Say what you want about Jim Benning (seriously, we’ve been less than kind here at NM), but there’s no doubt that he has some big brass ones below the belt.
It’s never easy to trade a first-round pick, never mind dealing away a top-10 selection. Benning shocked the hockey world on July 23rd by becoming the first GM since Lou Lamoriello in 2013 to trade away a top-10 selection.
In this hazy, post-vacation offseason thoughts column, let’s break down one of the under-discussed reasons about why Jimbo put his big brass ones on the table.
1. Benning wasn’t just trying to save his job...
He was trying to save the team.
That much is evident based on the recent comments from Elias Pettersson.
“I want to stay [in Vancouver] now, but I also want to play for a team that’s winning and has the chance to go far into the playoffs every year,” said the 22-year-old, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2024-25 season. “I feel like we’ve got a chance to do that next year. If we have that chance when my next deal expires … I don’t know. I just want to play where there’s a chance of winning.”
The Canucks are 26th overall in the NHL since Benning took over the club in 2014-15. After missing the playoffs in five of those seven seasons, there should be immense pressure on Benning to, at minimum, ice a playoff-calibre team.
It goes beyond that, however. There’s no doubt that Benning knows how much Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, and the rest of the core, want to win. He needed to show that the organization is also committed to winning, especially after an offseason in 2020 where they seemingly focused on cutting costs as opposed to building a playoff team.
You can quibble about whether Benning made the right moves, but the fact of the matter is that he needed to do something big to prove to the Canucks core that losing and failure are no longer options.
2. Why a three-year deal is the most likely outcome for Pettersson
Are you stressed about Petey’s lack of a contract?
I’d be more stressed about whether Benning has actually built a capable playoff contender around his star centre, but I digress.
Once the contract for Pettersson is announced, you should probably be surprised if it’s anything aside from a three-year deal. One or two years would give me some cause for concern after his recent comments (can the Canucks “win” in the next two 1-2 years?). Four years would be a more frightening scenario since that would walk Pettersson right to unrestricted free agency. A five-year deal or more also seems out of the question based on the Canucks lack of cap space.
3. About Pettersson’s comments...
Those who are “dunking” on Elias Pettersson for saying he wants to win, go cheer for another team.
Who cares about loyalty to a club if the player isn’t serious about winning?
4. Ekman-Larsson’s potential resurgence hinges only on one thing
This is one of those scenarios where you can crunch all the numbers you want to try and find an optimistic answer, but there’s really nothing positive to glean from his analytics.
If you’re praying for an OEL resurgence, you’re really just banking on one thing.
A change of scenery.
Whether it was his mother’s passing, a contentious relationship with Rick Tocchet, or playing for a team that failed to trade him and pay him within the span of six weeks last season, there was a barrage of reasons why Ekman-Larsson might not have been fully motivated to play for the Coyotes.
If you’re a Canucks fan, you have to believe that it was circumstance — and not a dramatic age-related decline — that’s affected Ekman-Larsson on the ice.
Hey, it’s August after all. Smile a little.
5. How will Halak perform in a high-shot volume environment?
With the Boston Bruins last season, Halak ranked 70th among 76 goalies in terms of shots-faced per-60 at even-strength.
He’s at the other end of the chart from the Canucks netminders. Last season, Holtby faced the 6th-most shots at evens, while Demko was 11th.
It’s been a similar story for Halak throughout his time with Boston. However, Halak was in a similar high-shot, high-scoring chance against environment back in 2017-18.
That was his last season with the New York Islanders, which was also the team's last season under head coach Doug Weight, before the team hired Barry Trotz. That year, Halak faced the 7th-most shots at even-strength. He did finish with an above-average .923 save percentage at even-strength, so there should be some hope that he can perform adequately in a high-danger environment.
6. Which dark horse forward could surprise at camp?
The Canucks were obviously one of the busiest teams in free agency, and the plethora of depth forwards they signed should make the Abbotsford franchise intriguing from the get-go.
However, will any of these new depth forwards surprise fans by making the team out of camp?
Based on their contract status, one front-runner has to be Justin Dowling, who will be 31 years old when the regular season starts. However, he is a natural centreman, which should mean something with the oft-injured Brandon Sutter occupying the fourth-line spot. He isn’t flashy, but he is more responsible than someone like Zack MacEwen.
I’ve always been intrigued by Delta product Nic Petan, but he’s an awkward fourth-line fit based on his skill set.
Phillip Di Giuseppe is another intriguing forward who posted 1.47 points-per-60 in 30 games with the Rangers last season, a credible third-line rate. He did score just once in 30 games, but his 1.1 primary assists per-60 is notable. No Canuck player registered more than 1 primary assist per-60 last season. Pettersson led the team there with 0.88 primary assists per-60.
If I’m MacEwen, I’m worried about my job security. I would think Matthew Highmore has a leg up on the 12th forward spot. Then, I would argue that Dowling has the inside track on the 13th spot, with Di Giuseppe not far behind him.
For the record, I think the Canucks will carry eight defencemen and 13 forwards on the roster heading into next season.
7. Which of these four defencemen begin the season in Abbotsford?
So, if the Canucks carry eight defencemen, who gets sent down to Abbotsford?
The spot at left defence on the third pairing is Jack Rathbone’s to lose. Based on what we saw from him last season, I’d be surprised if he loses his stranglehold on the job.
That leaves (in no particular order) Brad Hunt, Olli Juolevi and Luke Schenn as the seventh, eighth and ninth defenceman on the depth chart. While you’d think Schenn has a leg up on a roster spot, it’s worth noting that Brad Hunt has also played the right side, with some notable success alongside Carson Soucy in Minnesota. However, Schenn’s style of play fits the Canucks strategy of having physical, defensive-minded defencemen playing on the right side, whereas Hunt’s game is more about speed and playmaking.
Where do all these moves leave Juolevi?
This really is a make-it-or-break-it year for the 23-year-old. He has to at least outperform Hunt in training camp, which won’t be an easy task. If he doesn’t deserve a roster spot, would the Canucks risk putting him on waivers?
Aside from Podkolzin’s appearance at training camp, the battle for who makes this team on defence will be one of the most interesting situations to keep an eye on.