The Canucks are too Proud to Tank and That’s Admirable as Hell

To say that this hasn’t been the safest of spaces for Jim Benning is a gross understatement. Canucks Army has long been vocal proponents and innovators in the field of hockey analytics, while Benning hangs his hat on the qualitative elements of player evaluation.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg though, if we’re being entirely honest. I could wax poetic on the long-standing diametric opposition in philosophy for another three pages, but I think you get the point. One of the more contentious, if not prevalent disagreements is on the merits of throwing a season in the hopes of acquiring a high draft pick and stockpiling futures.

The topic was broached in an interview with Benning on TSN 1040 Radio this morning. Benning may not have given the answer that Canucks faithful hoped for, but his response held merit all the same.

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[You can listen to the interview, in its entirety, by following this link]

Dave Pratt and Jake Edwards were conducting the interview, which took place near the end of their morning slot. They didn’t go straight for the rebuild jugular, but rather, began by touching upon some of the highly touted draft eligible prospects which will be available towards the top end of the upcoming draft. Upon getting the Master Scout in Chief’s opinion on the likes of presumptive first overall selection, Auston Matthews, they remark on the steps necessary to secure him.

“in the light of that, how do you react to both media and fans when they start talking about the tank?”

Benning responded in kind:

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“Yeah, well, I understand the thinking in that, but we have too much pride in this organization. I know how bad our fans want to win, but that’s just not an option for us. We’re going to go out and compete hard every night and try to win games. I’m confident in the job we’re going to do scouting, wherever we pick, we’re going to get a good player in the first round.”

It is often remarked that advanced statistics take the romance out of hockey. I’ve found the sentiment a remarkably base one, but I understand wherein the roots are planted. It’s not the statistics themselves, but rather the cheque and balance mindset one has to adopt which lets them take hold.

Growing up, I envisioned myself as Martin Brodeur, securing another Gold for Team Canada in the Olympics. I didn’t care for his save percentage, nor his goals against average – with respect to the latter, I figured out it was useless by the time I was nine anyways. I just wanted to win. It’s why I played the game. 

If these are the overriding sentiments on which Benning is stubbornly planting his flag, I’ve all the time in the world for it. There’s something noble in refusing to lose for the sake of some cheap reward, whether I think the time for such platitudes has long since passed in a cheques and balance league. It’s admirable as hell, frankly. Also, considerably more relatable to the average fan than harking on the importance of playoff revenue.

Objectively speaking, one can’t help but remember when the Calgary Flames were at this same crossroad. It was downright embarrassing to hear them invoke visions of playoff contention, year after middling year. How can I look at the Canucks trajectory and not feel similarly dismayed by their course? Well, honestly, I can’t.

I can certainly respect the process though. I can stomach getting behind the stubbornness of a front office which is so confident in themselves as talent evaluators that they feel as though they can cheat the more traditionally ascribed to methods of building a contender. Fighting for pennies on the playoff dollar, much less so.

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  • Cageyvet

    I agree with Benning that they can draft a “good player” in the first round but history shows (as well as Canucks Army) that the vast majority of great players go very early on in the draft.

    • Dirty30

      Vancouver GOOD 1st round picks:

      Schroeder,Jensen,White,Smith,Umberger,Holden,Ference,Wilson,Polasek,Herter,Woodley,etc.

      Benning GOOD picks: Demko(2nd),Tryamkin(3rd),Brisebois(3rd),Neill and Forsling (5ths)

      • argoleas

        To add to this, the current top ten in NHL scoring has:

        2 x 1 (Kane, Hall)
        2 x 2 (Seguin, D. Sedin)
        1 x 15 (Karlsson)
        1 x 16 (Tarasenko)
        1 x 129 (Benn)
        1 x 5 (Wheeler)
        1 x 104 (Gaudreau)
        1 x 205 (Pavelski)

        So yes, you get a lot of good players in the first round, but you can get a lot of good ones without tanking (draft, trades, FA). I’m still waiting to be shown evidence that tanking works in cases outside of Mario Lemieux, Sydney Crosby or McDavid/Eichel (and even there the team that tanked didn’t get McDavid).

    • argoleas

      Assuming then that in your eyes players such as, Shea Weber 2nd rd, Duncan Keith 2nd rd, PK Subban 2nd rd, Travis Hamonic 2nd rd, Zdeno Chara 3rd rd,Tyson Barrie 3rd rd and John Klingberg 5th rd do not qualify as great players. I would love to have any one of those players on my hockey team. Never mind Brett Seabrook,Erik Karlson,Matt Dumba & Ryan Suter who all went no earlier than 7th overall.

      Note all are top notch defensemen, which (imo)needs to be a focus for us

  • Cageyvet

    I agree with Benning that they can draft a “good player” in the first round but history shows (as well as Canucks Army) that the vast majority of great players go very early on in the draft.

  • Canuck4Life20

    Putting aside the question of whether tanking as an actual management strategy works (I have yet to see any actual evidence that a purposeful strategy such as this works; it may be the case that most ‘great players’ are high picks but that is not the same as building a team around high picks), I continue to be a little amazed by what the expectations some of you seem to have about what leadership would or should say in public.

    Do you really expect Benning to come out and say “yes we’re going to tank” in a radio interview? If such a thing happened for any team I would hope the headlines would scream “Canucks need to fire incompetent management for throwing in the towel”. What exactly would be the impact on the Sedins, Edler, Miller, Tanev, Vrbata, not to mention all the rookies and young players if the freaking coach came out and said in GAME 42 this season means nothing, we’re playing for the consolation prize of a top pick.

    There’s looking at reality — not trading high picks for vets, not taking on salary dumps for nothing, not locking in for truly massive and useless signings (as much as I dislike still the Sbisa and Dorsett deals they are nowhere near a Clarkson or Bolland), not holding onto vets who don’t want to be there (i.e. Sedins rather than Kesler), trying to develop youngsters — all of which I think the Canucks are doing. That’s good management. But throwing in the towel and actively trying to be crap? Buffalo did that clearly last year (unlike Edmonton who just sucked). And they did get Eichel as a (very good) consolation prize. But arguably just as good as their tank was a shrewd trade for O’Reilly, using good prospects drafted later in the first round.

    I really think before you continue to discuss whether or not the Canucks management talk openly of tanking you need to actually prove this is a strategy worth undertaking. And perhaps be a little less naive about the ways in which public statements by leadership of a sports corporation might work.

    • Canuck4Life20

      Very well said. I don’t think the Canucks management have any illusion that they are contenders this year and they do have up to 5 or 6 players in the lineup for most games that are in their first or second year in the NHL. The team is obviously going through a transition phase, but they need to set the expectation to every player in the organization that winning is the number one goal. Purposely making the team worse by trading away the veterans and putting the young guys in positions that they aren’t ready for would be sending the opposite message.

    • Canuck4Life20

      @PB

      I do agree with most of what you’ve said here. I’m hoping your right about their approach. The Sbisa, Dorsett, Sutter, and (to a certain extent) Miller deals were very concerning for me and I hope they aren’t a sign of things to come.

      As for the second part of your post, I do think it’s a conversation worth having. A lot of people will point to Edmonton and say “tanking” doesn’t work but I would argue there issue is that they’ve been a team with no plan and incompetent management.

      When you look around the league it seems to me that over the last decade or so (let’s say since the big lockout) the best teams have been built around very high picks. Chicago and Pittsburgh being the clearest examples. Those teams simply aren’t champions without Kane, Toews, Crosby, Malkin. Carolina doesn’t win it without Staal.

      When you look at the other side of the argument you get teams like the Red Wings, Ducks, Bruins, and the Kings. Those teams’ cores were built with extremely good drafting and a few insane player acquisitions—and I would argue a lot of luck went into that. The Red Wings team had 3 Hall of Famers who were later round picks—you just can’t plan for that. The Ducks cleaned up with two steals in the first round of probably the greatest draft of all time then they got a hell of a deal on Pronger and Niedermeyer fell into their laps (probably because they employed his brother). The Bruins grabbed one of the best Centres in the league in the second round and added that to a Hall of Fame dman acquired through free agency, and well… Tim Thomas.

      The Kings could really fall into either side of this equation. They drafted Doughty 2nd overall and he’s obviously huge for them. But they got pretty lucky that no NHL scouts had apparently ever heard of Slovenia and then they got Jeff Carter for free.

      All of this to say: you can build your core in a lot of different ways. In reality there’s luck involved in both but I think getting a few players from the top of the draft is probably easier to replicate. Let’s be honest, free agency isn’t what it was when Chara and Niedermeyer were hitting it right after the first Lockout. I’ve been a Canucks fan for to long to expect them to start being lucky now and pull Hall of Famers out of the later rounds of the draft.

      I think it’s also important to look at the Canucks success over the last decade. The Sedins simply do not get enough credit for what they’ve done here. This team was never a contender without them and their monster seasons. Remember: they were 2nd and 3rd overall picks.

      • pheenster

        Don’t use Pittsburgh as an example of how a team should be built. Does the current incarnation of that team have a Cup? Yes they do but on the whole they’re massive underachievers. And Chicago sucked for 30 years give or take. Pass on both examples.

      • Dirty30

        “When you look around the league it seems to me that over the last decade or so (let’s say since the big lockout) the best teams have been built around very high picks. Chicago and Pittsburgh being the clearest examples. Those teams simply aren’t champions without Kane, Toews, Crosby, Malkin. Carolina doesn’t win it without Staal.”

        Might have included the Sedins at #2 and #3.

        And those two are still paying dividends.

    • pheenster

      100% the right way to look at this in my opinion.

      1) People are taking everything Benning and Linden say way too literally. We have to look at what they do as an indication of their intentions, and ignore what they’ve been saying. Case in point: not trading for help on D when Tanev, Sbisa and Hamhuis were all out at the same time. This is a pretty strong sign that they’re not trying to make the playoffs at all costs, but it also doesn’t mean that a playoff berth would be looked at negatively.

      2) Even though they’re doing what they can to win (without sacrificing futures), they’re still likely to be a lottery team. This means they might get a top 3 pick and satisfy everyone’s craving for a high-end talent, without the nasty multi-year climb back to respectability that most teams need after intentionally tanking.

      3) Despite a ton of the most talented players coming at the top end of previous drafts, I’m not sure that I agree much with people citing Pittsburgh and Chicago as tank-then-win examples. Sure, you don’t get Kane and Toews picking 20th, but how would Chicago continue to be successful over a 6 year period without the crazy number of talented players they plucked outside of the top 10?

      Keith in round 2 and Seabrook at 14th are obvious examples, but they also got Byfuglien in round 8, Crawford, Bolland, Saad and Bickell in round 2, Brouwer in round 7, Hjalmarsson in round 4, Ben Smith in round 6, Kruger and Shaw in round 5, and Teravainen at 18th overall. Those players might not have done it all for them, but they were definitely big parts of one or more of the Cup teams, and having new guys come up after each win has kept them going.

      Contrast this with Pittsburgh, who rode the success of their 2 high picks for a few years before becoming a sub-mediocre team for years and years now. The fact that they haven’t drafted well with later picks (and in a lot of cases, haven’t had any picks to use at all after trading them for depth players) is the reason why they can’t find any sustained success.

      If the Canucks can stockpile a high quality supporting cast later in the draft (as they appear to be doing at the moment), and get one or two high picks this year through their spot in the standings and possibly a trade, they’ll be in a good position to try and mimic Chicago’s model.

      • Canuck4Life20

        Exactly. The only thing keeping the Canucks even remotely close to a playoff spot right now is the Bettman loser points. There is a reason why guys like Higgins, Burrows, Prust, and Weber are in the lineup while better options continue to develop in Utica. Even if the Canucks don’t finish low enough to get Matthews there are lots of good looking prospects available like Chychrun, Tkachuk, Puljujarvi, Laine, and Nylander.

  • Canuck4Life20

    More importantly, in the 1950’s, the Canucks featured a big, strong d-man called Harry Dick. Nobody ever talks about Harry anymore, and that is a shame. A crying shame.

    http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php?pid=13007

    Considering the height of the average Canuck in those days was under 5’11”, Dick was one of the larger Canucks, standing 6’0″ and weighing 210 lbs. Therefore, I think there must have been more than a few times when the radio announcer shouted excitedly after a resounding hit:

    “That was a solid hit by big Harry Dick. Big Dick really gave to that guy!”

  • Cageyvet

    Benning is showing us he fairly able of competing while rebuilding. Looking at his free agent selections and draft picks he appears competent and confident,which helps foster the competitive and winning environment mantra he carries.

  • argoleas

    The beauty of being in a sucky division is that it allows the team to be competitive while being in shooting distance of a very high pick (still have to factor in the mechanics of the lottery). I also like that the team is prioritizing development, which means no rushed callups. I still rather have Shinkaruk be consistently developed in Utica so he is really ready next year.

  • argoleas

    If Mgmt. insists they are not interested in tanking then maybe they should start by putting the best players in organization out on the ice. I honestly do not believe either Chris Higgins or Yannick Weber fall into the best possible player category.

    Would much rather watch our team win/lose during this retooling period with the likes of Pedan, Grenier, Gaunce & Shinkaruk being rotated between AHL & NHL.

  • argoleas

    @Edaceel:

    No one is saying that there aren’t great players available later, just that it’s harder to predict those players. Look at any draft analysis, and you’ll see that NHL players overwhelmingly are drafted in the first round. It’s a matter of probability, not the fact that there are some who fall in the tail of the statistical curve.

    I agree you can’t expect Benning to say he wants to tank. If you want to push him a bit, the reporter should ask “What happens if you find yourself way out of a playoff position by the deadline?” (I didn’t listen to the interview, maybe he did that.)

    • argoleas

      I understand that roughly 80% of 1st rounders make nhl. From 2000-09 it was 80% of first rounders that made nhl, but that would be less than 50% of all teams rosters that are playing or played in nhl. the original commentor stated that a vast majority of great players were taken very early in draft, I was pointing out a few of many good to great players (defenseman)that did not go very early in 1st round.

      30 teamsx10 yearsx80% 240 players in nhl from 1st round.
      30 teams x 23 man roster 690 players minimum in nhl during that time frame. the other 450 or so players, several good ones, either came later than 1st round or through free agency from outside of league.

  • Dirty30

    Benning can be as confident as he wants but this is arguably the worst team in the NHL right now and they aren’t even trying to be. Are Sbisa and Sutter going to pull them out of the basement? Maybe. Are they going to make the team even remotely good? No. He can be stubborn and say they’ll find a way to make a competitor without tanking but at the end of the day it’s clear to see that’s not happening this season. The end result is going to be a team at (or near) the bottom of the standings for at least this season. The tank is here. The only question is whether or not he’ll embrace it.

    • Dirty30

      1c-Playing injured.

      2c-Injured two-thirds of season.

      2c that is a 3c of 20 years,struggling with a -19

      3c that is a 4c of 19 years,struggling in the circle such that he leads the worst faceoff % team in the NHL by a frozen country mile.

      4c is a career AHLer.

      2LW-injured.

      3LW-injured half the season.

      Starting goaltender injured.

      3+4D -injured 35 games between them.

      Rookie D man.4D is a career AHLer.

      Two veteran RWs in Vrbata and Burr ($5m x 2)that are having underachievement issues.

      18 YO rookie RW.

      Suggesting that the Canucks are the worst team in the NHL and they are not even trying seems superficial and disingenuous.

      The Canucks are one point under .500 and were on fire before their injury woes.League parity suggests that the Canucks could easily jump into the top half within a few games and top third quite easily with half a season left to play.Whether they should or not is a question that competent talent evaluators need not answer.

      • Cageyvet

        “Suggesting that the Canucks are the worst team in the NHL and they are not even trying seems superficial and disingenuous.”

        In the weakest division in the NHL, the only team with a worse winning % than the Canucks is about to get McDavid back…

        • argoleas

          Tying your opponent actually qualifies for points in the NHL so you may want to quantify any Canucks vs their competition arguement with losing percentage or points percentage or accrued.The vast majority of Western teams hover around .500,as do the Canucks.

          Edmonton has lost five more games than the Canucks have and only LA and ANA have less losses in the Pacific Division than Vancouver.

          • Canuck4Life20

            Those overtime/shootout points are the only thing keeping the bottom from falling out for the Canucks. Even with those points, the Canucks are still 5th in the weakest division in the NHL and will be 6th once the Sharks play their games in hand. They also have an ROW of only 12, which means they would lose the tie-breaker against every team in the Western Conference.

  • Dirty30

    I have always thought that openly tanking is a recipe for financial disaster in this market. I haven’t seen any evidence that proves otherwise.

    And what happens when no one watches is a point I have never seen adressed here at Canucks Army. Perhaps that is not what this blog is for, but I think it matters a great deal to ownership and management.

    The Aquillinis want a winner. They may also want to sell the team, though I do think that changes if the team had an up and coming generational talent to peg their marketing to.

    It’s a real conundrum for management. Fans in this market don’t support slop. They want something exciting. The Bure years, the West Coast Express and 2011 were that. But if you give them a bunch of kids who don’t know how to play at this level (yet) and ask them to come out and support what amounts to be a loser, they won’t come. But if you don’t do it, you won’t get that generational talent to build around.

    My thinking is the team needs to be entertaining first and foremost. Watching boring 2-1 hockey isn`t brining me to the game — not at those prices. If the team can find a magic formula that makes them exciting and they can tank at the same time, I would be in. But I can’t figure how that would work.

    • Dirty30

      “I have always thought that openly tanking is a recipe for financial disaster in this market. I haven’t seen any evidence that proves otherwise.”

      Would openly tanking be any worse than what is currently happening? Fans have already stopped going to the games.

      Regardless, we can all watch as the Canucks avoid financial disaster by not openly tanking this year. Which is something to look forward to, I guess.

  • argoleas

    @Edaceel: fair enough. I’m happy that the Canucks are emphasizing drafting. The problem is if they don’t try to become sellers at the deadline.

    @bh_: I agree that there’s luck involved, but good mgt increases the chances of finding good, economical players.

  • Dirty30

    The one factor that will matter more to Benning than any other will be what ownership wants. Anything he or any other member of the Canuck management says will be calculated to support the stated goal of competing while getting younger. The same condition exists in every sports management team.

  • Dirty30

    Before engaging in this discussion it should be recognized that analysts, coaches and management are all going to have different goals, objectives, priorities and valuations and so they will have different behavior even in the presence of commonly accepted facts. To criticize management or coaches because they don’t behave like analysts is disingenuous. To criticize analysts because they don’t behave like management is equally disingenuous.

    Analysts need to have people read their columns today. They need to be fresh, opinionated, controversial and contrarian. Nobody remembers or cares what they said last week. They can freely recommend high risk courses of action without regard to consequences or secondary effects.

    Coaches need to win games this season. It’s a rare coach that has a reputation that will withstand multiple losing seasons. Their record is in black and white on every web site or newspaper and is commented on constantly. A high risk action that doesn’t work out will be analyzed, dissected, reviewed and rehashed in excruciating detail, providing immediate and overwhelming negative feedback.

    Management needs to have an organization that is successful in the business sense, year after year. Single season results are not irrelevant but a single good or bad year does not in itself change the status of the organization. On the other hand they can’t engage in short term behavior that potentially damages their long term interest.

    A guy could go on, but you get the point.

    Analysts love talking about tanking because it helps drive eyeballs to their content.

    Coaches hate tanking because their record follows them around, even to other teams.

    Management can’t (and shouldn’t) reveal their intentions if that handicaps the long term interest of the team. That includes putting bums in seats, selling advertising or merchandise or attracting talent (on ice or otherwise).

  • Dirty30

    “Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.” — Emily Bronte

    “Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” — Carl Jung

    “In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” — John Ruskin