Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

It was only an online survey, and barely 200 people responded. But the results did not flatter Vancouver general manager Jim Benning. Out of all 30 NHL teams, readers of The Hockey News had the least confidence in the front office of the Canucks.

It did not help that the survey’s findings were released just a few days after the Canucks had been fined for tampering. At the draft in Buffalo, Benning had spoken about Vancouver’s interest in Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban, two players who were property of other NHL clubs. While the league accepted that Benning had “intended no harm with his comments,” it still cost the club $50,000, not to mention a good amount of embarrassment.

Of course, Benning’s biggest sin, if you ask his critics, has nothing to do with talking too much. No, his biggest sin is an unwillingness to accept that the Canucks are no longer a playoff team. An unwillingness, essentially, to tank.

Since Benning arrived in the summer of 2014, Vancouver has not gone through a tear-it-down rebuild like we’ve seen in places like Toronto and Buffalo. Instead, the Canucks have tried to remain competitive while getting younger at the same time.

And though they were far from competitive last season, finishing 28th overall — their worst season since the Mike Keenan era — Benning insisted that injuries were the biggest reason for all the losing.

“In my heart, I really believe if we’d had Brandon Sutter the whole year and Alex Edler didn’t get hurt, we’d be right there,” he told the Vancouver Sun in late February, at which point the Canucks were all but officially eliminated.

And so Benning went to work. His two biggest offseason moves were acquiring defenseman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with Florida and signing winger Loui Eriksson in free agency.

While Gudbranson is still young, just 24 years old, and Benning has said he expects the former third overall draft pick to be in Vancouver for the next decade, the fact the Canucks surrendered well-regarded 20-year-old forward in Jared McCann plus the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft was more evidence of the club’s reluctance to bottom out.

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” Benning said. “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

The key phrase there: “right now.”

Certainly, Eriksson was not signed for three or four years down the line. He just turned 31 and is expected to skate with the Sedin twins, who turn 36 in September and have two years left on their contracts. The decision to not trade a player like Jannik Hansen, who just turned 30, is another one that a rebuilding club might not make.

“We’re not moving Jannik,” Benning told The Province recently. “I thought he was excellent for us last year and with the way the game is going with speed and skill, he fits that description perfectly. And we have him under a good (cap) number the next couple of years, so we’re not looking to do anything.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the direction that Benning has chosen (and there’s something to be said for trying to maintain a culture of winning), there’s no denying he’ll be under considerable pressure next season. If the Canucks don’t improve — and they’ll need to improve rather dramatically to get back into the playoffs — it will be a lot harder to justify his “right now” moves.

At least with tanking, losing is part of the plan.