In a post on thescore.com before the start of the NHL regular season, Jim Benning was rated 31/31 on a ranked list of general managers around the league. A pretty big indictment on his skill as a general manager, considering he’s had his own team for only a three year period. But lets take a closer look at Jim Benning’s actual moves, looking past the forums of public opinion and arm chair general managers and cutting right through to his asset management and drafting capabilities.
First, the trades he’s made. Lets work from the trades that have had the largest impact; starting with the deal for Kesler. When Mr. Benning was hired as the Canucks GM, he inherited a glaring problem: Kesler, arguably his number 1 centre, wanted out. Not only did he not want to be a Canuck, but he had a NTC (no trade clause) and basically would only waive to join one team; the Anaheim Ducks. Now if you look at this from the Ducks perspective, two things become immediately clear: you get to deal with a rookie GM, and you have 100% of the leverage. That being the case, the fact that the Canucks GM was able to acquire Sbisa (who he subsequently signed to a rich, multi-year contract that has never been worth it), Nick Bonino (who was traded to Pittsburgh for Brandon Sutter less than a calendar year later) and 2 draft picks including a first rounder that turned into Jared McCann (who was traded in a package for Erik Gudbranson). So with all this information, you can surmise that Kesler was traded for Brandon Sutter; a solid two-way centre, Erik Gudbranson; a solid second pair defenseman that could end up being a top pair guy, and Luca Sbisa who has a terrible contract and could only play in the top six on a bad team. Considering the leverage situation, you have to admire the return even though Kesler was on a VERY team friendly cap hit (5mil AAV) and still had term left on his deal.
I’m giving this trade a B-
He then took a HUGE amount of heat for trading a second rd pick for Sven Baertschi from Calgary. Now, granted the jury is still out on the prospect acquired by the flames. However the early returns from Sven and his chemistry with Horvat and helping the speedy center develop have been very promising.
This one gets a B+
Next he swapped Hunter Shinkaruk for Markus Granlund. This is where fans really started to despise him, for trading a young forward that has a high ceiling, for an almost equally youthful forward with a lower ceiling, but also a much higher floor. Low risk, medium reward type moves like this have come to define Benning’s term as Canucks GM. Shinkaruk is playing the majority of the year with the Flames’ farm team, while Granlund has a real shot at scoring 20 goals at the NHL level.
This one gets an A-
In this last offseason, he traded yet another young forward with a high ceiling, who I mentioned before, in Jared McCann. Now Benning also gave up a second and fourth rd pick to the Panthers for Gudbranson, but with McCann playing the majority of this year in the AHL and by no means tearing it up, the early returns seem to swing Vancouver’s way. Gudbranson projects to be a top four guy on a good team, and if he develops any semblance of an offensive game could step that up to a top pairing guy.
Have to give this trade a B
Now for his trades at this season’s deadline. Heading into the home stretch to the NHL deadline, the apprehension around the Canucks was palpable. The Canucks had floundered last year at the deadline, hesitation and indecision costing them assets in return for Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, both of whom walked in free agency. As much as you can say games are “must-wins” you can say Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen were “must trades”. First, Alex Burrows was traded for FWD prospect Jonathan Dahlen. Burrows was 36, on an expiring contract, and the Canucks needed to free up playing time up front and restock a very dry FWD prospect pool. This trade accomplishes both of these things, while Dahlen projects to be a top six forward if he can pack on some weight and continue to work on his skating. Next, Jannik Hansen was moved to the San Jose Sharks for Nikolay Goldobin and a conditional fourth round pick. The pick becomes a first rounder if the Sharks win the cup, and nothing in between. Nikolay Goldobin projects to be a top six forward himself, if he too works on his skating and endeavors to play a more complete 200 foot game.
These two trades get a combined grade of A-
So considering these trades, you’d think Benning would be considered a successful GM around the league. This however is not the case, mainly for two reasons. Giving undue extensions without seeing the player really play for his team, and his inactivity during last year’s deadline. His list of extensions include Brandon Sutter, Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett among others. The Sutter contract isn’t bad, but the Dorsett and Sbisa contracts are Albatrosses. Now are these things alone enough to consider his tenure so far unsuccessful? No. So let’s take a look at another aspect, his drafting.
In 2014, his first year as general manager, Benning took Jake Virtanen in the first round. For years, Canucks fans and media had lamented the fact that previous administrations had passed over local talent only to watch them be selected elsewhere and go on to succeed. (See Brendan Gallagher) The Virtanen pick was lauded in the first season, criticized in the second. (largely due to players taken after Jake producing more, like Dylan Larkin in Detroit) This year Virtanen is playing in the AHL, as he should be, and the Canucks organization continues to believe he’ll develop into an everyday NHLer. In 2015, Benning selected Brock Boeser from the USHL. In recent days, polls have been conducted by TSN1040 sports radio in Vancouver that show Canucks fans are most excited by Boeser of anyone in their system. Boeser projects to be a top six scoring winger, and he’s scored at every level he’s played at so far. Last year, the Canucks selected Olli Juolevi with the 5th overall pick. Benning’s organization was severely lacking in any prospect talent on the back end, and Juolevi projects to be a top pair defenseman one day. While this pick filled a need, some fans were surprised considering Matthew Tkachuk was still on the board, selected directly after the Canucks by the Calgary Flames. While the Canucks addressed their lacking of a LW prospect with the Burrows trade, at the time they were bereft of talent on the left side with Virtanen and Boeser both playing on the RW. All things considered, including the fact that all these players are still just kids,
I give Jim Benning an A- in his drafting record so far.
The last knock on Benning is the over-confidence in his teams. Both this season and last season, Jim repeatedly said that he believes the Canucks to be a playoff team. Both years, the Canucks were projected to be a bottom five team by analysts all over North America. Last year, that projection turned out to be true, and this year with 19 games to go the same seems to be true. The problem with this is the lack of a true organizational direction. Normally, a team coming off a top five pick won’t go out and spend $36million dollars over six years for a 30 year-old winger like the Canucks did with Loui Eriksson. Nor will they hold on to veteran soon to be UFA’s like they did last year with Vrbata and Hamhuis.
However, with the moves made preceding this year’s deadline, and the comments made by Jim Benning post-deadline, that is no longer the case. The Canucks organization is finally willing to even utter the term ‘rebuild’, and that is music to the ears of Canucks fans all over. And with Benning’s track record as it is, he seems like the ideal general manager to steer the Canucks in a new direction for years to come.
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