Canucks: Why Jim Benning’s job is in jeopardy now

Vancouver (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Vancouver (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning should be on the hot seat after a disappointing showing in free agency.

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning failed to extract value for four prominent players who all signed elsewhere in free agency.

Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev are Calgary Flames. Tyler Toffoli is a Montreal Canadian. Troy Stecher is a Detroit Red Wing.

The free agency period capped off a frantic week for the NHL hockey operations departments. Free agency was preceded by the buyout period, the deadline for qualifying restricted free agents, and the NHL draft, all in a truncated one-week span.

This weekend, under Benning and Assistant GM John Weisbrod, the Canucks failed to capitalize on the dual appeal they hold in attracting free agents to sign in Vancouver.

The first, for some players, is the appeal of living in the city of Vancouver, and in the country of Canada. The second is the team itself. On the ice, the Canucks got attention across the league as an exciting young team that exceeded expectations in a big way.

But the Canucks success pre- and mid-pandemic was predicated on their pending free agents. Markstrom was perhaps the biggest factor in the team’s success, punctuated by his back-to-back team MVP’s.

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Tanev had a renaissance year, playing 69 games in the shortened regular season and 17 postseason games. Tanev’s 41 PIM’s in 2019-20 were far and away the most in his Canuck tenure, if only because he had been such a model of sportsmanship over the previous nine seasons.

For comparison, Tanev played 69 games in 2015-16 and was assessed eight penalty minutes. The fact Tanev took four minor penalties over 69 games in his prime is descriptive of how and why he was such a beloved Canuck.

Toffoli only played 17 games for Vancouver over the regular season and playoffs, but meshed well into the top six forward group and contributed to the club’s success.

The acquisition cost for Toffoli is well chronicled by now, including the 51st overall pick in this year’s draft and prospect Tyler Madden.

With Toffoli signing in Montreal, this trade is cemented on Benning’s track record as a win-now move with significant downside; downside that is fully understood in theory but not yet in scope.

From my eye on the outside, and in my blue and green heart, the event that might seal Benning’s fate as the Vancouver GM is the treatment of Stecher.

Not only was the Richmond, B.C. product a restricted free agent who wasn’t qualified, but as Rick Dhaliwal of TSN 1040 reported, Vancouver didn’t offer Stecher a contract of any sort before the free agency window opened on Friday.

With Tanev signing in Calgary, the Canucks reportedly were focused on flawed but right-handed defenceman Tyson Barrie. The Stecher camp “couldn’t keep waiting”, according to Dhaliwal, so Stecher signed in Detroit for a reasonable $1.7 million AAV over two years, while Vancouver also lost out on Barrie to their rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.

The last 72 hours have been an unmitigated disaster for team hockey operations. The general fan base seems to have turned on Benning in a significant way.

But the groundwork for this meltdown was  laid in the off-seasons of 2018 and 2019. This free agency is the result of contract and asset management mistakes chiefly made over the past two years.

There has been a drumbeat of criticism in the market directed at Benning for years. Fan criticism has broadly revolved around Benning’s serial overpayment for players on the free agent market.

Loui Eriksson is the poster child for bad contracts signed by current team management (six years, $36 million), and that deal stinks, but it was the off-seasons of 2018 and 2019 that were particularly odious from a cap management perspective.

In 2018, Jay Beagle and Antonio Roussel signed matching four-year, $12 million deals, and Sven Baertschi was given a three-year deal worth $10.1 million. In 2019 it was Tyler Myers (five years, $30 million) and Michael Ferland (four years, $14 million) cashing in.

Honorable mentions go to the Brandon Sutter contract (a five-year, $21.875 million contract in 2015) — the 2019 acquisition and the subsequent buyout of Ryan Spooner ($1.033 million on the books).

This is where the Canucks stand today: unable to retain any of their own players due to cap mismanagement and the fiscal austerities of a global pandemic. Paying premium dollars for ineffective and redundant players has been Benning’s Achilles’ heel. The last 72 hours have seen these inefficient contracts hamstring negotiations and caused a calamity of asset management.

All of these bad contracts remain on the books while Markstrom, Tanev, Toffoli and Stecher walked away for nothing, with the latter three signing contracts at a relative bargain with other clubs.

And it’s not as though the departed players didn’t want to stay. Long time Canucks Tanev and Stecher publicly expressed their desire to stay in Vancouver, as did Toffoli. A Markstrom contract was always going to be complicated given the impeding Seattle expansion draft, but he too said publicly in April that he had “no plans of leaving”.

The point has been made that no one, including the Canucks organization, could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the knock-on effects of a flat salary cap are to blame for the disastrous position that the team finds itself in.  Losing four key players with no return puts the Vancouver GM future in a perilous position.

The final salt in the wound is that both Tanev and Markstrom went to the division rival Flames. Markstrom in particular has the ability to haunt the Canucks on a regular basis for seasons to come.

On Monday, Vancouver acquired Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a third-round pick. The addition of Schmidt’s salary, at $5.95 million AAV until 2025, brings the Canucks to roughly $2 million projected cap space, with Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette still to re-sign.

Next. Canucks: What Jake Virtanen could get in arbitration. dark

This latest move may soften the tenor of conversation around Jim Benning’s future with the team, but the fact remains that serious organizational failures in foresight, communication and asset management have made this team worse.