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More Questions Than Answers In the Wake of Jim Benning’s Contract Extension

Just yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks announced that they’d come to terms on a multi-year contract extension for general manager Jim Benning. The team has yet to confirm the length, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman is reporting a rumour that it’s a three-year deal that will take Benning through the 2020-21 season.

Benning, who was in the final year of the four-year pact he agreed to ahead of the 2014-15 season, now gets the time to see his nominal rebuild through to its completion.

Speaking to reporters yesterday at Rogers Arena, Benning said “I’m excited about the direction of our team. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m confident we are on the right path. We’re going to build this team into a contender again.”

“Allowing this management group, who I think I have continued to do things better and [are] continuing on this path is important.” team president Trevor Linden said.

Certainly, there’s reason for excitement. As Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat have emerged as core players in these last two seasons, they’ve given fans reasons to line the seats of Rogers Arena and jump out of them with glee on a semi-regular basis; it’s just the kind of reprieve from the constant losing that this city needs.

The Canucks’ prospect pool is as rich as it’s ever been. When TSN’s Craig Button unveiled his Top 50 Affiliated Prospects list a month ago, Vancouver’s prospects accounted for five of them, with most coming in the first 30 names on his list.

It’s an impressive bounty, and Benning deserves his fair share of credit for accumulating as many high-quality prospects as he has in these last four seasons.

When one considers the ways in which this franchise has handcuffed itself at the draft, it’s all the more impressive. This team has drafted just 28 players in Benning’s time as the Canucks’ general manager, which is the exact number of allotted picks that (seven each year times four years) the Canucks would have if they’d done nothing with their original stock.

Of course, that begs the question: why so few draft picks? Teams that find themselves in the position that the Canucks have languished in these last three years are usually insatiable in their appetite for picks. For the Canucks, who have a master scout by trade at the helm, wouldn’t that be even more important for this franchise?

“After the year we made the playoffs we traded two players, Kevin [Bieksa] and Eddie [Lack] for a second and third-round pick,” Linden told reporters in response to a question about the lack of picks. “Two deadlines ago, we tried to move [Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata], and that story’s well documented. Last year we were able to add to our ammunition at the draft.”

“At the same time, you walk a fine line. We have added players with picks to stabilize things a little bit, whether that be a Sven Baertschi or Derrick Pouliot. So there’s been walking the fine line, and we’ll continue to see what’s available to us at the deadline.”

At best, those comments are misinformed. For starters, the second-round pick the Canucks acquired as part of the Bieksa deal was used the same summer they acquired it to bring Brandon Sutter into the fold. As The Province’s Jason Botchford points out in last night’s The Provies, this same front office also rejected an offer for a third-round pick for Hamhuis in that infamous deadline.

Minutes before answering a question about the team’s lack of picks, Linden goes on to refute the notion that there are any quick fixes in free agency or through trades — it has to be done through the draft. Which, again, begs the question: to what exact end did the Canucks invest the picks and prospects they have in trades as often as they have these last four seasons?

According to Linden, it was done to create a sense of stability, but the Canucks record with those additions doesn’t speak to them offering any improvement upon standard veteran free agents — the type that doesn’t cost draft picks to acquire and routinely bring them back at the trade deadline. The Canucks have the 26th best record in the league in Benning’s tenure; if you go solely by the last three years, they have the second-worst.

Then again, it’s hard to serve so many masters as the Canucks have in that span. The plan never involved a tear-it-down rebuild. It was always about retooling this team on the fly and using Benning’s advanced scouting acumen to find young talent in spite of that goal.

It would be easy enough to forgive the Canucks for the folly of that mission had they acknowledged as much at yesterday’s press conference. Instead, they doubled down on the notion of “remaining” competitive and fighting for the playoffs on an annual basis.

It’s easy enough to say, but as the Canucks’ ineptitude these last three seasons has shown us, it’s another thing entirely to pull it off. They haven’t played a competitive hockey game on the other side of Christmas in three consecutive seasons.

And if there’s no magic bullet in free agency or through trades, by Linden’s admission, that puts a lot of pressure on a prospect pool that, while encouraging, isn’t enough for this group to hang their hats on.

People can take small comfort in Benning’s enthusiasm about Vancouver’s current crop of prospects. Responding to a question from TSN’s Jeff Paterson about whether that group was exceptional or not, Benning emphatically answered “I do. I feel with Thatcher [Demko] that he can develop into a number one — It takes time with goalies, so it’s going to be a process. With [Olli] Juolevi, I know he’s had ups and downs, but we feel he’s going to be a top-four puck-moving defenceman.”

“With our forward group, we might have three guys that are top-six forwards when our teams is good that we’re going to sign this summer. That part of it is very exciting for me.”

There are elements of truth therein. In Demko, it does appear as though the Canucks have a number one goalie in the wings; In Juolevi, a top-four defenceman. Their depth up front is truly something to behold.

Is that enough, though? They don’t have a lot of young talent currently in the lineup. And where they do, on the blue line, they all look the part of complimentary pieces more than impact players.

It’s that last point that sticks because, by Benning’s admission, the Canucks have one top-four defensive prospect in Juolevi. There’s not much behind him either, though the organization seems inordinantly high on Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield.

“Brisebois is having an excellent year in Utica for us as a first-year pro,” Benning said. “[Brisebois is] playing around 20 minutes a night. We talked to RJ, and he says he’s playing in all situations now. He’s an excellent skater. He’s mobile. He can jump up in the play. The thing RJ is most happy about is his conviction to defend and be in the battles.”

“[Jalen] Chatfield’s another guy that we feel strong about,” Benning continued. “He’s a mobile defenceman that’s had a good year for us in Utica. We have some good young prospects coming, but I understand what you’re saying — to get those elite, number one defencemen, those are the guys you have to draft.”

As one scout pointed out to me, this is the year for the Canucks to find that type of defenceman in the draft. They’ll likely have a good opportunity with their first-round pick, too.

Has Benning’s approach changed, though? Because to date, in his time with the Canucks, almost all of Benning’s additions on the back-end have fallen far short of the mark. Here’s the list of defencemen Benning has added to the Canucks: Luca Sbisa, Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, Matt Bartkowski, Troy Stecher, Philip Larsen, Erik Gudbranson, Michael Del Zotto, Derrick Pouliot and Patrick Wiercioch.

Is Benning the person to repair a blue line whose failings are covered in his fingerprints? I’m not sure anyone has any reason for confidence in this regard.

If there’s one thing Benning has, it’s the time to address these many questions that still hang like dark clouds over the future of the franchise. The Canucks made sure of that with their multi-year offer to extend his time as their general manager.