Since being hired on May 21st, 2014 as the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Benning has signed 53 unrestricted free agents. That number is inflated by depth signings, but there have been some key ones worth analyzing over his tenure.
What I am going to focus on primarily are players that played at least one entire season for an NHL team prior to signing with the Canucks. The player also had to be signed with the intention of playing with the Canucks, rather than the Utica Comets. That would exclude guys like Tyler Graovac, Zack MacEwen and Brogan Rafferty, among others.
Once you apply those parameters to his UFA signings, you are left with 17 players on your list. I think the fairest way to judge a signing is to try and understand the context it was made in, assess the number of years in the term of the contract, consider the Salary Cap hit, and then review player performance.
Let’s start with the worst.
If you want to unite Canucks’ Nation all you have to do is say two words...Loui Eriksson. There is really nothing else to say except this is Jim Benning’s worst free agent signing ever.
By the time the 2016 offseason rolled around, the promises of the Willie Desjardins era had crashed and burned. Desjardins had guided the Canucks back into a playoff spot in his first year as coach during the 2014-15 season but the postseason ended quickly in a first round exit at the hands of Micheal Ferland and the Calgary Flames.
The 2015-16 season was a disaster. Rookies like Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann were force-fed into the line-up. The Sedin brothers began their descent toward retirement. Radim Vrbata disappeared. Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins disintegrated. Everyone except ownership and maybe Trevor Linden and Jim Benning knew that the glory period was over.
In an effort to continue to try and compete for a playoff spot during the Sedins waning years, Benning had two players in mind. Once first target Milan Lucic gave a quick no-thank-you, the hunt was on to nab Eriksson.
In the context of finding a new winger for the Sedins with the goal of trying to make the playoffs again signing Eriksson made sense. The three of them had played together on the same line internationally for Sweden and had shown some success in their brief time together. Eriksson was coming off a 30 goal, 63 point season playing with the Boston Bruins. He had been a reliable goal scorer during his NHL career including a career high 36 lamp-lighters with the Dallas Stars in 2008-09.
Just maybe ownership was right. Maybe the trio would ignite as a top first line and Rogers Arena would be full of playoff cash again. Maybe Eriksson would hit 40 goals for the first time in his career depositing brilliant Sedin-to-Sedin-to-Eriksson passes into opposition nets.
But then this happened in his first game and it never really got any better.
Loui Eriksson kicks off his Canucks tenure with an own goal pic.twitter.com/2hTHpZ0WTl— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) October 16, 2016
The $ 6-million cap hit Eriksson signed for was in line with the other signings made on or about that fateful July 1st, 2016 day. If 30-goal-a-season Loui had arrived at YVR no one would have complained. The main issue most fans had with the signing was the direction it indicated the club was headed in. Instead of a tear-down and rebuild they were going to try and make the playoffs instead. The six-year term was a problem but no one thought it would be a significant issue until year four of the contract at the earliest.
No one really could have predicted it would turn out as badly as it has. It is almost as if Eriksson, upon signing the six-year deal with the Canucks completely lost any offensive abilities he ever possessed. Perhaps he used a pen made out of kryptonite.
The problematic fourth year has now arrived as expected but not after three years of 30 goal seasons but instead after 32 goals total in three seasons. This season Eriksson has tallied one lonely goal in the 17 games he has suited up for. Even when he plays he only gets an average ice time of under 10 minutes a game. He has no offensive game to speak of. He doesn’t play physical. He is not really that good a penalty killer any more either. He is a man on death row awaiting the call to the waiver wire to end his NHL career. The call will likely come sooner than later.
Mesmerized by a season in which Sam Gagner’s ice time was managed perfectly to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses by former Canucks’ coach John Tortorella in Columbus, Jim Benning bit on the bait and made a bad mistake on July 1st, 2017. He signed Gagner to a three-year $9.45 million dollar contract.
The Canucks were coming off a dismal 2016-17 season which would prove to be the final chapter in the Willie Desjardins trilogy. The offence, such that it was, was led by a young emerging Bo Horvat with a respectable 52 points but still a dismal number for your team points leader.
Benning was desperate to add offence to his team. Gagner had just put up 18 goals and 50 points for the Columbus Blue Jackets. It seemed like the thing to do, but it was a regrettable signing almost immediately.
New coach Travis Green wanted a team of players who were hard on the puck and back-checked relentlessly. Gagner was neither. He’d thrived in his one season in Columbus by being sheltered on the fourth line and playing on the first unit power play. Despite his 18 goals, he was streaky and his season included a 30 game goal-less drought.
His brief career with the Canucks was barren for the most part. He didn’t fit into the top six nor the bottom six and there were no more sixes available. He didn’t even gel on the Canucks’ man advantage crew. He put up only 10 goals and 31 points in his one full season.
By season two he was on waivers with no takers. Eventually, he was sent away in a bad contract for bad contract deal with the Edmonton Oilers in return for Ryan Spooner. Spooner after being bought out by the Canucks now plays for Minsk in the KHL. Gagner has shuffled off to the AHL again but is back with the Oilers now but has one single tally in 15 games played for them.
Michael Del Zotto
Defenceman Michael Del Zotto was signed on the same day as Sam Gagner. His contract was for two years at $3 million dollars per season. The intent with his signing was to shore up an impotent defence group that had been further weakened when Russian rookie Nikita Tryamkin decided he could no longer breath the marijuana-laced air outside of Rogers Arena and opted for the cleaner oxygen of greater-Siberia.
To be fair, Del Zotto tried hard in his first season with the Canucks and showed up for all 82 games. He also put up respectable offensive numbers with six goals and 16 assists for a total of 22 points. He averaged almost 21 minutes per game. He laid on the hits but he gave the puck away. Del Zotto played a lot but most Canucks’ fans would have preferred him to play a lot less.
By season two of the contract Travis Green agreed with the fans. After playing 23 games in year two amidst many healthy scratches, he was banished to Anaheim in a trade for Luke Schenn and a 7th round pick in a please get-out-of-my-town deal.
Del Zotto did get the last laugh though. He was traded by Anaheim soon after arriving there to the St. Louis Blues and played a few regular season games for the Blues and got his name emblazoned on the Stanley Cup for his minimal efforts.
Most Vancouver fans probably barely remember Alexander Burmistrov’s tenure in Vancouver, and with good reason. He was a one-year signing at a reasonable $900,000. Newell Brown thought might be helpful on his extra man team, but he was wrong and the Canucks’ became his final disappointed NHL suitor. He lasted 24 games and after scoring a paltry two goals, was happily released to spread his offensive disappointment in the KHL which he continues to do to this day.
Matt Bartkowski (and Jack Skille)
Defenceman Matt Bartkowski signed with the Canucks on July 1st, 2015 for 1 year for a price of $ 1.750 million dollars and winger Jack Skille was inked by the Canucks on October 13th, 2016 for one-year for a $ 750,000 fee. Both were one-season stop-gap warm body signings with no future beyond that envisioned.
Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to slot them in this category. Bartkowski had the best statistical season of his NHL career in Vancouver, but he was also a complete liability at times. Skille was just happy that chewing through enough rope got him one last NHL pay-day. But they also don’t fit under “The Ugly” or “The Good”. Maybe another heading titled “Meh” is required for the two of them.
Jim Benning’s best UFA signing so far may have been his very first one when on July 1st, 2014 he signed goaltender Ryan Miller to a three-year contract at $6 million dollars per season. Miller steadied a goaltending situation that after the Heritage Classic debacle that left the Canucks with two promising but unproven goalies.
During his time in Vancouver, Miller provided solid crease-minding and kept the team in many games they had no business being in. He also bought time for Benning to better decide which of Eddie Lack or Jacob Markstrom he should bet his money on. Suffice to say that the luxury Miller provided did allow Benning to make the right decision.
Ryan Miller with a save of the year candidate pic.twitter.com/7lhZo6Z6qO— Gino Hard (@Ginohard_) November 11, 2016
Two days after obtaining Miller’s signature on a contract, Benning did likewise with forward Radim Vrbata signing him to a two-year $10 million dollar engagement. Vrbata had an excellent first season as a Canuck firing in 31 goals in 79 games. He did fade though in the second year of the contract, and Benning reversed his good work with the signing by failing to trade him at the deadline, although Vrbata did Benning no favours with his odified no-trade clause.
Nilsson was brought in to challenge Jacob Markstrom for the number one goalie spot after Ryan Miller packed his bags to move to Anaheim. Nilsson was signed to a reasonable two-year, $5 million contract and was given a chance to fight Markstrom.
However, he turned out to be very inconsistent. When he was on his game he was unbeatable. When he was off his game he couldn’t stop a beach ball. Unfortunately for him he was off more than on.
Nilsson did buy time for blue-chip goalie prospect Thatcher Demko to marinate in Utica until he was ready to play meaningful minutes in the NHL. Indeed, in year two of the contract, Nilsson was dealt to Ottawa to make room for Demko in Vancouver’s crease.
Thomas Vanek is FILTHY. What a move, what a pass, Boeser tucks! pic.twitter.com/0f46gJQe1t— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) December 29, 2017
For the first eight years of his career, Thomas Vanek was a key offensive force for the Bufffalo Sabres. By the time, Jim Benning signed him to play in Raincouver, he’d become a well-traveled player. Signed just before training camp for $2 million, he played 61 games for the Canucks and tallied 17 goals and 24 helpers before being dealt at the trade deadline.
He also served as a good role model particularly for Brock Boeser during his rookie season. As a cherry on top, he garnered the Canucks Tyler Motte in return for him at the trade deadline. Motte has turned into a useful fourth-line energy player for the Canucks.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
All of the UFAs discussed above have come and gone. Well, except for Loui Eriksson who has come and is still here but is all but gone.
The verdict on the remaining seven free agents is still a couple of years away. Whether or not the signings of Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Tim Schaller, Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn, Micheal Ferland and Oscar Fantenberg are good ones or not we won’t know until they are in the rear view mirror.
The first indication we will get as to the true value of the signings though will be in April 2020 when we see whether the Canucks’ young core four are putting golfing cleats on their feet or instead freshly-sharpened skates readied for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Antoine Roussel in a playoff series might be one of my favorite things ever.— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) April 19, 2014