Pittsburgh Penguins

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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For the last four months or so, it’s hard to find a Jim Benning move that wasn’t met with criticism.

It started in April when the Canucks signed Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett to hefty contract extensions and didn’t let up as the likes of Eddie Lack, Zack Kassian and Kevin Bieksa were traded.

Benning was even booed at an event for season ticket-holders when it was revealed that starting goalie Ryan Miller could’ve been traded instead of Lack, a fan favorite who’s not only younger and less expensive but had a higher save percentage than Miller last season.

Most recently, Benning’s claim that Brandon Sutter, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, would be a “foundation piece” for the Canucks was mocked by many. The five-year extension that Sutter proceeded to sign got the same treatment.

Suffice to say, the honeymoon is over for Vancouver’s general manager, who’s only been on the job since May of last year.

Benning, throughout it all, has not wavered.

“Sitting in my shoes, and when I talk to my management team, we have to make the decision that’s best for the organization going forward,” he said at the draft when asked about trading a fan favorite like Lack.

“I know if that’s the way we decide to go, I could get criticized. But that’s part of the job. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Hired in large part for his experience as a scout, it won’t be entirely fair to judge Benning until his draft picks pan out, or don’t.

But there’s no doubt his recent moves have put him under increasing pressure. If Vancouver takes a step back next season — and many expect that to happen — that pressure will only build.

It’s Vancouver Canucks Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Vancouver Canucks.

After a rough season under bench boss John Tortorella, the Vancouver Canucks went into the 2014-15 campaign hoping that new coach Willie Desjardins would prove to be a better fit for their organization.

He certainly got more out of their offense as the Canucks went from averaging 2.33 goals per game under Tortorella to 2.88 last season, which was good for eighth in the league. Their resurgence was thanks in no small part to the Sedin twins as their point totals jumped by more than 20 points each, bringing them up to 73 (Henrik) and 76 (Daniel) points in 2014-15. Newcomer Radim Vrbata also meshed well in Vancouver, recording 63 points including a team-leading 31 goals.

Fellow 2014 free agent signing Ryan Miller didn’t enjoy quite as smooth of a transition. While he did have a 15-3-0 record through Nov. 28, he was more of a mixed bag after that. Complicating matters, Miller suffered an knee injury in late February that kept him out of the lineup for most of the stretch run. That led to Eddie Lack opening the playoffs as Vancouver’s starting goaltender and while he was actually statistically superior to Miller in the regular season, the 27-year-old netminder ran into problems as the first round series against Calgary progressed.

Lack was replaced by Miller in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough as the Flames went on to eliminated Vancouver six games.

Off-season recap

Vancouver entered the summer with something of a goaltending logjam as in addition to Lack and Miller, Jacob Markstrom seemed deserving of a roster spot after a dominant season with the AHL’s Utica Comets. However, Canucks GM Jim Benning made the controversial decision to move Lack for a 2015 third-round pick (Guillaume Brisebois) and a 2016 seventh-round selection rather than trading the 35-year-old Miller.

In addition to that trade, Vancouver also sent defenseman Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim for a 2016 second-round pick and acquired Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-rounder from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Nick Bonino, Alex Clendening, and a 2016 second-round selection.

Vancouver sees Sutter as a “foundation piece” and cemented its commitment to him by agreeing to a five-year, $21.875 million contract extension.

PHT Morning Skate: Crosby, MacKinnon donate 2015 Worlds checks to hometown youth hockey

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon gave their winnings from the 2015 IIHF World Championship to promote youth hockey in their home of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. They were both members of Canada’s gold medal winning team. (NHL.com)

Sun Devil Athletics are teaming up with the Arizona Coyotes to bring college games to Gila River Arena. (Coyotes.nhl.com)

Examining Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek’s contracts. (CSN Philly)

Devin Slawson sees Edmonton, Washington, and Columbus as three teams that have the potential to take a big leap forward this season. (The Hockey Writers)

Speaking of the Oilers, here’s a look at what Connor McDavid means to the franchise in the short and long-term. (CBS Sports)

Patrick Sharp sees similarities between the Dallas Stars and what the Chicago Blackhawks were like when they were on the cusp of breaking out. (Dallas Morning News)

Maple Leafs ’15-16 Outlook

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After finishing with a 30-44-8 record last season, the Maple Leafs have undergone substantial changes, but none of the decisions made were about getting back into the playoffs in the short-term. When the Maple Leafs dealt Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, it was a clear sign that they were embracing a rebuild and its 2015-16 roster will reflects the early stages of that transition.

Toronto isn’t likely to enter the season with a lot of promising youngsters on its squad, but that will come later. For now, the Maple Leafs have signed veterans that can serve as placeholders like Shawn Matthias and P.A. Parenteau to give the top prospects time to develop properly. Matthias and Parenteau are only inked for one season and both might be traded at the deadline for picks or prospects to continue the Maple Leafs’ long-term goals.

Other veterans like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, and Tyler Bozak might also end up being dealt either before the season or at the deadline. In addition to providing the Maple Leafs with more assets, moving them would also increase Toronto’s chances of ending up with projected 2016 top pick Auston Matthews.

Meanwhile, Toronto has undergone a massive transformation on the management side as president Brendan Shanahan is now supported by GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock, which provides the franchise with the experience to see this rebuild through to the end. That’s a new thing for Toronto because while the franchise has barely seen any playoff actions since the start of the salary cap era, that hasn’t previously led to the Maple Leafs fully embracing a long-term rebuilding effort.

In fact, trading Kessel is the perfect symbol of the philosophical shift, not just because of what he represented now, but also due to the context of his acquisition. When Toronto got him back in 2009 for two first-round draft picks, it was a sign that then GM Brian Burke wanted to move forward without a traditional rebuild. That didn’t work, so now a new group is trying a different, more patient approach.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf