Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning Risking His Job in Emerson Etem

Dec 15, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows (14) in the second period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 15, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows (14) in the second period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning is going to put up quite a show to keep his job.

As the dust settles after the Vancouver Canucks acquired right winger Emerson Etem, I don’t think anyone realizes what kind of potential disaster GM Jim Benning has worked himself into — even “Trader Jim” himself might not know what kind of seismic repercussion the Etem acquisition could bring into his organization. The NHL trade deadline might be in 50 days, but Vancouver’s deadline might be a mere dozen days away.

Related: Canucks Trade for Emerson Etem

Before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s establish some common ground here. We all knew that Benning would have to make a trade to ship out a veteran — most likely on an expiring contract — to free up roster space, get youth in return, or get draft picks in return. At the outset of the 2015-16 campaign, the most openly talked-about names included Radim Vrbata, Dan Hamhuis, and Brandon Prust. All of them are on the wrong side of 30 from the Canucks’ perspective.

Now, Etem comes into Vancouver as an immediate bottom-six upgrade. The 23-year-old stands 6-foot-1 at 212 pound, described by Ray Ferraro on TSN1040 as being “built like a tank”. Here is Etem’s scouting profile from The Hockey News.

"Assets:Has great speed, which he uses effectively to get to the outside of defenders. Owns untapped goal-scoring ability, too. Can really dominate from his off-wing (right).Flaws:Needs to become way more consistent from game to game in order to maximize his scoring potential at the highest level. Also needs more work without the puck.Career Potential:Speedy winger with a little upside"

Etem is physical, he is fast, and he is a scorer who scored who has consistently produced at a point-per-game pace at the AHL level. The New York Rangers relied heavily on Etem to be on the defensive side of the puck, starting 68.8 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Related: Big Decisions to Make with Etem in the Mix

So what do I mean that Benning just put his job on the line? Here is this week’s Canucklehead Lament on how Benning just turned the Canucks roster into a ticking time-bomb.

“It’s open season in Vancouver.”

That is what GM Benning just accomplished. He turned the next 50 days leading up to the February 29th NHL Trade Deadline into an “Open Season” on the Canucks — a clearance sale, if you will. In simpler terms, virtually everyone is up for grabs.

Check out General Fanager’s Canucks page, and you will see the NHL-max 23 healthy players, as of January 9th, listed for the Canucks — 14 forwards, seven defencemen, and two goaltenders. Four players are on the injured reserve and Brandon Sutter is listed on the long-time injured reserve. Therefore, his $3.3 million contract is not being counted toward the team’s current salary, which is just $107,000 shy of the maximum salary cap.

But now, with Etem in the mix, when all of Jannik Hansen, Luca Sbisa, Hamhuis and Sutter return to the lineup, the Canucks will have to shed four skaters from their NHL roster, as well as about $3.2M in salary. Currently, Andrey Pedan is the only Canuck who is exempt from waivers (aside from Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen, Ben Hutton, and Bo Horvat, of course).

Related: Canucklehead Lament: Think Outside the Box for a Change

If Pedan is returned to the AHL, that leaves the Canucks to lose three skaters and shed about $2.4M in salary. Bottomline? Somebody is getting shipped out through waivers or trades.

Ironic how injuries hurt, but also extend the amount of time Benning has to make personnel decisions. That latest injury to Hansen saved Benning from losing, let’s say, Linden Vey, to waivers, as he tries to make room for Etem.

Now, now — let’s take a step back. As aforementioned, Etem is young, physical, offensively talented, and also defensively trained. The fact he is young, and also a newly-acquired player, means that he is staying in Vancouver for the foreseeable future. But that means that others will not be staying in Vancouver much longer.

Multiple veteran forwards just became more expendable with the emergence of Etem into the lineup – Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, Vrbata, and Prust.

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Alex Burrows is part of the scoring and grit department. He provides the Canucks with timely scoring here and there, while providing leadership and an on-ice physical edge to the club nearly every game. Etem can do that too, and is most likely to score more and hit more than Burrows has. At age 34, Burrows is never far away from the tradeblock on a rebuilding team like the Canucks.

Higgins is a main-stay in the Canucks’ defensive efforts. Having started 51.2 percent of his shifts in the defensive end, he has seen the third-most defensive ice time out of all Vancouver forwards, behind just Horvat and Prust.

Otherwise, Higgins finds himself at or near the bottom on all possession metrics. His -3.4 percent relative Fenwick is the team-worst of all currently healthy skaters, and his shorthanded efforts are also starting to get exposed, as his 11.5 shorthanded goals against per 60 ranks last in all penalty killers who average more than a minute on the PK each game.

Etem is sure an upgrade to Higgins, who can score more, offer more physicality, and assume the defensive role from Higgins’s failing hands.

Related: Canucks Stuck with the Wrong Kind of Depth

Prust finds himself in the discussion as well. His physicality and defensive time on ice is becoming more and more expendable with Etem now in the lineup. The only reason Prust might stay, and not Higgins, might be Prust’s physicality and the ‘untouchable’ heart with leadership.

Similarly for Vrbata, his scoring touch and his standing as the team’s number four scoring leader may be the only things that keep him from getting turned bumped in favour of Etem, who has speed that surpasses all, if not most, of the veterans’ aforementioned.

Now do you see it?

Benning just added “Etem fuel” to a Canucks roster that is just about to explode beyond the salary cap and the roster limits. Call it what you want — a forceful catalyst to the “rebuild-on-the-fly” or a recipe for utmost failure — but there certainly are pros and cons to what Benning is doing, or at least what Benning has unintentionally fumbled into.

The Pros

Obviously, if Benning was reluctant to trade away the veterans, he can’t be anymore. He has to. So expect the youth to be properly served now. More of Etem, Jake Virtanen, and even Vey, lest he gets waived. The lineup is going to get faster, stronger, and energetic with boiling young blood. If you could remove three of your most hated skaters from the lineup, now is the time, right?

Though the surplus is certainly there on the wings, the defence is certainly an issue as well. I say that Yannick Weber is expendable, and so is Matt Bartkowski when Hamhuis returns. There are teams out there looking for mobile, puck-moving defencemen that could be calling Vancouver now.

The Cons

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Hey, the irony running through Benning’s mind right now — “We want to make the playoffs, but we are moving out Vrbata? Burrows? Higgins? Hamhuis?” Yeah, right. I think Etem would be confused about where this team is going. On the other hand, he would love to see Benning commit to him by trading out some competition.

But while this is running through Benning’s mind, the players know it too. Somebody has got to go, and with virtually a third of the lineup up for potential sale, who is going to be able to play with 100 percent focus on the game? Performance is sure to drop, and confidence, too.

But does Benning have a market? The situation is going to have to end up with three skaters leaving in trades or waivers. It reminds me of the Ryan Kesler trade, in which Benning’s hands were tied behind his back. The entire NHL would start figuring this out, if it has not already. Practically speaking, they have no need to give up assets for players who are bound to get waived otherwise. Benning did well in similar situations before. But it certainly does not help his cause.

The Round-Up

Benning is walking into a minefield. He is going to get rid of three NHL regulars. He is not going to get any NHL players back in return, unless he pulls a blockbuster deal consisting of five or more players. He is going to have to maneuver through roster space and salary cap like an acrobat, and if he makes one move too late, he is going to have to pay for it — not from his players, not from the fans, but from the NHL and the Acquilini ownership.

Next: Canucks 5 Second Half Predictions: Revival

But should Benning pull this one out of the fire and manage to neutralize the ticking time-bomb before his lifeline of injuries runs out, the Canucks would be that much closer to completing the rebuild-on-the-fly. Have fun Benning, because we certainly will.

Just 50 days to go to the trade deadline. But the Canucks’ trade deadline is already ticking as Hansen gets healthier. Benning then has another deal by Sbisa’s return, then another by Sutter’s return. When Hamhuis returns, who knows what other trade Trader Jim might pull off, provided he survives the minefield of deals ahead of him. Is there anything that Benning could do to help his own cause?

What would you do to get the Canucks out of this tough situation? Let us know in the comments!