It has been a couple of weeks since Canucks’ owner Francesco Aquilini did an on-air interview with Sportsnet 650, and there’s been much made about what he said and wouldn’t say. But two things really struck me. First, was his focus on those first 15 games of the season, and second was how he talked about the various roles related to the team:
“Owners own. Managers manage. Coaches coach. And players play.”
And you can’t really argue with that. To be honest, I’m just glad he didn’t go on to explain what analysts do.
Anyway, his point is clear. There is, or should be, a separation in roles that allows everyone to do what they are supposedly good at. If you get too involved in decisions that should be the responsibility of others, you wind up owning much more than the team: you own the results. The more you meddle, the less you can hold those that work under you accountable.
But that works in reverse, as well: the less you meddle, the more you can hold those responsible also accountable.
And that brings us to the GM. His name is Jim Benning.
Now, I have to admit. On first listen, I was ready to make a bunch of jokes about Aquilini and amnesia. I mean, there is nothing this team could have done over the first 15 games of this year that would erase the two burning car wrecks that passed for the last two seasons of hockey here in Vancouver. But there was Aquilini gushing about the start to this season as if it was Benning’s first year on the job.
And I guess in some ways it is.
There was a point about this time last year, where the situation was remarkably different. Sure enough, as the team slid further and further down the standings between when I wrote that in early December and the February trade deadline, Benning did nothing to address the holes in the roster. Not even the ones caused by injuries.
And then, almost as if out of nowhere, Tuesday Jim appeared.
Benning had himself a great trade deadline, and things started looking up. Sure, there is much talk that the changes in the approach to rebuilding the team were being driven by Linden, and that Benning wouldn’t have traded Hansen if it wasn’t for the expansion draft, but I’ll still give him credit for making the deals he did. There was indeed some light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, I don’t know what happened between December and February, when active management of the team went dark, but I suspect there was some serious soul searching, plenty of meetings with ownership, a realization that this team was not where they thought it was, and a determination to try a different path.
And that brings us back to accountability.
Because I truly believe that Aquilini was ready to turf Benning following last year’s disastrous season. But somewhere along the way, whether they realized it themselves, or someone made the case, ownership realized they couldn’t pin it on Benning given how many decisions they had influenced over the last three years. Whether it was drafting Virtanen, or going all in on Lucic, which then led to Eriksson, or even the botched Hamhuis deal to Dallas at the 2016 trade deadline, Francesco had his fingerprints on a lot of key decisions. As a result, there was enough there to give Benning the benefit of the doubt and not hold him accountable for his disastrous tenure with the team.
So, with a year left on Benning’s deal, Aquilini appears to be giving him a chance to redeem himself. He has wiped the slate clean, and given him a fresh start. If you take a step back and really listen to that interview again, you can start to see that this is a make or break year for Benning. And even more than that, it appears that Aquilini is even willing to not focus so much on performance at the NHL level, as long as the prospects continue to develop. It’s the same message that Trevor Linden had in his interview with Jason Brough for The Athletic:
“I’m really encouraged by what’s happening in the organization, not necessarily at the NHL level. Whether it be in Utica, where there’s some positive things with some young players coming in and playing some meaningful roles down there. Or whether it be the junior leagues or college or the European leagues. We’ve had some players really step forward and I’m excited about a group of players that aren’t currently on our team.
“I guess there’s always a part of it where your eye’s on the future and what that looks like. At the same time, when the season starts, you want to be competitive. You want to have a chance to win. You want to compete every night. But we’re certainly not going to mortgage the future to win now.”
That attitude from both ownership and Linden goes a long way to explaining both the gap-filling depth signings over the summer, and the apparent intention to start Brock Boeser in the AHL this season: put a competitive product on the ice, and develop the prospects.
But I’m still not convinced that Aquilini is sold on Benning. If he was, I don’t think he would leave Benning hanging with a lame duck contract like this. Again, both he and Linden are singing from the same song sheet here:
— Jason Brough (@JasonBroughTSN) November 21, 2017
That’s exactly what you say when you’re intending to leave it to the end of the season. Otherwise, you would talk about working on a deal, or figuring out the details, or getting to the right number, etc. You don’t leave him hanging out to dry on an expiring deal.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t re-sign him after the season is done, but I’m still not sure I like his chances. Because there’s another way this could play out, and that’s the way Toronto transitioned out of their ineptitude a few years ago. They let Dave Nonis do a bunch of the dirty work, turning veterans into draft picks, and then promptly turfed him as the Leafs bottomed out.
It’s not quite the same situation in Vancouver, but if the Canucks hit another rough patch heading into the trade deadline, we will likely see another firesale. And despite the apparent focus on a fresh start, I’m not sure Benning escapes the accountability that Aquilini is so set on holding him to.
Aquilini may be giving Benning some more rope this year, but you know how that saying goes…