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Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Are the Vancouver Canucks rebuilding? If you’re going off recent results, you’d think that they were going through some kind of re-tooling. But if you look at what they’ve done in free agency the last few years, you’d think differently.

The Canucks finished 26th in the overall standings last season, 29th two years ago and 28th in 2015-16. You’d think that those kinds of results would lead to the team going in a different direction. Instead, general manager Jim Benning has spent money on free agents like Loui Eriksson, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Tim Schaller. There’s nothing wrong with those players. They can each serve as capable NHL players, but shouldn’t Benning have taken the time to give his younger players an opportunity to step in to bigger roles at the highest level?

There was more drama surrounding the team this off-season, as they decided to move on from president Trevor Linden. Some in Vancouver have speculated that Linden had a different vision for the team than Benning did, but the Canucks GM has denied having those kinds of disagreements with his former president.

[Canucks Day: 2017-18 Review | Breakthrough: Boeser | 3 Questions]

No matter how you slice it, the pressure is on Benning to deliver a quality product sooner or later. Even if the Canucks want to head into a full-out rebuild, positive on-ice results will have to come eventually. As we mentioned above, Benning is the GM of a team that has finished near the basement of the NHL for the last three years. Not many general managers get to keep their jobs after those kinds of runs.

There’s no denying that the team has some solid building blocks in place. Bo Horvat has been a productive NHLer, Chris Tanev is an underrated defenseman, Brock Boeser looks like he’s going to be a superstar and Elias Pettersson is one of the best prospects in all of hockey. But the rest of the roster looks kinds of “meh” to put it bluntly.

Even with the players mentioned above, there’s still a lot of work for this organization to do before they can get back to being one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Can Benning get them to where they need to go? So far, the answer to that question appears to be “no”. And how much more time does he have on his side? Only Canucks ownership can answer that question, but you’d have to think that he’s under the gun at this point.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Canucks must learn painful lessons from Linden era

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Unless you’re a fly on the wall, it’s pretty tough to attribute specific decisions to the exact front office members who made them.

So, yes, to some extent, a GM’s effectiveness hinges upon the quality of the scouts available, and a team won’t have a good GM if the guy above him – whether that’s the owner, team president, or both – makes the right call. It’s not that far from an NFL team’s highs and lows being chalked up so intensely to the work of head coaches and QBs.

One can only speculate as far as which of the Vancouver Canucks’ moves have Trevor Linden’s fingerprints all over them, and which ones come down to someone lower in the pecking order.

As we absorb his (seemingly?) abrupt departure as Canucks president – more on that here – it’s pointless to hammer on the beloved former center to a harsh degree. If the Canucks want to get better in any meaningful way, they need to absorb lessons from an era where they missed the postseason three times and failed to win a single series, often wasting a bucket of cash in the process.

Naturally, people running other NHL teams can learn a thing or two, as well.

  • Actually, start your former stars in vanity project positions.

Steve Yzerman is one of the shrewdest GMs in the league (with “proclivity for former Rangers” being the closest thing to a weakness) after ranking as one of the NHL’s most brilliant players, but don’t forget that there was a maturation process. Yzerman essentially underwent an apprenticeship with the Red Wings before becoming Lightning GM, and even then, Stevie Y was wise enough to surround himself with experienced, varied hockey people.

As former PHT’er Jason Brough notes, it sounds like Linden wasn’t particularly prepared for the gig. “Experience” is thrown around a lot as a buzzword these days, but it doesn’t feel as much like hot air when it comes to high-stakes, sometimes detail-intensive front office work. Garth Snow jumped from NHL backup to Islanders GM, and that didn’t exactly end up as a spectacular success, either.

So, rather than throwing a former player in the deep end right off the bat, here’s a suggestion: name the next Linden “The Ambassador of Fun” and ease that person into a more serious job, if it makes sense. If the ceiling’s “shaking hands and kissing babies,” it sure is a lower-risk way of finding that out rather than handing them the keys of your franchise as if it’s a live hand grenade.

  • Search for diverse voices.

Look, for all we know, the Canucks could give Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” a run for its money, but it sure feels like things leaned more toward having one too many “yes men” in the room. When there aren’t enough people speaking up, you get moments like the Bruins shrugging their way to the disastrous Tyler Seguin trade.

One way or another, you can essentially tie the Trevor Linden era to that of the GM he hired, Jim Benning.

If Linden’s departure is more about him getting pushed out then Linden getting fed up with an unquestionably difficult job, then this will only be worth the bad PR if the Canucks start to make some changes. Is there really any sign that Benning’s worldview is meaningfully different than that of Linden?

(TSN’s Farhan Lalji indicates that Linden didn’t always see eye-to-eye with ownership or Benning, for what it’s worth.)

The Canucks’ summer moves indicate that the answer might be no, at least assuming that people on their way out of organizations usually see their influence muted. Rather than going full-rebuild, the Canucks handed baffling four-year, $12 million contracts to Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. Even if you like those two “elbow grease” guys as players who maybe can help you during the playoffs, is there any indication that Vancouver is merely a few scrappy assets away from contending?

As long as Benning is in control, it’s tough to imagine the Canucks taking the steps they need to turn things around. Instead, they continue to collect mistakes and delay the process, potentially dooming themselves to a longer slog through mediocrity.

Linden shoulders some of the blame for mistakes such as the Loui Eriksson contract, yet you can also picture him looking at the structure of this team through bleary eyes and say “Nah, I’ll pass.”

  • Choose a path, not half-measures

It says a lot about the Linden – Benning era that it took until after the 2016-17 season for management to finally acknowledge the word “rebuild.”

Instead, the Canucks’ tanking is closer to a jeep: sometimes embracing it, sometimes trying to “entertain” and meekly compete. Such a process gives Vancouver less of a chance to land truly premium prospects, wastes a ton of money, and opens the door for the Canucks to have money tied up in bad contracts once they’re actually ready to compete (and give young players who actually deserve that money the raised they’re due).

We’ve seen teams show some deftness in trying to have it both ways. The Sharks dumped Douglas Murray and Ryan Clowe for picks during a playoff run. If the Rangers play their cards right, what would be a lengthy rebuild could be palatable.

Still, sometimes you’re better off holding your nose and really taking a plunge. The Linden Era argues that this Canucks group is incapable of walking the tight rope between improving the future while putting a passable product on the ice.

***

Look, even lucky NHL teams face serious challenges in becoming competitive. You can take a reasonable approach and still end up behind the true contenders, whether you’re hamstrung by a limited budget, an undesirable market, or other factors.

All of that said, smart teams leverage whatever assets they have, and maybe most importantly, develop clear-eyed self-awareness.

Under Linden and Benning, the Canucks have long suffered an identity crisis, with ugly results being an unfortunate constant. On the bright side, getting the message could help turn things around, even if Linden won’t be around to enjoy the spoils of such victories.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHLPA 2017-18 poll: Crosby, McDavid dominate; Underrated Backstrom

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Between September and the end of January, the National Hockey League Players’ Association polled its members on a number of topics, from best player to worst arena ice to best referee.

Over 500 players participated and some results are what you’d expect while there were a few surprises along the way. Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, as you’d expect, dominated such categories as “Fastest Skater,” “Most Difficult Player to Play Against” and “Which player would you select to start a franchise?” But there were a few other topics of interest.

Which goalie is the most difficult to score on? Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens won this handily with 41 percent of the vote, and when he’s healthy, it’s tough to argue.

Who is the toughest player? Ryan Reaves, now of the Vegas Golden Knights, was a big vote-getter, earning 44.7 percent of support. He beat out the likes of Milan Lucic (14.8 percent) and Zdeno Chara (4 percent). Reaves is certainly a tough SOB, but it’s hard to imagine Chara not winning this title every year until he retires.

Who is the most underrated player? There was a time when the prevailing thought was that Loui Eriksson was the guy here. But for a long time many in the hockey world agreed with the players this year and chose Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom (8.6 percent). Playing under the shadow of Alex Ovechkin will do that, but maybe this will be the thing to give him a bit more love around the league. Right behind Backstrom was Jaden Schwartz of the St. Louis Blues (6.8 percent).

Do you like the way points are currently awarded for a win or a loss in the regular season? A whopping 77.7 percent of players said yes, which makes sense when you think about it. As the league loves to promote parity in the standings, if you’re a player, you should be happy that the loser point exists because it keeps your playoff hopes alive a little longer than the old way of two points for a win and zero points for any loss did.

Who is the best referee? The viral referee, Wes McCauley, was a big winner with 47.8 percent of votes. A willingness to conduct a calm dialogue on the ice during tense times and the ability to let players vent at the right time goes a long way to earning respect. McCauley is one of those officials. (Tim Peel at 4.4 percent, eh?)

Which rink has the worst ice? While Bell Centre earned the title of “best rink to play” in and “best ice,” among players, the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida wins worst ice (16.8 percent), followed up by Gila River Arena in Arizona (10.7 percent). In third place, and no real surprise, is Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We imagine most of the New York Islanders chose their own rink considering some of their quotes over the last few seasons.

You can check out the rest of the results at the NHLPA website.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Caps-Leafs Stadium series update; Poile the winner

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Check out the time-lapse video above showing how the NHL has changed Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium into a big hockey rink for Saturday’s Stadium Series game between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

• High winds have canceled Friday’s outdoor practices for the Caps and Leafs, so both teams will skate this morning at Washington’s practice facility. They’ll try to hit the outdoors for Saturday’s morning skate. [Washington Post]

• A look back at the career of David Poile of the Nashville Predators who last night became the NHL’s all-time winningest GM. [Tennessean]

• “The Blues are a passionless mess with few answers” Yep, that’s about right. [St. Louis Gametime]

Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers has invited the state champion Marjory Stoneman Douglas High hockey team to Sunday afternoon’s game against the Florida Panthers. Ghost Bear attended the school for two years. [Philly News]

• Was the price paid for by the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar too much? [FanRag Sports]

• What direction are the Vancouver Canucks going in? [Canucks Army]

Loui Eriksson’s season comes to an end, thanks to a fractured rib. [Sun]

• “First Nations celebrate as Indigenous player Ethan Bear makes NHL debut with Oilers” [Globe and Mail]

• “Henrik Lundqvist Deserves Better Than The Rangers” [Five Thirty Eight]

• If the Rangers are going to do this rebuild the right way, it’s time to play the kids. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• The Montreal Canadiens aren’t just bad on the ice, they’re bad for business around the city. [Montreal Gazette]

• Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson on her Olympic gold medal winning shootout move. [The Players’ Tribune]

• A look at Eric Lindros’ history as hockey’s first investible player among memorabilia and sports card collectors. [Puck Junk]

• After leaving the Rangers in the summer to play in Switzerland, Kevin Klein is expected to announce his retirement after the season. [Swiss Hockey News]

• Diving into NCAA hockey and asking the question how much production do you need from your defense to be successful. [College Hockey News]

• Here is the full stream of “The Nagano Tapes,” a documentary about the 1998 Olympic gold medal winning Czech team featuring Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and others. Well worth your time. [Olympic Channel]

• Finally, Claude Giroux is on quite the roll:

For better or worse, Canucks extend Benning, want to bring back Sedins

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

If you’re the type of person who expects life to be a “meritocracy,” the NHL has probably upset you quite a bit in the last week.

Not long after the hockey train wreck known as the Ottawa Senators rewarded one of the architects of their mess, GM Pierre Dorion, with a contract extension while embracing a rebuild, the Canucks basically did the same thing with GM Jim Benning.

The team announced a multi-year extension on Wednesday, leaving fans in dismay and onlookers flustered. They also put out a “Yep, we’re rebuilding” press release this week, following the lead of the Rangers and Senators.

The thing is, this is probably the toughest of the moves to defend. While the Senators dealt with budgetary limitations and leftover mistakes from before Dorion’s days, Ottawa enjoyed some recent successes. After all, they were within a goal of advancing to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and Dorion was nominated for GM of the Year, with the hiring of coach Guy Boucher proving instrumental in that run.

Under Benning’s watch, the biggest wins have … basically been when the Canucks play against type and actually rebuild a bit or draft well (on paper). There have been serious gaffes in trying to avoid the reality that this team was past its prime, with Loui Eriksson‘s contract (that $6 million cap hit still runs through 2021-22, somehow) being the most glaring example.

By no means is Benning solely responsible for the Canucks’ downfall, but it sends a strange message that he’s getting an extension.

On the bright side, Benning’s performed reasonably well, at least when everyone’s on the same page about rebuilding.

The not-so-bright side is that there still seems to be a tone of denial in Vancouver. From reports of management wanting to bring back polarizing defenseman Erik Gudbranson – who could bring back a nice return – to not moving on from Henrik and Daniel Sedin, there are some signs that the Canucks might parallel the Detroit Red Wings in trying to have their cake and eat it too.

(That approach has really just clogged their arteries, honestly.)

Ultimately, it’s tough to ignore that the NHL is a tight-knit community, and sometimes that means that people who are part of the “inner circle” tend to get more chances than those with fresher voices.

Maybe the Canucks will turn things around, maybe they won’t. More progressive teams might be licking their chops at moves like these, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.