Jim Benning has been sitting in a molten hot seat in the eyes of many Vancouver Canucks and hockey fans. He’s sacrificed offensively inclined players in favor of defensive players like Brandon Sutter and Eric Gudbranson. He’s moved too many second round picks for “reclamation projects” such as Linden Vey and Sven Baertschi. He’s failed to acquire assets for valuable players such as Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, chasing bottom tier playoff positions and opting instead to let them walk via free agency. He’s left the Canucks in purgatorial territory for two years too many and it’s completely valid to ask that simple question:
Why hasn’t he blown up the team in the last few years?
I’ve got a guess.
Since the 2005 lockout, there have been 4 major rebuilding projects. Two have ended in multiple Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and Chicago, and two have ended up seeing little progress with Edmonton and Colorado. You know the story: Pittsburgh gets Sid the Kid, they’ve drafted Malkin the year prior, and they go win a couple of Cups. With Chicago, Duncan Keith ultramorphs into Scott Niedermayer 2.0, they draft Toews and Kane, and snag themselves a trio of trophies.
On the flip side of the coin, Edmonton got three first overallers, but couldn’t do diddly squat with them. Without McDavid literally saving the franchise, who knows where they’d still be. Colorado got 1st, 2nd, and 3rd overall picks over a span of 5 years, and it looks like they’re going to be a lottery team for the foreseeable future given current circumstances. Probably not what they were going for when they first got Duchene back in 2009.
Put simply, Vancouver has been harshly criticized for attempting to tread water, when the age and composition of the roster has clearly suggested to focus on younger talent. They’ve added veterans such as Loui Eriksson and Ryan Miller, and hadn’t made any attempt at truly beginning the rebuild.
If we look at the Stanley Cup blueprint Chicago and Pittsburgh have set, however, Benning might just be playing it perfectly.
When Chicago and Pittsburgh showed everyone how to perfectly execute a rebuild, they weren’t handing the keys of the franchise to a couple of 18 year olds. Both teams had been anywhere from mediocre to poor for a number of years, and had reasonable, if not solid young cores in place prior to drafting franchise players.
The following table shows the key roster players each set of top draft picks joined. In order to qualify for the table, you had to either be on the team for the first two years of “growing pains”, or be drafted prior to the franchise players themselves and were able to hop on board shortly after.
Seems a bit different.
Other than the fact the Colorado and Edmonton draft picks were just worse than Crosby or Toews, they also joined significantly less developed rebuilds, with shreds of NHL talent and a bare cupboard of prospects. If they’ve shown us anything, it’s that top picks don’t change franchises without core pieces around them. They’ve also shown us it’s better to get Sidney Crosby than Matt Duchene, but that’s besides the point.
Maybe, just maybe Mister Benning is aware of all this. Maybe he thinks that keeping the vets together from a team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 is beneficial for the likes of Horvat, Hutton, Granlund, and Baertschi to learn from. Maybe by dragging out the rebuild he accomplishes two things instead of one: he accumulates promising young talent, and he establishes a core that has been distilled in the leadership of Hart Trophy winners and community leaders. Perhaps he has an idea of when the Sedins will hang up the skates, and he thinks the team will trend downward from then anyways, and has considered that a full young core ready to get last place is better than having a skeletal NHL roster for 18 and 19 year old boys to attempt (and fail) to lead.
Let’s face it. Edmonton and Colorado blew it up “when they were supposed to”, and it failed (again save for McDavid). They employed 2nd to 3rd line veterans while drafting 18 year old kids and it certainly hasn’t panned out. The moment the playoffs were out of reach, they got rid of everyone, and started over.
What if the Canucks had blown it up when they were supposed to? What if they had moved Hamhuis, Edler, Sedin, Sedin, Burrows, and Hansen two years ago – the moment the Stanley Cup was a pipe dream?
It’s unlikely they would have moved everyone at once given today’s trading landscape, but they would have plummeted immediately to the basement of the league, and would have no one to lead the team. No one to ease the transition of becoming a professional hockey player.
Their forwards would learn leadership from players who have never been leaders in the National Hockey League. Their 20 year old d-man would have to rely on Chris Tanev or Yannick Weber for the blueprint of becoming a quality NHL defenseman. Tanev is a solid player, but aren’t they going to be better long-term if the Sedins and Hamhuis were around to show the kids how to be a professional while deflecting the intense media pressure?
It’s the crossover of those two theories that make Benning’s possible plan more precise than perhaps anyone could have imagined. Of course, there are a number of ways it could all play out; maybe the Canucks don’t plummet to consecutive top 3 selections just because the Sedins retire. Maybe they continue in purgatory for a while and who knows what type of talent they’ll get consistently drafting between 5th and 15th overall. But if it turns out that this young core isn’t capable of escaping the basement for a while in the post-Sedin era and they snag some lottery picks, the potential is enormous. What about a franchise player or two joining Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton, Chris Tanev, Brock Boeser, Loui Eriksson, Sven Baertschi, Mikael Granlund, Olli Juolevi, Thatcher Demko, and whoever they get in the 2017 draft?
It sure sounds better than joining Nick Bonino and Radim Vrbata.
Again, it all depends on what transpires. But it sounds like Canucks fans and the rest of the hockey world are expecting, hoping, and predicting catastrophe. It sounds like they all think they should have done it 2 or 3 years ago. Well, maybe Benning feels he has some calculated control on how and when to make that happen. Perhaps patience in deconstructing the team will produce results no one could possibly have predicted when he first started “giving away” 2nd round picks for 20-22 year olds while simultaneously signing 34 year old goaltenders.
And before we wrap up here, let’s acknowledge how fantastic the two trades for Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund are. Granlund might have a lower ceiling than Hunter Shinkaruk, who he was traded for, but Granlund offers a level of developmental guarantee equipped with an offensive package that may well end up becoming top-6 worthy. 32 points in 69 games as a first year pace isn’t a poor one at all and certainly suggests there’s room for more.
Sven Baertschi, though long gone from his top line forward potential of 2012, looks to be a sound top 9 contributor who can help out an offensive line when necessary. Probably not a 30-goal scorer, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t add value on the offensive side of the puck.
These players were traded for who they might become when they’re 26 or 27, not the “underachieving prospects” they were at 20 years old. They complement a rapidly growing core, and one that should add a few top youngsters over the coming 2 or 3 years.
The Sedin’s contracts both end after next season, in the summer of 2018. I have a feeling they’ll be Canucks as long as they want and there’s a possibility they re-sign on 1 or 2-year deals. But if not, Vancouver will be projected to fall even further in the standings, and they’ll be be doing so with a solid core that has potential stars emerging in Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and Thatcher Demko.
Mister Benning, you will without a doubt continue to face your critics, but I like what you’re doing. It looks like it makes a lot of sense, particularly with the return on Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen this past trade deadline. This is a team now loaded with young players, and while I’m sure some of them will trick us all and bust, there is indeed plenty of promise.
Now go get yourself some first overall picks.
Like “big picture” articles and have 5 minutes left on your coffee break?
- This one’s from 8ish games into McDavid’s rookie season, but gets more interesting as time goes on.