Laurence Gilman, Hockey Innovation, and the Future of the Canucks Front Office

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: 

  1. Failed to identify the impact a sliding Canadian dollar could have on the Salary Cap, which we warned about back in November.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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: 

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. 

  • Spiel

    MONEY PUCK, or should I call you by your real name (which you refuse to give which is a big reason I don’t believe you) Mr. Gillis. This entire article is crap. First it overestimates the Gillis era, which did little ot enhance the team but took over the Nonis team just as it broke out. You also fail to give Linden credit for anything, yet he was a successful player, a successful though generally quiet NHLPA President and a successful business man prior to taking on his current job, far more qualified than Shanahan in Toronto. What did your brilliant trio now departed achieve. A scouting system that under achieved each draft thanks Eric Crawford. A minor system that moved around and did not control or develop the minor leagues, thank you Lorne Henning. Contracts that were too long and too many no trades to save a marginal amountvin cap space, thanks Mr. Gilman. In general, they took a team designed to be a top level team when they came in. Let the players run everything, ruined the asset of Loungo and Schneider, and then as a final act of stupidity brought in a coach whose best by date was ten years earlier. Yeah they were so good, get off Bennings case, it is too early to evaluate him as a GM and anyone who knows anything about business or sports would know that. Please stop posting biased drivel

  • andyg

    I don’t think Benning is a genius, just like a don’t think Gillis was an idiot. I do think they both have/had plans, and will try/tried to implement them to the best of their ability.

    In Gillis’ case, it resulted in a Cup Final, a bunch of NTCs, and then a few years trying to recapture the magic. It was a good run.

    Benning is doing his best to retool on the fly. This approach has resulted in a few higher cost but short term contracts (

    • andyg

      You can always go back to Leaky Luongo if it pleases you so. I take it you miss the glory days of Luongo’s meltdowns and his crying about how his over ridiculous contract.

      This is why the Canucks are headed for a half century of futility. They damn themselves when they don’t change, and they damn themselves when they do.

      The Canucks and their fans love only one thing, which is an eternity of mediocrity by making the play offs only to make embarrassing exit.

      Winning? HATE IT!

  • andyg

    Canucks fans type 1: god, i hate what this management is doing. they are such idiots. will these guys look at analytics!

    Canucks fan type 2: trust in the management. they know more hockey than you. geez what kind of a fan are you.

    Canucks fan type 3: look at these type 1 fans and type 2 fans. ugh they are such idiots. i take the high road and i will let everyone know about it.

  • andyg

    On a different front….. Which C Army seemed to be dragging on is Mattias has signed a one year deal w Leafs.

    With the Salary cap remaining stagnant I’m starting to wonder if Franson would take another 1 yr deal w the Canucks and next year, depending on a match, take advantage of some salary going away???

    Most cup contenders are at the Cap and why sign a long term deal w a team that is always at the floor of the cap? This is where the Dorsett Sbisa deals do bristle…. Franson would help the PP and fit in as a second pairing with Hammer.

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    Interesting read, if a bit gloomy.

    I also read the comments section and it’s good to see an article on this site that can stir enough people up to comment at this rate. Even if they’re less than enamoured with the content.

    Two things in particular stood out about the comments to me in particular. The first is how straight up offended and hostile the average sports fan is toward the stats and analytics crowd. These people are trying to help make the sport better to watch; why do you hate them so much?

    And the second is just how many of you all seem to be just dying for news from prospect camp. Who cares how many push ups a kid can do? And why is it so freaking important whose brother Jordan Subban is? Hint: Jordan isn’t PK, so let’s just drop that narrative, please. Also, I don’t need to see another group photo of prospects gathered around wearing their camp t-shirts, either, while we’re at it. Talk about a snoozefest.

    • pheenster

      People don’t hate the stats and analytics crowd because they hate stats and analytics. They hate them because they’re a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls, and really, what’s worse than a know-it-all. (Answer: a whole bunch of them going on at length on the Internet about the same thing.)

    • Stojanov

      Let me respond to your first point: since when is vehemently arguing about whose right about sports a new thing? No one Hayes anyone. Some fans see Banning as doing a pretty good job given his first year in the job. Others seem to keep rehashing the Sbisa and Dorsett signings. The “average fan” (whoever that is in your mind) Ian’t against analystics. This article Ian’t about analystics at all. It’s a judgement on the Linden Benning regime one year in to its work. Thus reaction to a reactionary article is totally fair.

      Second who is saying Jordan is PK. He looks like he might be an exciting prospect but no is carving his name in the Norris trophy.

  • Spiel

    Gilmam by all accounts was good at his job and well respected in the NHL.

    The article fails to mention that Benning hired John Weisbrod, a Harvard graduate, as a vice president. Weisbrod has a wealth of experience in professional sports management and scouting. It seems like he is the new right hand man for the GM.

    • Nichushkin Stinks

      LOLLLLL really Weisbrod? Isn’t he the guy that basically ran down the Orlando Magics team to the ground and the man that T-Mac hates to this day? LOL he’s also the guy who said Jankowski was Calgary’s savior after seeing him play for ONE PERIOD of hockey. HAHA Weisbroad is THE reason why I think this management team is so much in trouble.

      • Spiel

        I didn’t say Weisbrod was a great hire, just that he was hired.

        The article references a former equipment manager (Jonathan Wall) but fails to mention that Weisbord was also brought in to perform some of the duties formerly done by Henning, Crawford, and Gilman.

        • andyg

          So how many of us were a former “something”. Maybe Mcd cook.

          Dose that mean it is where our qualifications are today. Has Mr Wall not been upgrading his skills. Maybe if money puck took a real job doing what ever was available he could move up with in a company as he proved himself.

          Time to leave your mothers basement bud!

      • Brent

        Do you mean the no nonsense guy who traded declining, petulant, oft-injured diva T-Mac and drafted/acquired Dwight Howard, Hedo Türkoğlu, Tony Battie and Jameer Nelson? In other words the core players who got Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals???

        Yeah Weisbrod initially received death threats for those at-the-time unpopular trades and signings too. I guess CA was following basketball then.

        But, in the end, Weisbrod was the guy who began the rebuild of a much better team than the one handed to him.

        Hell, if he gets the Canucks to the finals in four years, I for one would be pleased.

        • yvr_guy

          lol is that you weisbrod?

          dwight howard was a first overall pick. are you going to laud chiarelli for picking connor mcdavid? yeah that was a tough choice.

          weisbrod did great in the mcgrady deal eh? getting back Francis, Mobley and Kelvin Cato? lol log off.

          or i’d like to see you defend weisbrod’s prized pick, jankowski.

          i’m not saying weisbrod is the worst thing that happened to this organization. im just saying there are a lot of great hockey minds and i just can’t understand why they fired gilman while getting weisbrod.

          i also never liked benning hire. he just doesn’t seem sharp or charimatic to be a leader of the organization or when negotiating player contracts or trades with other heads of hockey ops. he is apparently a great scout and talent evaluator though. he should’ve replaced delorme.

  • Stojanov

    Looks like Monsieur Moneypuck is getting alot of back lash by the diehards for his piece. Although he is right on certain points, especially about the owners interloping.

    It’s true, the owners are running the team because they feel it’s their money, and that the fanboys money is also their money.

    And it’s clear that the club is going in circles as ownership just wants to make the play offs and make some money. Everything else is of no concern. Which leaves the fans. So why do the fans keep coming back over and over again? After all, they could vote with their wallets but then that would take brains and Canuck diehards don;t have alot of brains, that’s for sure. Heart, maybe, brains, no.

    So what is the result? Just like voters, crying and complaining about he puppets they elect bu yet they keep going back to elect coke or pepsi. In short nothing will change because the fans don’t want anything more than to open up their wallets and give out like a downtown whore. And just like voters, they get what they deserve, to be used and abused till they wake up.

  • pheenster

    I agree that benning has made some very poor signings. However what most of you fail to realize is that we as fans don’t understand the market. We don’t know how many teams were actually interested in Eddie lack. Miller would bring in no interest and we needed an early pick. If a 3rd was the best he could do, it is what it is. We don’t know the market and we don’t know if there was other interest. You can’t blame benning for the trades, but his signings were horrible I agree (other than tanev extension and vrbata)

    • Brent

      “I agree that benning has made some very poor signings…..We don’t know how many teams were actually interested in Eddie lack”

      Ya the Lack signing is a funny one. I remember being totally pissed at Gillis for only getting a 9th pick for Schneider. I figured we should have gotten a prospect as well. Man, after all that has gone on, that trade is looking pretty good right now.

      I also question the acquisition of Sven Baertschi. This was a guy the Flames had no interest in. Yet it cost us a second rounder. Why wasn’t he a fire sale item? instead the tire fire is getting bigger. I mean think about it, we could have given them lack for Baertschi and we would be in a better position. We would have still had that second round pick. I think Baertschi is someone we want, but we overpaid.

      I really hope it gets better. But I ain’t holding my breadth.

      • Stojanov

        Again, how do we know calgary would’ve been willing to trade baertschi for lack? Regardless of that we weren’t gonna trade lack during the season especially with miller out. Baertschi for a 2nd was good. He’s still very young and was once an 11th overall pick. He still could be a very good second line guy. The lack trade I wish never happened and I wish we kept him but a 3rd is ok if that’s all we could get.

        • Brent

          They have phones, I’m sure they all called each other and tried to barter a deal, only the other teams aren’t biting. When you have a team that hasn’t even made it out of the 1st round in years, the assets you think you have are really not there.

          As for Scheider, he was touted as being pretty awesome but reality says that he was barely as good as an aged Martin Brodeur. When you’re young and you do no better than the out going goalie, you are not as good as the Canuck fans have said you were.

          Again, Canuck fans over rating their own players and STILL want to hold on to that delusion even though the facts say otherwise.

          Guys, it’s time to face the facts. The barn is old and empty. The cows are milk-less and the chicken don’t pump out eggs anymore. Stop expecting other farmers to want your boney pigs, you’re making fools out of yourselves.

        • Brent

          Actually my point was (that was not at all clear!), is that people would have gone totally ballistic if we had traded Lack for Baertschi, but in fact it would have been a better deal than what we ended up doing. And then we would get to see more of Lack as well! You are right, would have never happened with Miller injured.

    • yvr_guy

      We as fans also assume that Benning shops players like Lack and Kassian to all teams before making a deal, when evidence suggests that that isn’t the case.

      Take the Kassian trade. If two weeks ago you would have made a list of the teams that potentially were interested in dealing for him, I doubt that list would have included any contenders, because Kassian is unproven, too risky, and potentially disruptive to team culture. It’s more likely a team like Arizona, Carolina or even Ottawa would be most interested in taking the gamble on him in exchange for a part that they aren’t using or have given up on. Instead, he goes to Montreal, and the Canucks have to throw in a pick to get rid of him. That deal looks like it was more about acquiring Proust than it was about ditching Kassian.

      On the Lack deal we have been fed the line that the market determined that he’s only worth a 3rd, but do we even know that teams like Edmonton and San Jose were allowed to bid on him?

      • pheenster

        So we’ve left the world of what happened and entered the world of what we suspect might have happened? Excellent, I love conspiracy theories. Let us know what happened with that whole twin-towers-collapsing-too-easily thing while you’re at it, and don’t forget to adjust your tinfoil hat.

  • Brent

    Benning did re-sign Chris Tanev to a long term agreement despite him having no value other than his ‘advanced stats’. So let’s not be that ready to throw him under the bus in that regard.

  • DeL

    Anybody that follows the team knows that
    a) Francesco thinks he’s a hockey genius and Jerry Jones is his hero.
    b) He’s enamoured with people from the old country and their descendants
    hence the big Luongo contract that no other team would have offered
    and the signing of Torts who no one else wanted. I wish people would
    talk with their pocketbook like they did in the late 80s early 90s. Woke
    up ownership.

  • Double Dees

    No new articles??!!!

    Man this site needs new blood. Boring reads…wait that’s cause we have a boring a$$ team!!! Nothing to write about. Lol

    Prust is the answer.

  • Double Dees

    there’s no easy way to rebuild, it’s tough and Canuck nation is about to find that out! No sympathy here though because of all the trash we had to listen to when we started rebuild in 2010! Will be interesting though to see how full building is when things get really tough! I suspect that’s what owners were worried about in 2013.

  • yvr_guy

    It’s “eke”, not “eek” out something.

    Benning is a noob and he’s going to make mistakes; the question is, what’s next? Is there room for another big/good/relief signing?

    And related to that question, how is Desjardins going to manage this pool of new talent and young and upcoming talent? I look forward (honestly) to see how Desjardins coaches this essentially brand new team. I have a lot more faith in Desjardins than I do in Benning.

    Honestly, I look at this team right now and I see Calgary last year. A core of veterans and a bunch of fun, skilled young players who could have breakout years under a good coach.

    And, if all else fails, they signed Tanev. I guess we have Gilman to thank for that. He probably had to force a few tears to get them to throw a few bundles of cash they were inexplicably saving for Sbisa.

    Or maybe I’m just finding new ways to be delusional. Either way I get to watch hockey.