“The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”
- George Orwell, 1984
Let’s be clear right from the top: I’m not accusing Canucks GM Jim Benning of propaganda, and certainly not at the level of the totalitarian government of Orwell’s 1984. He did, however, try to revise a little history during his post-contract-renewal media scrum and encouraged a bit of doublethink.
At one point, Benning was asked if his plan for the Canucks had taken longer than expected to come to fruition, referencing his initial declaration when he was hired in 2014 that “this is a team we can turn around in a hurry.”
It’s a quote that has come back to haunt Benning in the following years, as the team decidedly has not been turned around in a hurry. In more recent years, the team has preached patience. In 2016, Benning even said, “We’ve never once said this was going to be easy or fast.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Benning was prepared for that line of questioning with a little bit of spin. Just call him Chris Barron.
“We did turn it around that next year, we signed some players, we made the playoffs,” said Benning. “But at that point, I realized that, you know, with the group we had, we were going to have to try to rebuild the team and that was going to happen through drafting well and signing some free agents to help these young players develop. And that's the course of action we took.”
In other words, the Canucks’ rebuild under Jim Benning started in 2015, after they were ousted from the playoffs in the first round by the Calgary Flames.
That certainly seems like revisionist history. After all, this is a management group that refused to even use the word “rebuild” until 2017, two years after Benning supposedly had this revelation that a rebuild was necessary.
It’s classic doublethink, which is “the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.” Despite everything indicating the team wasn’t rebuilding, you must think of it as a rebuild. And if you can accept the contradiction and believe that the team was both rebuilding and not rebuilding at the same time, then you’ll believe anything at all.
It’s also not how Benning spoke at the time. Instead of taking the first-round playoff exit as a sign of a need to rebuild, Benning and his management team seemed to take making the playoffs at all as a sign they were moving in the right direction, at least publically. In an interview with Bob McKenzie heading into the 2015-16 season, Benning suggested the Canucks would once again be a 100-point team and make the playoffs thanks to an infusion of youth, speed, and toughness.
For the moment, however, let’s ignore what Benning said and look at what he did. What did Benning do immediately after they made the playoffs that first season?
There were a few early moves that could be interpreted as rebuilding moves. Benning sent Eddie Lack to the Carolina Hurricanes for a 3rd and a 7th-round pick. He somehow got the San Jose Sharks to give him a 7th-round pick for Patrick McNally. Kevin Bieksa was moved to the Anaheim Ducks for a 2nd-round pick in 2016.
Those are decent moves to add picks, particularly when you consider how Lack and Bieksa saw their play drop off significantly after they were moved and McNally lasted just two seasons in the AHL before dropping to the ECHL and going overseas to Europe. Benning also traded Zack Kassian and a 5th-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Brandon Prust, but their reasoning had more to do with Kassian’s personal struggles off the ice than the team itself.
Benning’s biggest move, however, was the polar opposite of a rebuilding move. He traded Nick Bonino, Adam Clendening, and a 2016 2nd-round pick for Brandon Sutter and a conditional 3rd.
That’s a move designed for short-term success, not for a rebuild that prioritizes long-term success at the cost of short-term pain.
If we fast forward a year to 2016, when the Canucks would supposedly be on year into their rebuilding process, there’s no sign whatsoever of a rebuild taking place.
2016 was the year Benning traded Jared McCann, a 2nd-round pick, and a 4th-round pick for Erik Gudbranson and a 5th. That’s a move that sacrificed multiple pieces with future potential for a player that was meant to help the Canucks win immediately.
2016 was also the year Benning signed Loui Eriksson to a six-year, $36 million contract. That’s not the signing of a rebuilding team. With an eye towards how Eriksson had performed with Daniel and Henrik Sedin in international competition, that was a win-now-and-damn-the-future-consequences signing.
The intent here isn’t to revisit a couple of Benning’s most-derided moves as Canucks GM, but to instead drive home the point that the Canucks were absolutely not in rebuild mode in 2015 or 2016. There is no possible way to interpret the moves made in those years as those of a rebuilding team.
That’s not even to mention the 2016 trade deadline, when the Canucks didn’t make a single move, eventually losing both Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata to free agency, acquiring neither picks nor prospects.
That’s not even to say that all of Benning’s moves at the time were bad. Trading Hunter Shinkaruk to the Calgary Flames for Markus Granlund worked out pretty well, as did moving a second-round pick for Sven Baertschi. But neither of those moves look like rebuilding moves either. In both cases, Benning moved a prospect or a pick for an older player that could help the team immediately.
This revisionist history doesn’t do Benning any favours. In fact, it unravels one of the standard defences of Jim Benning’s early years as GM.
Fans of the work Benning has done as Canucks GM will argue that he had no choice but to try to make the playoffs in his early years on the job, whether because of an edict from ownership or because the team owed it to the Sedins. Therefore, Benning shouldn’t be judged for not starting the rebuild sooner, because it was out of his control. In this view the Canucks’ rebuild didn’t start in earnest until 2017, when Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen were traded at the deadline and Trevor Linden finally uttered the word “rebuild.”
Revising history so that the rebuild started two years earlier doesn’t do Benning any favours. In fact, it makes those years look even worse.
The moves made by Benning in 2016 and 2017 make sense if the team was trying to get back to the playoffs. You can argue whether they were the right moves or not, but at least they make sense. If the team was rebuilding, however, then his moves make no sense whatsoever.
As I see it, there are three ways to interpret Benning’s revisionist history. One is that he’s being dishonest and trying to spin his early years as GM to look better. That’s not a particularly good look.
Another possibility is that he’s being absolutely honest and that everything he and the Canucks did after his first year on the job was, in fact, a rebuild. That’s not a good look either. Apart from drafting fairly well, the Canucks didn’t do any actual rebuilding in 2015 or 2016.
The third possibility is that Benning is being completely honest, but that he has a definition of the word “rebuild” in his mind that bears no resemblance to how anyone else defines the word “rebuild.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe Benning sees “drafting well and signing some free agents” as rebuilding. For some reason, that’s the possibility that scares me the most.
I guess there’s one other possibility: I’m reading way too much into one thing Benning said. But what am I supposed to do? He said it. Am I a fool for thinking that the words coming out of Benning’s mouth reflect what he thinks and believes?
I just think it's worthwhile to have a clear view of the past. There's nothing wrong with being optimistic about the future of the Canucks and believing that they are currently on the right path for success, but those that revise the past are doomed to repeat it.