The 2018-19 Canucks season has given fans some reasons for optimism. Among them, there’s Elias Pettersson’s fantastic rookie year, Jacob Markstrom’s improved play under Ian Clark, Bo Horvat’s continued progression, and Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher proving themselves as top-four defencemen. On top of that, the Canucks stayed in the playoff race longer than anyone expected heading into the season.
The truth is, however, that this is not where Jim Benning and the Canucks anticipated they would be at this point in his tenure as General Manager.
This was the Canucks’ fifth season under Benning and, barring an absurdly unlikely run down the stretch, their fourth-straight season outside the playoffs. Considering making the playoffs every year has been part of Benning’s message since he was hired, that part, at least, hasn’t gone according to plan.
“Our goal is going to be to make the playoffs every year,” said Benning in 2014 when he was first hired. He reiterated the same message in 2018 when he signed his new contract extension: “Our goal is to win games and be competitive to make the playoffs, that’s what we’re here for.”
It’s hard to fault a goal of making the playoffs. Underdog teams outperform expectations every season to make the playoffs. You can look at the New York Islanders this season as an example of that, losing their franchise forward to free agency only to be leading the Metropolitan Division with 19 games remaining in the season.
What matters more, however, is the long-term vision. The ultimate goal can’t and shouldn’t be just to make the playoffs, but to win the Stanley Cup. To that end, it’s not enough to build a team that might get into the playoffs; you want to build a team that can dominate and be a true Cup contender, akin to the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.
That’s a tougher task: not every team reaches those kinds of heights. The Canucks have only been one of the true best teams in the NHL once in their history — from around 2008 to 2012 — though they were close in the early-90’s.
Benning has been hesitant to state such a lofty goal out loud, perhaps because he was excoriated after suggesting he could turn the Canucks around “in a hurry” early in his tenure. In 2016, however, he did try to set a realistic goal for when the Canucks could be more than just “competitive.”
“Realistically, if you’re asking me when will the day be that we can compete with the best teams in the league, I think that [Sedin contract] timeline is fair,” said Benning. “This is year two, and by our fourth or fifth year, I hope we’ll be there with the elite teams in the league.”
Last year was the end of the Sedins’ contracts and the fourth year of Benning’s tenure. This year is the fifth year. It’s fair to say the Canucks are not “there” among the elite.
Instead, even the optimistic Canucks fans are just happy the team “overachieved” this season. I’ve seen many Canucks fans suggest that it’s unfair to expect the team to be good this season: this is what you should expect in a rebuild and the Canucks are likely still two to three years away from being a true contender.
It’s not unfair, however, to hold Benning to expectations that he himself presented as “fair.” In Benning’s view back in 2016, it was realistic to expect the Canucks to be elite — not just good, but elite — by the fourth or fifth year of his tenure as GM.
What is most troubling is the context within which he made that statement. It came not long after a trade deadline in which he did literally nothing. He couldn’t find a way to move Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, their two biggest trade chips, and they both left for nothing in free agency.
One of the first things Benning did after making that declaration is trade Jared McCann and two picks — a second and a fourth — to the Florida Panthers for Erik Gudbranson and a fifth-round pick.
Shortly after, he signed Loui Eriksson to a six-year contract with an average annual value of $6 million, with the bulk of the money coming in the form of signing bonuses, making it essentially buyout-proof.
These were all bad moves by Benning and not just in hindsight — they were widely derided at the time — but that’s not really the point. The point is that they all betrayed a mindset that was focussed on short-term gain and not on reach the goal of being an elite team in a few years time.
Who did Benning think was going to inherit the first-line crown from the Sedins this season? What defencemen did he acquire that were going to challenge Alex Edler and Chris Tanev to be the new top pairing? If he thought the Canucks were going to be elite by now, what was the plan to get there?
Perhaps the Canucks would be closer to being a contender if Benning had committed to a rebuild right from the beginning and acquired picks and prospects that could reach their prime by the fourth and fifth year of his tenure. Instead, he's continually focussed on acquiring players that have already developed and reached their ceiling, even if that ceiling is lower than what the Canucks need to become truly elite.
Plans change, of course. A year later in 2017, Benning and then-President Trevor Linden still couldn’t even say “rebuild” out loud, but at least Benning had traded Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen at the deadline for prospects and showed some signs of looking towards the future. In the following free agency they didn’t hit any home runs, but at least avoided long-term contracts that could hamstring them.
Maybe next season the Canucks will be a better team, but it’s hard to believe they’ll be an elite team. It’s not like Benning was just a year off in his prediction. He said it would be fair to expect an elite team by now and hasn’t delivered.
At this point, I wonder what Benning would suggest is a “realistic” and “fair” expectation for when the Canucks will be Stanley Cup contenders? When will they be among the league’s elite? Do the Canucks have a long-term plan to become a truly elite team?
And, if they do, do Canucks fans trust Benning to follow through on that plan?