To say this is a do-or-die year for the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning is an understatement.
It’s more like a do-or-horribly-die-in-the-media-and-fan-base. The Canucks are desperately looking to get back into the playoffs this season, but, even in the weak Pacific Division, there’s no assurance they’ll be one of the four post-season teams.
Benning and his management group know they’re under intense pressure to make this a positive season for Vancouver. Team owner Francesco Aquilini is a hands-on type of guy, and he wrote a letter to Canucks season-ticket-holders at the end of last season detailing his belief in Vancouver’s refurbished roster.
That message is fine and dandy, but it won’t mean a thing if the Canucks crater this season. Head coach Travis Green is working with a veteran squad that now includes former Coyotes winger Conor Garland and former Yotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, former Stars center Jason Dickinson, and former Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Vancouver ownership and Benning avoided an early-season controversy by agreeing to new contracts with stars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, and core forwards Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat are healthy and ready to battle. They’re salary-capped-out – CapFriendly.com has them at an $83.7 salary at the moment, $2 million over the NHL’s cap ceiling of $81.5 million – and they’ve got a real opportunity to make the playoff in the Pacific. But it won’t be a given. Drama almost always seems to play a role in Vancouver, and if they fail to qualify for the post-season for the sixth time in the past seven years, there will be no justifying Benning continuing to run the team.
Vancouver’s players know what’s at stake for them this season. Experienced NHLers J.T. Miller, Tyler Myers and Brandon Sutter – players who have been on multiple teams before coming to the Canucks – understand that failure to make the playoffs and take some strides once they’re there will result in major changes to their lineup. And it won’t be Benning making those changes. Aquilini didn’t hire former superstars Daniel and Henrik Sedin to be the Canucks’ new advisors to Benning to just sit back and watch games forever. Sooner or later (and probably sooner), they’re going to be comfortable taking on bigger roles, and Aquilini is going to be comfortable offering them bigger roles.
There has already been a bit of upset in the Canucks’ camp this season. Defenseman Travis Hamonic’s absence from training camp has unsettled their defense corps, which already has to adjust to the departure of longtime Vancouver D-man Alex Edler. If it takes a while for all the pieces to gel, they’re going to be looking to starting goalie Thatcher Demko to help them win games. And that could be another problem, as Demko has not played more than the 35 games-played he registered last season. Demko will have Halak to support him, but they certainly hope his stats will be better than the 16-18-1 record Demko he recorded for a bad Canucks team in 2021. Again, that’s not assured.
You have to believe the Canucks have players that are essentially untouchable – Pettersson and blueliner Quinn Hughes, who signed contract extensions last week, are in that group – but a catastrophic season would force whoever is in charge to not bring back a similar lineup in 2022-23. It’s unlikely they’d be ripping things up, all the way to the bottom of the organization, because their key cogs are almost all in their early twenties. The defense is on average an older group (they’ve got four D-men who are at least 30 years old). But the contracts some of them have – Ekman Larsson is signed through the 2026-27 season at $7.26-million per season – aren’t likely to be moved. Benning has gambled greatly on his moves this summer, pushing all his chips behind his team. If he didn’t double down on the players he chose to employ, that would’ve been cause for his dismissal long ago.
That’s just the way hockey works. Bad teams can be bad for a couple of years, but only if they’ve got young stars in important positions. Team architects never believe they’ll be in a city for the long term if they don’t show progress, and show it in a hurry. The fact Benning has been given the reins for four years in the Vancouver market is in and of itself an achievement for him. Many NHL GMs have been let go after fewer seasons. But Benning too understands what is on the line for him this year. He’ll be looking for work if the Canucks wobble and fall, and he knows it.
Vancouver fans have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune for years now. If the Canucks let them down this season, those fans will grow rabid in their push for notable change. Aquilini will have no choice but to change GMs, and a reset button for the team will be pushed. Benning’s off-season moves may be the things that get them back to the playoffs, but that’s the bare minimum for him to keep his job. Anything less, and the drama in Vancouver will ratchet up to its maximum again.