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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 24, 2020
When measured by longevity in their current position, Jim Benning is the 11th-most senior NHL general manager. If the Calgary Flames would have waited 24 days to hire Brad Treliving, Jimbo would have cracked the top 10.
This may also surprise you: In his six years as the Canucks’ GM, 18 managers have been fired and six others left on their own volition. Peter Chiarelli has been fired twice over that span. Lou Lamoriello has held three different positions. The Florida Panthers fired Dale Tallon, then rehired him.
Men who won Stanley Cups — Chiarelli in Boston, Ray Shero in Pittsburgh, Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles — have been let go. But Benning has kept his job, resolute and determined to turn the Vancouver Canucks into a winner.
Has he succeeded? Well, the team’s overall record during the Benning era — and we can now start calling the past six years the Benning era — is 211-213-54 and the Canucks have made the playoffs once. Before this season was paused by the novel coronavirus crisis, the Canucks had finished 23rd overall in the NHL, followed by 26th, 29th and 28th.
They sat 20th overall when the NHL stopped play on March 12. That was regarded as a great leap forward for the franchise.
Benning has also had his contract extended twice by the Canucks and, as you might have guessed by the wordy lead-in, it’s fair to ask why? Why has he kept his job when so many other GMs have lost theirs? Why has he kept his job when the Canucks have been an abject failure on the ice?
They seem to be fair and reasonable questions. As for the answers, well, that’s where things get complicated.
Benning celebrated his six-year anniversary with the Canucks earlier this week and any assessment of his job performance resists a quick and easy summation. The won-loss record speaks for itself, but if Benning was fired tomorrow he’d leave with the best draft record of any GM in Canucks’ history.
He’s made egregious miscalculations in free agency and his trade record isn’t exactly stellar but this year’s deal to land J.T. Miller was a game-changer for the Canucks.
Payroll you ask? That’s another problem area but, for one of the few times in franchise history, the Canucks have younger, cheaper, in-house answers to their needs.
So where does that leave us?
Benning, at the very least, has set the franchise up for success and his moves during the last couple of years have delivered a series of wins for the Canucks. The lineup is deeper. It’s more dangerous. On the current roster there are four players — Bo Horvat, Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom — who weren’t drafted, traded for or signed by Benning.
The three top scorers — Miller, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes — have all been added in the last two years, along with Tanner Pearson, Tyler Myers, Tyler Toffoli and Adam Gaudette, sort of.
This is now Benning’s team and, after six years, the Canucks finally seem pointed in the right direction. You can argue he didn’t deserve a six-year runway to build this team but the Canucks are in the process of arriving and that’s taken place under Benning’s watch.
Maybe that tells us something about patience and persistence but, for the GM, the game has now changed and the real challenge lies ahead.
Benning has proven to be an adept assessor of talent and his draft record remains the single-most impressive entry on his resume. But that’s just one part of the GM’s job description and Benning’s performance in other areas has been lacking.
We don’t have the time or the space for a detailed analysis of the payroll and, in the COVID-19 NHL era, some of those mistakes are going to pose significant problems for the Canucks.
There are also questions about Benning’s ability to build and maintain an efficient, well-run organization. His split with amateur scouting director Judd Brackett is now a matter of public record. True, the Canucks have added assistant GM Chris Gear but most of the decision-making power is held by Benning and his chief lieutenant John Weisbrod.
The front office is not deep nor does it possess much of a track record. Maybe Benning and Weisbrod can change that. Maybe they’ve taken the Canucks as far as they can go.
That said, the variable in this equation — as in all things with the Canucks — concerns ownership and the unpredictable world of the Aquilinis.
Two years ago Benning survived the firing of team president Trevor Linden, largely because his assessment of the Canucks was more aligned with the Aquilinis than Linden’s. Loosely stated, Benning felt the Canucks were close to winning. Linden thought they were still four years away.
Benning might have been right. It’s helped he was able to trade for Miller and Toffoli and sign Myers and others and those moves were made with ownership’s blessings.
But can Benning do the detailed work necessary to take the Canucks to the next level? Is what he’s built sustainable?
From Benning’s perspective, the good news is he’s still around to answer those questions.
Canucks’ fans just hope that’s good news.
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