.
It’s also hard not to have a touch of sympathy for Jim Benning. It’s not like he’s the first person to be promoted past the level where he seems most well-suited. Benning clearly has talent evaluating prospects. On balance, the 2014 and 2015 Canucks draft picks look to be slightly above average, and Benning was able to make a couple small time deals around the margins to land Sven Baertschi and Adam Clendening – both trades we celebrated in this space as being a shrewd use of higher-risk assets to land young and near NHL-capable pieces. He’s not the best in the league in this area (which is sort of problematic if you want to win a Stanley Cup one day), but he’s far from the worst either.
However, being a GM of an NHL team means you need to be able to set a vision, execute a strategy, negotiate contracts, and maximize asset value, all within the context of a challenging salary cap structure.
In prior eras, teams in the richest markets could buy winners, but those days are long gone. Success in today’s game is a game of inches, and teams that are successful exploit competitive advantages in way possible. That extra $500k here and there in a contract extension, targeting the Anton Stralmans of the free agency world, where their actual value so significantly exceeds the value the market places on them, insisting on that extra late round pick as part of trade – success in today’s NHL starts with having the smartest guys in your front office. You won’t win a Stanley Cup any other way.
In Benning’s short tenure here, he has:
- Failed to identify the impact a sliding Canadian dollar could have on the Salary Cap, which we warned about back in November.
- Signed Ryan Miller, Luca Sbisa, and Derek Dorsett, to disastrous above market deals. That works out to 17% of the team’s total salary cap space allocated to a fourth line winger that gets owned in terms of scoring chances, a miscast replacement level defender that when he’s on the ice every player on the team has worse possession metrics, and a 34 year-old league average goalie, projected to have his performance fall off significantly in the coming years due to his age. These contracts suggest an ignorance of the salary cap implications, an apathy to negotiating effectively, and a lack of long-term planning. When taken together, the results necessitated a trade of the team’s best goalie at a below market rate and impaired the team’s ability to compete in the free agent market for players that could have had a meaningful impact on the team’s short-term success. For a team that espouses the importance of competitiveness in the short term, players like Justin Williams and Cody Franson sure could have helped. Especially in the backdrop of every one of your Pacific division rivals improving.
- Failed to win a trade in the lead up to the draft and through to free agency so far. Going into the draft, the expectation, based on comparable deals, was that Benning would be able to earn second round picks for Eddie Lack. While the 66th overall pick and a 7th round selection isn’t far off that return, its nowhere close to the 2nd, 3rd, and 7th the Rangers received for career backup Cam Talbot or the 21st overall pick Ottawa received in exchange for Robin Lehner and David Legwand. In the Bieksa trade, the Canucks somehow managed to steal defeat (Anaheim’s 2016 2nd) from the hands of victory (San Jose’s 2nd round pick). Of course, we’re talking about little stuff here, but then they decided to pay Montreal a 5th round pick in order to move the inconsistent, infuriating, enigmatic, but highly talented man-child known as Zack Kassian. Of course, they did receive a 31 year-old fourth line pugilist who is set to become a free agent next summer as well, but all that really does is block a roster spot for one of the young prospects we’re apparently building the future of the team around. As inconsequential as each move may seem individually, in the space of less than a week, the Canucks lost three trades in a row. For a team in desperate need of increasing the asset pool, not decreasing the asset pool, the trades are concerning, but it’s the trend of failing to maximize the value of your own assets that insights the lack of confidence.
- Shown a disregard for the recent advancement of innovation in the hockey world of late. Lots has been made over the “summer of analytics” and there’s been a fair amount of derision among some fans and media when the teams that publicly hired analytics failed to magically turn things around in the course of a single season. However, no one ever made fun of Benning investing in hockey analytics. When he was asked about the Sbisa signing, he quoted the importance of low Sbisa’s low giveaways totals, without apparently realizing that’s it hard to give the puck away a lot when you never have the puck in the first place. Who are the league leaders in giveaways? PK Subban and Erik Karlsson. You’ll note that these guys are pretty good. The investment in analytics isn’t about quoting corsi, or replacing highlight reels with tables and graphs – It’s about a corporate culture valuing research and development with the sole purpose of winning in every area of the game. Take the Maple Leafs for instance. In May, we published an article which touched on the undrafted players from the 2014 draft who had the highest PCS, of which many has since signed NHL deals, basically representing zero cost assets to the teams who signed them. Two days ago, the Maple Leafs announced their prospect camp roster with 26 free agent invitees, including prominent juniors like Nikolas Brouillard, Alex Lyon, Brady Vail, Brenden Miller, Gabe Geurtler, Michael Joly, and Nikolai Skladnichenko. Will they find a future star? Maybe, maybe not, but increasing the number of invitees is a smart, low cost way to increase your chances of finding a prospect of value that others may have overlooked. In any case, it’s unlikely the Canucks find a diamond in the rough with the 9 invitees they’ve brought to camp, highlighted by a defender that Thatcher Demko outscored last season and a 25-year old goalie who’s never played at a higher level than NCAA Division III.
The trend in the front office, should raise significant concerns around what the team plans to do with key 2016 UFAs Radim Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis. Both players could likely be traded for packages that include 1st round picks – assets which would be valuable to the rebuilding process. It’s possible that Benning will be able to sign one of both players, which would be a favorable outcome if we’re still trying to win games now. Re-signing these two isn’t completely out of the question, particularly for Dan Hamhuis, but one would wonder if either would want to re-sign rather than pursue the last legitimate shot of their careers at a Stanley Cup.
However, the Canucks are going into a high risk scenario by going into the season with both players on expiring deals in the backdrop of a roster that failed to improve while all their closest rivals got better. If the Canucks somehow find themselves within sniffing distance of a wild card spot come the trade deadline, the team’s “we’re going to bring the kids up in a winning environment” mantra will likely dictate they hold on to Vrbata and Hamhuis, thus failing to monetize the value in these players, just like they did this year with Brad Richardson and Shawn Matthias – two assets that withered away into zero value for a team that should be re-building or re-tooling at the very least.
Sure, it’s possible they make a trade or re-sign Hamhuis or Vrbata. But after watching this front office operate over the past few months, how much confidence do you really have left that these guys can execute their plan, whatever that plan might actually be?
While professional teams from every major sport are scouring the best minds they can find from Bay street to Wall street to help them eek out an advantage in a highly competitive market, the Canucks have entrusted the analytics group to the guy that used to the former equipment manager, and shown the door to the guy widely regarded as a salary cap and negotiations expert. Regardless of who Gilman used to work for, having competence in the areas that were Gilman’s specialty is vital front office excellence and ultimately building a contender again. The mounting track record of this administration’s management of signings and trade falls well short of acceptable. Even among open minded fans, confidence has to be crumbling.
At least now that Gilman has been fired, we have answered the biggest riddle surrounding management’s track record- “Why would a guy as smart as Gilman support such awful decisions?” Occam’s razor teaches us that the simplest answer is often correct. Gilman likely did not support the moves and direction chosen by Benning.
Further insight into the Canucks inner workings was shared by Bruce Dowbiggin – a guy as well connected as anyone – this weekend:
@Kent_Wilson Gillis proposed rebuild starting in 2013. Owners decided otherwise. Results are there to see.
— bruce dowbiggin (@dowbboy) July 5, 2015
— Sir Canuckles (@SirCanuckles) July 5, 2015
— bruce dowbiggin (@dowbboy) July 5, 2015
Despite the oft repeated mantra of “we want to bring up our young players in the winning environment,” it appears that the motivation behind Benning’s “Retool on the Fly” strategy has been simpler all along – the money. Occam’s razor, yet again.
Of course, this raises the question as to whether it’s fair to hold Benning at fault for a plan we deem ultimately foolish. That said, it’s one thing to follow a plan and another to follow it well and do a good job. As we’ve established above, Benning’s recent roster moves are far from ideal, even given the backdrop of having his hand forced by ownership.
Now we also know Gillis saw the writing on the wall two years ago, about the same time many of us began crying for a rebuild, but we know how that went. I think it’s safe to assume Gilman too saw the folly in the current plan, and his opposition to the recent moves led to his eventual exit. Sometimes being the voice of reason can be a pretty short-lived position.