If reports regarding Jim Benning taking over as Vancouver Canucks GM this week are correct, his first order of business will be clear: deciding exactly what this team really is. Are the Canucks just a re-tool away from a return to the playoffs, or do they need more substantive personnel changes and a longer timeline to reshape themselves into a bona fide, year-in, year-out Stanley Cup contender?
The answer should be just as clear: as currently comprised, the Canucks are nothing more than an ongoing example of the law of diminishing returns. And if Benning, new team president Trevor Linden and owner Francesco Aquilini deny what many in the hockey world can see plainly, it won’t make a difference which coach is hired to replace the dearly departed John Tortorella; the suffering period will be extended and fan discontent will continue to metastasize.
In so many ways, the Canucks resemble the Calgary Flames when Jarome Iginla was the cornerstone of that franchise. Nothing really changed when Darryl Sutter’s seven-year tenure as GM ended in 2010; Jay Feaster took over and – with the full blessing of team president Ken King and owner Murray Edwards – the Flames still chose not to deal Iginla for more than two years. The Flames continued to struggle and got half-pennies on the dollar when they eventually moved Iginla to Pittsburgh. That was two solid years of delusional thinking that only delayed a long-overdue basement-to-rooftop rebuild.
Should Benning decide he must hold on to the Canucks’ veterans at all costs, Vancouver will find itself in the same situation.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin may still be front-line players, but they’ll be 34 years old by the time the 2014-15 season begins; they simply aren’t of the same caliber as the twentysomething-year-old superstars who play for the true beasts of the Western Conference. The twins are under contract for four more seasons at $7 million a year, but on a team that doesn’t need them to be their primary offensive options and is desperate to win sooner than later – the San Jose Sharks, for instance – they’d be fantastic additions.
Everyone knows veteran center Ryan Kesler wants to be moved, but figuring out a destination for the Sedins ought to be at the very top of Benning’s list of to-dos, as the return they’d provide in any trade would be significant. So would the bounty they’d receive in a deal for defenseman Alex Edler, a talent utterly lost under Tortorella’s alleged tutelage. The 28-year-old blueliner is signed through 2019 at a $5-million cap hit and you can rest assured teams (including, but not limited to the Red Wings) would line up for the chance to acquire him.
If Benning were able to move the Sedins, Edler and Kesler – and use Vancouver’s final amnesty buyout on David Booth – he’d open up $28.25 million in cap space. Of course, some of that space would go to the players the Canucks had to accept back in those trades, but the roster flexibility Benning would gain would shift the team from being the weary hunted to the energized hunter. Suddenly, they’d be able to opportunistically swoop in and pluck a solid young player or two from a competitor in cap trouble. They’d be in prime position to add an extra draft pick or prospect in any deal after taking an odious short-term contract off the hands of a desperate GM.
Moreover, cleaning out the high end of the payroll would remove any pressure Benning has to excel in his first days and months on the job. Kesler will be a distraction until the day he’s dealt, while speculation about the futures of Edler and the Sedins will continue every day they remain in Vancouver. By disengaging from the last remaining pieces of past glories, the Canucks engage with the future. That’s their best selling point right now.
Benning can choose the other route if he wants to – and if Vancouver returns to the playoffs next spring, it will be a feel-good story for a few weeks. What it won’t be is the right thing to do. Even if the Canucks make the playoffs, does anyone really believe this is a team built to beat the Blackhawks, Kings or Ducks in the post-season?
They shouldn’t. Neither should Benning. He arrives with the cachet needed to make big moves. And rationalizing an excuse for not making them is the worst thing he can do.