Vancouver Canucks Need a Club Philosophy


The Vancouver Canucks are in contention for both the playoffs and the 2016 first-overall pick. How is that possible, and what is GM Jim Benning’s plan?

In the summer of 2015, Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning wanted to make his team better. He wants to be successful now, not after a five-year rebuild. But what exactly was and is he thinking?

On draft day, Vancouver dealt their 27-year-old goaltender Eddie Lack to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 2015 third-round pick and a 2016 seventh-round selection. With that deal, Benning made clear that 35-year-old Ryan Miller would be his go-to guy in net. A good player, but obviously not a player for the future.

Shortly after, the Canucks traded Zack Kassian and a 2016 fifth-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Brandon Prust. Kassian just got sent down to the AHL, and Prust is part of an effective fourth line in Vancouver. This can be classified as a trade that improved the team.

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Then, Benning shipped second-line centre Nick Bonino, defenceman Adam Clendening and a 2016 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for centre Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick. Bonino is struggling offensively in Pittsburgh, Clendening spends a lot of time in the press box. Sutter, before his injury, looked like a high-quality second-line centre. This can also be seen as a deal that made the Canucks a better team.

But what about these moves?

Forwards Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson were let go in free agency to make room for rookies Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen. Another year in juniors would not have hurt either one of them, and Matthias and Richardson were reliable bottom-six players that could be used down the middle or at the wings, and on special teams. So, clearly, Benning also wants to develop his prospects and is willing to let go of proven veterans to do so.

Furthermore, the Canucks traded defenceman Kevin Bieksa to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a 2016 second-round pick. Bieksa struggled on Vancouver’s blue line, but instead of him, the club is now icing Matt Bartkowski, Ben Hutton, Alex Biega and Andrey Pedan. With only 162 games played, Bartkowski is the most experienced player in that quartet, and a guy like Bieksa might not have hurt. Again, Benning opted for a draft pick and prospects over a veteran.

The rebuild “on the fly”

Overall, it is hard to find a philosophy in Benning’s doings. Is he trying to develop his prospects or does he want to have a team that can consistently win hockey games? The answer is one that likely makes many Vancouver Canucks fans cringe: he is going for the rebuild “on the fly.”

A rebuild “on the fly” is essentially what the Detroit Red Wings have been doing for three decades. Never go into rebuild mode, replace single assets rather than becoming a full-on selling team, and most importantly: never stop winning.

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The Red Wings are on an active 24-year playoff streak and have reached the playoffs in 28 of the past 30 seasons, winning four Stanley Cups during that stretch. Detroit did get a first and a third-overall draft pick in their respective years without playoffs, but neither Joe Murphy nor Keith Primeau are reasons for the franchise’s permanent success.

Now, why is it a bad thing if Benning tries to do the same thing with the Vancouver Canucks?

First of all, he does not have the resources. The Canucks currently have the Sedins, a long list of mediocre players, and their rookies. There is no such thing as a working core they can build around. The Sedins are 35 years old and will not be the stars they are for too much longer, and every veteran behind them is expendable.

Furthermore, Benning’s experiment has already failed. The Canucks are not a team that stays in playoff contention year after year because of good management, but rather because of the fact that the Pacific Division is plain terrible. Vancouver is in serious contention for a playoff spot this year while being 25th in the league.

Related: Pacific Division a Blessing for the Vancouver Canucks

So, instead of trying to do something that has no perspective in Vancouver, Benning should do his best to save the day. That might be possible in two, perhaps even three ways.

The Full-On Rebuild

If the Vancouver Canucks decide that they are indeed not going to be successful any time soon, they could start selling players as soon as today. Trade away Radim Vrbata and anyone else who might have some kind of value to gather prospects and draft picks. Keep McCann and Virtanen in the NHL and call up Hunter Shinkaruk to help.

With that approach, the Canucks could “win” the first-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. That pick would most likely end up being Zurich Lions centre Auston Matthews, who missed out on being draft-eligible in 2015 by two days. Had he been eligible, scouts say he might have been picked second overall before now-Buffalo Sabre Jack Eichel.

With Matthews, the Canucks would be much closer to having a legitimate core to build around in the future. Matthews projects to be a franchise player, Henrik Sedin’s successor in the Canucks’ case, and would centre the first line for years to come. With Horvat and McCann on the second and third lines, respectively, the Canucks would have perfect centre depth down the middle. In addition to that, they have Virtanen and Shinkaruk coming up to become the club’s future top-six wingers.

Another year of losing could bring in an elite defenceman, all other pieces could be signed in free agency or kept from the current roster.

However, it is important to note that the full-on rebuild is no guarantee to actually get that first-overall pick and franchise player we are all hoping for.

The Win-Now Approach

Benning’s rebuild “on the fly” might have failed already, but that does not mean the Canucks need to start losing deliberately.

With Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Canucks still have two top-10 scorers on their roster. They are still winning enough games to make the playoffs, even though that is not always pretty to watch.

Related: Canucks Are Well-Prepared for Post-Sedin Era

Creating a losing environment is never a bad idea, if you just look at the Edmonton Oilers or Colorado Avalanche. Then again, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks were at the very bottom at some point, ending up with duos of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, respectively.

Still, winning the Stanley Cup is every player’s goal, and even if the chance is incredibly small, anything can happen once you are in the playoffs. A win-now approach would likely just put off the full-on rebuild for another year, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Canucks already have Horvat and McCann, who have the potential to be the club’s top-two centres for the next decade. Therefore, there is no need to tank for a centre prospect.

The Canucks could also go ahead and trade picks and prospects for veterans, hoping to make it into the playoffs and past the first round. Travis Hamonic and Ryan Johansen are names that have been out there. Getting a Johansen would be great, but not at the cost of McCann or Horvat and other important assets.

That said, trading for older players would be a terrible idea, and luckily Benning does not seem to want any of those, as he has shown last summer. A win-now approach is good, but not if it costs the club’s future.

The Right Approach

Now back to the original question: what is Jim Benning doing? Let us change that a little bit to: what should Benning be doing?

As the rebuild “on the fly” seems to be failing, Benning will have to settle on one of the above possibilities. Many Canucks fans and writers seem to look forward to drafting Matthews, or at least getting a top-five pick in next year’s draft. But deep down somewhere, every hockey fan also wants their team to win.

Whatever Benning’s opinion might be on this topic, he needs to get away from the failed retool, or rebuild “on the fly”, and decide if he wants to win now or in the future. If he wants to win now, he should try to ice the best team possible, rather than trading away veterans for draft picks. If he wants to start rebuilding, he should start exploring trade possibilities.

Jim Benning said he wants the Vancouver Canucks to be successful now. But if that is still what he wants, he needs a clear philosophy.

Next: Canucks Rumours: Trade Market Heating Up

What do you think? Which approach should the Canucks take? Let us know in the comments!