Hockey is a team game, but when Vancouver fans reflect on Sunday night’s shootout win over Anaheim, they will most likely think of one crossbar and two Canucks GMs.
“Ping” may be the sweetest sound in the world for Vancouver Canucks fans today. Last night, with the game on the line, former Canuck Ryan Kesler skated in on Vancouver’s Eddie Lack in the shootout and rang one off the crossbar. One of the players he had been traded for, Nick Bonino, had already scored in the skills competition, so there’s your neatly-packaged storyline right there. But how about a shout-out to rookie GM Jim Benning for making that all possible in the first place?
Kesler was that most difficult of assets to move last summer: Everyone knew he wasn’t happy in Vancouver and everyone knew he had only a select number of teams he would agree to be traded to. He is also one of the best second-line centers in the world, so you can’t just get a bag of pucks in return and expect your rabid fan base to swallow it.
Benning, who had been hired by the Canucks less than 40 days before the Kesler trade happened, managed to do what fired predecessor Mike Gillis could not: Get value for a star player and not turn the ordeal into a circus.
In Luca Sbisa, the Canucks got a competent all-around defender with plenty of years ahead of him. Benning got a first-round pick out of the deal (which he used to select talented center Jared McCann) and a third-rounder that he swung back to the New York Rangers for Derek Dorsett, a tough veteran whom Benning told me in the summer would also bring leadership. Then there was Bonino, a player who had been overshadowed in Anaheim thanks to bigger-name centers such as Ryan Getzlaf and Saku Koivu, but had nonetheless proved he could be a secondary scoring threat.
At the time of the deal, Benning believed Bonino could slide into Kesler’s spot behind Henrik Sedin and it sure has looked that way so far; he’s tied for third in team scoring with 13 points, giving him two more on the year than Kesler has in Anaheim.
Which is not to say Anaheim lost the trade by any means; the Ducks just had different goals. Kesler gives them a devastating 1-2 punch down the middle with the similarly skilled and surly Getzlaf. The hope of course is that tandem becomes too much for other teams to handle come playoff time.
Both teams are doing great right now, even if only Anaheim was expected to be a contender. The Canucks are right behind them in the Pacific Division thanks to an entirely different outlook from last season. Because it wasn’t just Gillis’ bungling as a GM that did the team in; it was also injuries and a playing style under since-fired coach John Tortorella that simply did not work.
Last season, the Canucks looked slow and that didn’t make much sense for the team. So when Benning was shopping for coaches, he looked to Willie Desjardins.
“His teams play a fast game,” Benning had told me. “They move the puck fast, they support each other…even in (WHL) Moose Jaw, his teams had discipline and structure.”
Hence, Desjardins was the man. So far, it’s working. The Canucks are eighth in offense, scoring half a goal per game more than under Tortorella, when they finished 28th in goals for. Goals-against are roughly the same. Interestingly enough, Vancouver is a weaker possession team so far than it was last season, from Corsi to offensive zone time, so perhaps this is all a mirage.
But for the time being, the Canucks are riding high and if they are to survive the California Gauntlet that is the Pacific this season, they’ve gone about it the right way by getting out of the gates hot.
And for a night at least, the Canucks got the last laugh as Kesler hit iron and gave his old team the extra point.