VANCOUVER (Sportsnet) — Nearly seven years into his tenure, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning asked Friday for more patience from fans. His request was not favourably received.
Halfway through the pandemic-shortened season as of Saturday’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canucks have regressed from last summer’s breakthough and almost certainly will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring for the fifth time in Benning’s seven seasons in charge.
He said before the season that he did not expect the Canucks to take a step back.
Patience is a tough sell on the West Coast. It’s like trying to sell more rain to people who are already soaked and shivering. Patience? No, thanks, fans are good. How about some sunshine?
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) March 5, 2021
And yet there is little else to do in Canucks Nation but wait some more.
As Benning noted during a 36-minute, mid-season virtual press conference that swerved between numerous topics, the GM has the support of owner Francesco Aquilini, coach Travis Green has the support of Benning, and with the border closed and quarantine requirements for travellers, it’s about impossible to make any kind of trade to help your team.
The Canucks can’t even practically recall players from their American-based farm team.
“I think we have to just keep trying to figure out how to get better from within and to make all of our players better,” Benning said. “That’s the mindset that we have, and that’s the way Travis is attacking this whole thing.
“We’re going to have to have patience when you talk about drafting, developing, and, when these players are ready to play, stepping in.
“Last year, we made the playoffs. We had some success in the bubble. And then, you know, things have changed with the pandemic and the flat cap moving forward, and these young players that we’re going to have to re-sign after this year. The circumstances, you know, didn’t stay the same.”
Benning said the Canucks, 10-15-2 and 27th in the NHL in winning percentage, were hurt by the lack of pre-season games, a suddenly and indefinitely stagnant salary cap, and a critical lack of practice time.
But all teams are dealing with these same conditions, and five of them are ahead of the Canucks in the seven-team Canadian division. Two of those, the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, have already fired their coaches in desperation.
“Travis is doing a good job with our group,” Benning said of Green, who is in the final season of his contract. “The one thing about playing the same teams over and over (is) the weaknesses you have as a team get exposed and then you have to adjust. I think he’s done a good job of that.
“He has kind of had these young players for the last three years here, four years, and he’s grown them to where they’re at. He’s continuing to work with them to make them better, to get better. I’m not looking to make a coaching change. I think him and his staff have done a good job with our group.”
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) March 5, 2021
Few teams in the NHL rely as heavily on their youngest players as the Canucks do.
Elias Pettersson, who could play Saturday after sitting out Thursday’s 3-1 win against the Leafs, is 22 years old and in his third season. Defenceman Quinn Hughes, 21, is a sophomore. Winger Brock Boeser just turned 24 and is starting Season 4, and goalie Thatcher Demko is 25 but in his first month as an NHL starter. Captain Bo Horvat is 25. Rookie Nils Hoglander has been a top-six fixture at age 20, and Russian power forward Vasili Podkolzin, 19, is expected to step into the NHL next season.
This impressive core, almost entirely drafted and developed under Benning, is his greatest achievement as GM. But the dropoff around these players is also the GM’s greatest failure.
The opportunity-cost of inflated contracts the Canucks gave veteran role players when the team was rebuilding – like Loui Eriksson’s $36-million contract in 2016, and the four-year, $12-million deals Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel signed as free agents in 2018 – finally came due and greatly limited what Benning could do to strengthen the bottom half of his lineup with Pettersson and Hughes still on bargain entry-level deals.
“Every team in the league has bad contracts,” Benning argued. “That’s just the nature of doing business. You’re never going to be perfect.
“There’s going to be some decisions that you make that you wish you could have back, but it is what it is.”
Benning said nothing Friday to quell fan unrest in Vancouver, although he did offer a few snippets of news.
• He has been in touch with agent Pat Brisson and expects to start negotiating second contracts for Pettersson and Hughes after the April 12 trade deadline.
• Benning would like to keep impending unrestricted free agent Tanner Pearson and will explore before the deadline what that cost would be.
• Benning said he has talked to every GM in the league to start preparing for deadline day, but added it’s too soon to decide if the team will be sellers. His comment about living “day to day” until the deadline was widely derided.
Clearly, Benning isn’t ready to write off this season.
“Of course, I’m not happy with our record,” he said. “But I think if you play the right way, you do things the right way, then we’ll start winning our share of games and our record will be better than it is right now.
“We want to be competitive in every game. I think we’ve taken a little bit of a step back so far but we still have half a season and we’ll just see how things end up.”
Pressed towards the end of his press conference to tell fans how exactly how much longer they need to be patient with a team that has never won the Stanley Cup, Benning said the Canucks’ young core players require a little more time to mature.
“My hope is that in a couple of years,” he said, “we’re the type of team that’s competitive every night and we can compete for the Cup.”
Two more years. Another tough sell.