Press conference for Jim Benning’s contract extension was a missed opportunity for a new message

Pass it to Bulis

Compare and contrast the press conference when Jim Benning was first announced as the new general manager of the Vancouver Canucks with Wednesday’s press conference announcing his contract extension.

In the former, Benning and Trevor Linden were clean-shaven, with crisp ties and buttoned-up suit jackets. The pair have never been the most dynamic speakers, but they seemed happy and optimistic about the challenge to come.

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On Wednesday, Benning and Linden looked like two men who know that nothing has gone according to plan. The ties were jettisoned, their jackets and shirts were un-buttoned, and the mood was dour. Just from a visual standpoint, it painted a much different picture.

What matters far more than appearance, however, is the content of their message. In that regard, Wednesday’s press conference was a massive missed opportunity.

If you already believe in Benning and the future of the Canucks organization, then this press conference was likely pleasant enough. Benning and Linden gave fans plenty of opportunities to nod along with them, particularly when Benning talked about his strengths in the draft and the prospects coming up through the system.

“We have five or six blue-chip prospects moving forward,” said Benning, specifically naming Thatcher Demko, Elias Pettersson, and Adam Gaudette.

But for those who are not fans of Benning or are on the fence, this press conference failed to present any new arguments or a new message to win hearts and minds.

Instead, the message was largely the same as when Benning was first hired, albeit with less optimism and a fuzzier timeline. With the Canucks on their way to a third-straight season in the NHL basement, it’s a message that won’t resonate with those not already on board.

That message was a simple one: compete, while bringing in young players.

“Our goal is going to be to make the playoffs every year,” said Benning back in 2014. “By making the playoffs, it gives us a chance to with the Cup. From there, though, we want to start integrating young players into our lineup.”

At that initial press conference and in other interviews, Benning talked about turning the team around “in a hurry.” He felt that his approach of bolstering the lineup and staying competitive would make it easier to bring in young players and get them contributing in a winning culture. On Wednesday, the message was the same, but gone was the talk of “the Cup” and the optimism of a quick turnaround.

“Every year we try to bring in some young players for development, but try to surround them with experienced guys to show them the way,” said Benning. “We’ve had some existing contracts on players that come to an end and when those contracts come to an end, we need to replace those players. We’re going to keep trying hard to be competitive in the games as we’re bringing in these kids and developing them.”

“The bottom line is our goal is to win games and to be competitive to make the playoffs, that’s what we’re here for,” he added.

“I think being competitive,” said Linden, “but not sacrificing what we feel is the future, so we need to continue to provide an environment for our young players that they can be competitive, and at the same time be patient with our young players.”

Throughout the press conference, the absence of any mention of the Stanley Cup seemed notable. The closest Benning came was in the initial preamble, when he said, “We are going to build this team back into a contender again.”

I’m not asking for a detailed plan for how the Canucks intend to get from Point A to Point B. What I, and many fans, would appreciate is an acknowledgement that Point B exists and how far away the Canucks are from reaching from Point B.

Apart from that brief mention of becoming a contender, the only talk was of competitiveness, which is a conveniently wishy-washy word. How do you judge if a team is “competitive” or not? Do the results matter, if all you desire is for the team to be competitive? Does winning matter?

Have the Canucks been competitive this season? Benning thinks so.

“I feel like we made real strides this year,” said Benning. “I think with injuries, that played into it, but we play a fast style of game now, our guys have worked hard and been competitive. I think we’re heading in the right direction, I really do.”

“Through free agency this summer, we gotta continue to add players to help support our young players in competing hard every night,” said Benning. That might raise red flags for fans who are eager to see the Canucks stop signing more Sam Gagners and Michael Del Zottos to take roster spots away from younger players.

As to when the Canucks will do more than just be competitive, Benning and Linden refrained from providing an answer.

“There’s only one way to do this and that’s to be patient and stick to it,” said Linden. “We’re not going to solve our problems at February 26th at the deadline, there’s no easy fixes on July 1st. This is a process.”

Again, like the theme of competitiveness, this feels wishy-washy. Just as there is no objective way to assess how “competitive” a team is, refusing to provide a timeline seems designed to stave off criticism. After all, if the Canucks don’t make the playoffs next season, or even in the year or two after that, Linden and Benning made no promises, so can’t be blamed for not delivering.

That may be the point, of course. Benning has been excoriated for suggesting the Canucks could be turned around quickly, so wanting to avoid that kind of criticism is understandable. The issue is that it doesn’t give fans a clear vision to grab onto and believe in.

What Benning clearly believes in is the quality of the prospects he has helped bring into the organization and it is there that he gives Canucks fans the most hope for the future.

When asked whether the Canucks’ prospect pool is exceptional, Benning said, “I do. I feel like with Thatcher, when we drafted him, we felt like he can develop at some point into a number one goalie. It takes time with goalies, so it’s going to be a process. With Olli Juolevi, I know he’s had some ups and downs, but we think he’s going to be a top-four, puck-moving defenceman. And with our forward group, we might have, we could have three guys that are going to be top-six forwards for us when our team’s good.”

The concern here is that this is no different than most prospect pools in the NHL. Pretty much every team has a goaltender they believe will be a number one goaltender. Every team has at least one future top-four defenceman in the fold, and at least three forwards that they hope will be top-six forwards. The Canucks’ prospect pool is very good and fans should be excited, but it’s not so much better than other systems in the NHL that it is sure be a difference maker for the Canucks long-term.

The biggest issue is on defence. When asked about defencemen in the system, Benning talked about Olli Juolevi’s development in the Finnish league, then turned to praising the performance of Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield in the AHL. This may seem harsh, but that’s a dire situation.

From all indications, the Canucks are incredibly high on Brisebois, but he’s a longshot to be an impact player in the NHL. The same is true of Chatfield. That these are the players brought up as the second and third-best defence prospects in the organization is a serious cause for concern.

But the larger issue is that the Canucks’ desire to be competitive while integrating young players into the team has not worked through the first four years of Benning’s tenure. The team has not been competitive and so far just two players that Benning has drafted are in the Canucks lineup: Jake Virtanen and Brock Boeser.

This press conference was an opportunity for Linden and Benning to address these types of concerns and provide a new vision for their fans. Instead, it was just more of the same.

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