VANCOUVER – Trevor Linden hadn’t spoken to Jim Benning in 25 years before interviewing his former teammate for the Vancouver Canucks’ vacant general manager’s position.
It didn’t take long for the pair to realize they shared a blueprint for what it will take get the franchise back on track.
In his first significant hire since being named the Canucks’ president of hockey operations last month, Linden officially introduced Benning as the team’s 11th general manager on Friday, two days after the club announced the move.
“I wanted a builder with similar views that could help us set up the Vancouver Canucks for the next decade and beyond,” Linden said at a press conference at Rogers Arena. “What really became apparent during our interviews is how much we connected on our vision and our values and how we see winning organizations in the National Hockey League.”
Linden and Benning played together with the Canucks for two seasons when the former was just starting his career and the latter was seeing his wind down.
“Trevor was a teammate 25 years ago, but when I interviewed with Trevor, I thought we shared the same values and principles,” said Benning, who has spent the last seven seasons as an assistant GM with the Boston Bruins. “He’s cut from the same cloth I am. He’s going to work hard, he’s going to do everything that he can do to make the organization successful, so I wanted to tie myself to somebody that had the same thoughts and beliefs that I did.”
The Canucks fired president and general manager Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella in the wake of a nightmarish 2013-14 season that saw the club tumble down the standings and miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Tortorella spent just one campaign behind the bench after his puck-pressure, shot-blocking style woefully failed to mesh with a Vancouver roster that had been more free-wheeling under former head coach Alain Vigneault.
Apart from preparing for the NHL draft where the Canucks hold the sixth pick at the end of June, Benning will be looking to hire a coach that shares his and Linden’s thought process on how the game should be played.
“This organization needs to play an up-tempo, fast-skating, skilled game,” said the 51-year-old Edmonton native. “Before last season, this team had almost a relentless attitude about them that they were going to skate and to wear teams down and to score, and for whatever reason that didn’t happen last year.”
Benning was one of the architects of a Bruins organization that defeated the Canucks in seven games in the 2011 Stanley Cup final. He said he had never heard of the “Boston model” in terms of building a team before arriving in Vancouver, but added that he wants the Canucks to incorporate younger players into the lineup with a level of both physicality and skill.
“We want to become a four-line team,” said Benning. “You watch the playoffs now, the final four teams that are playing, they have four lines that contribute. We want our third and fourth lines to have an important role in the team winning.
“We have some work to do there in getting to that point, but we want to be a four-line, six-(defencemen) complete team.”
Tortorella leaned hard on Vancouver’s top players and it cost the team in the second half of season when injuries and fatigue started to pile up. With that in mind, Benning said he specifically wants more out of the club’s bottom-six forwards.
“I’m not talking about fighting, but I’m talking about between the whistles getting in on the forecheck, hitting, playing with a little bit more grit to take some of the heat off the first two lines,” said Benning. “They’re skill guys and let them play, but when the third and fourth line plays, lets get some offensive zone time and spend some time in the other team’s end.”
Tortorella criticized the Canucks’ roster as being “stale” and in need of new blood in his last press conference before getting axed by Linden, but Benning said that despite last season’s performance, he still believes the core group of veterans can be part of a quick turnaround.
“They’re high-character people. When Trevor did the exit meetings with them, they felt bad about what happened this last year,” said Benning. “We’re going to try and help them out by having more depth on our roster, playing four lines and (hiring the right coach).
“Some of the players, for whatever reason, just didn’t have a good year last year. It’s a good team, it’s a talented team and I feel confident that these guys are going to have a good year next year.”
The Canucks have been criticized for a poor draft record in recent years, however Benning pointed to 2013 first-round pick Bo Horvat as an example of a player who might be ready to step in.
“I think he’s a player that is going to be an important guy around here for us going forward,” said Benning. “Vancouver plays in maybe the toughest division in the league. To win our division and keep going, we’re going to have to go through the (L.A. Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks).
“They’re big heavy teams so when we talk to our scouting staff, one of our mandates is ‘Let’s try to get a little bit bigger, let’s get a little more rugged so we can play both styles—we can play a skilled skating style when need be, but when it’s a rugged physical game, we can play that game, too.'”
Linden made a point of thanking the Bruins for allowing Benning to leave the club prior to the NHL draft, a situation that could have made for some uncomfortable conversations.
“I was surprised that it wasn’t a longer process. It actually moved quicker than I thought it would,” said Linden. “I know it was not an easy situation to have someone knocking on your door wanting to talk to someone who’s important to your organization.”
The Canucks’ job is Benning’s first as a general manager and he said he has a type of coach in mind for his new team. While past success is key, experience in the league is not necessarily a prerequisite.
“We want a coach that’s firm but fair (and) has good communication skills so he can relate to the players,” said Benning. “We want a coach that’s going to play a structured style of game when we don’t have the puck, but give the players the freedom to skate and create when they do have the puck.”
Meanwhile, a number of Canucks have no-movement clauses in their contracts, but Benning said those should not be an impediment to improving the roster.
“We’ve got to do what’s right for the organization,” said Benning. “If we feel that we need to approach a player about asking him to waive his no-trade clause, we’re willing to do that.
“I want to do everything I can to make this team successful. It’s a different style team than Boston, but that doesn’t mean the recipe for building the team’s going to be any different.”
Notes: Apart from helping to shape a Bruins’ Cup-winning team in 2011, Benning’s managerial resume also includes 12 seasons with Buffalo Sabres, with eight of those spent as that club’s director of amateur scouting. … Selected sixth overall by Toronto in the 1981 NHL draft, Benning played nine seasons with the Maple Leafs and Canucks, collecting 52 goals and 191 assists in 610 career games.