Building a Stanley Cup winner isn’t easy.
It takes careful planning, good drafting, shrewd moves in trades and free agency, intelligent cap-management, patience, timing, and luck.
During his near-seven years as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Benning has brought in some key building blocks. Elias Pettersson is an elite centre, and Quinn Hughes is one of the best young defencemen in the league. Thatcher Demko appears to have a bright future and Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, and Nils Hoglander are important pieces to the puzzle that he brought to the franchise.
But barring a miraculous run down the stretch, in year seven of the Benning regime, the Canucks appear set to miss the playoffs for the fifth time. Only five franchises have a worse points percentage (.493) during that timeframe, and in the last six years, only Detroit, Buffalo, and Ottawa have been worse.
The Canucks had a fabulous year last season, making the playoffs and making some noise in the postseason.
But by the admission of Benning during today’s press conference, they’ve taken a step back.
Asked if he believes his team can still make the playoffs this season, Benning said “we live day to day,” which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Kudos to Benning for taking the heat and answering the questions, but the Canucks general manager was long on excuses and short on solutions.
In some regard, it’s hard to blame him, because what can he say? The team has the fifth-worst record in the NHL this season, due in large part because of years of mismanaging the salary cap.
While patience is one of the keys to winning a Cup, at some point asking for fans to wait a couple more years rings hollow. At some point, isn’t it time to start icing a winning team?
When asked by Daily Hive when fans can expect the team to become a Stanley Cup contender, Benning offered this up: “My hope is that in a couple years that we have a type of team that’s competitive every night, that can compete for the Cup.”
Because of the team’s precarious cap situation, that’s probably the most optimistic timeline he could have given. And if his plan comes to fruition, Benning will have been given a remarkably long time to see it through.
So what could Benning do today, except offer excuses?
1. Their schedule was too difficult
The first question posed to Benning was an open-ended one, asking about his thoughts on the way the season has gone to this point. Benning went right into the excuses.
“We started the season, we had the week training camp, no exhibition games, and then we started into the games. I think part of our problems early on were we played like 16 games in 25 nights… We had two practices in 19 days. So what happens with that when you don’t practice, when you’re just like saving all your energy to play the games, you have a bunch of new players, Travis doesn’t get to use that practice time to work on our systems, you lose execution when you’re not practicing, you don’t have puck touches.”
First, some fact-checking. The Canucks actually played 16 games in 27 nights, and had four full practice days — not including game-day skates or optional practices — during that time.
Benning does raise a valid point that the team had a difficult schedule. No other team in the NHL had played more than 14 games when the Canucks reached game No. 16. Every team in the North Division had multiple games in hand on them, including Winnipeg (5), Calgary (5), Montreal (4), Toronto (3), Ottawa (3), and Edmonton (2).
Those teams got to practice more than the Canucks did.
The problem? Nearly a month has passed since those first 16 games, and the results are still dreadful.
Process-wise, the Canucks have been better. But in the last month, the Canucks have played just 13 games — fewer than the Senators (15), Maple Leafs (14), Flames (14), and level with the Oilers (13) — and have posted a worse points percentage (.385) than any other Canadian team.
Two of those teams have fired their coach during that time, and another is the Ottawa Senators.
2. The Canadian division is really good
On multiple occasions, Benning pointed out the fact that the Canucks are now playing in the Canadian division, seemingly using that as an excuse because they don’t get to play all the teams in the league this season.
“Playing in this Canadian division’s tough. Playing against the same six teams over and over again, they’re good teams,” said Benning. “Every night we’re facing good competition, good players from other teams.”
“When we planned the team out this summer, we were in the Pacific Division, we were going to be playing all the teams in the league. With the pandemic, with the border being closed, it turned out we’re just going to be playing these Canadian teams this year. So, things have changed in that regard.”
Great theory, but I’m not sure it holds up.
There are only seven teams in the North Division, one fewer than any of the other three divisions. That means the Canucks only need to be better than three teams to qualify for the postseason, and one of them is the lowly Senators.
Are the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, two teams that recently fired their coach, really that tough to beat? Is the bar so low that Edmonton and Winnipeg — two teams that nobody is picking to win the Stanley Cup — appear like daunting matchups?
Are the Toronto Maple Leafs better than other division leaders like Tampa Bay, Washington, or Vegas?
The suggestion that the North Division is somehow superior to all the others may not be insincere, but it is a fallacy.
3. The flat cap ruined their plan
A third excuse Benning pointed to was the salary cap, which was supposed to increase this year but instead will remain at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic.
“Things have changed, with the pandemic and the flat cap going forward… The circumstances didn’t stay the same,” said Benning.
“There’s a lot of different issues in this year compared to other years.”
The flat cap may have made the bad contracts look that much worse, but it also shouldn’t be an excuse given that it affected every other team as well.
Benning pointed out that “every team in the league has bad contracts,” but not every team has as many onerous ones as Vancouver. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are still on their entry-level deals, and free agents were available for bargain prices and short-term deals this offseason because of the pandemic. The Canucks couldn’t take advantage because of all the dead weight on their cap and they have nobody to blame but themselves for that.
4. It’s hard to make trades during the pandemic
When a team struggles like the Canucks have this year, usually it’s followed by a big move to shake things up. Maybe it’s a firing, but more often than not, it’s a trade.
Well, you guessed it, there’s an excuse for that.
“Part of the problem in this pandemic world that we’re playing in right now is that when you trade for a player… there’s a two-week quarantine where that player needs to stay isolated and then when you haven’t done anything for two weeks, it’s another week to start working out, to start skating, to get in shape to play,” said Benning. “So any player that we look to trade for and bring in, he’s three weeks away from probably playing a game for us. We can’t look from the outside to improve things… we’ve got to figure it out with from within.”
Again, there’s certainly some truth to this. Trades are more difficult to complete, and unless you’re dealing with a Canadian rival, there is a two-week quarantine process for anyone acquired.
Still, I would suggest that the biggest issue in completing trades right now is what Benning has to offer.
He reportedly tried to deal Jake Virtanen, whose stock is at an all-time low given his lack of production. Reports suggested that a potential trade with the Anaheim Ducks fell through because of his contract — one that Benning signed mere months ago.
5. Continue to be patient
The time to ask for patience was in years one to five, when the team should have been rebuilding more aggressively. When they were drafting and developing players, with inevitable hits and misses, was the time for patience.
But now, a year after the team traded draft picks and a promising prospect for immediate help, should not be the time for patience.
And yet, when he was asked about the plan moving forward, the first thing Benning said was “we’re going to have to have patience.”
The Canucks signalled that they were going for it last year, that they were ready to compete, and win — not years from now — but right now. They had some success, but now it appears the goal posts have moved.
Are we in another mini-rebuild that we weren’t made aware of?
After all the time that has passed, I would suggest this isn’t the time for patience. It’s the time for results.