Canucks not interested in messing with long-term strategy
'We're not going to give away draft picks at trade deadline,' says GM Benning
Jim Benning has spent nearly three seasons restocking the Vancouver Canucks' prospect pool and has no desire to move a future asset for a pending free agent, even if it helps secure a playoff berth.
"We're not going to give away draft picks at the [NHL's March 1 trade] deadline," the third-year general manager said over the phone from Vancouver earlier this week. "Our long-term strategy is to draft and develop our own players to get to where we need to be.
"We've got enough young players on our team and coming [through the system] that I don't think there is urgency to upgrade the talent pool."
We've been playing the right way all year, playing with good structure.— Canucks GM Jim Benning, whose team is vying for a playoff spot
After a nine-game losing streak in October and November dropped the Canucks to 4-8-1, calls to fire head coach Willie Desjardins grew louder.
But Benning's decision to stick with the man he hired in June 2014 has paid off as Vancouver entered play Friday with a 23-22-6 record and three points out of wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"That [tough] start we had," Benning told CBC Sports, "we were in all those games. … We've been playing the right way all year, playing with good structure."
Benning, who left a seven-year post-season run with the Boston Bruins as their assistant GM to join the Canucks in May 2014, is excited about the experience Vancouver's young players will gain the next two months in meaningful games "when the [calibre of] play goes up another level."
He joined a Canucks' squad that had fired GM Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella in the span of a month before his arrival. And a Vancouver outfit with only seven notable players under 25, including defenceman Chris Tanev and goalie Jacob Markstrom, both 24, had missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Top scorers Henrik and Daniel Sedin were 33, and leading the transition by helping their younger teammates adapt to the NHL game, along with fellow forwards Chris Higgins, 30, and Ryan Kesler, 29.
"We needed to bring in a new core group of players in the 22-28 range," Benning recalled. "There was a gap in talent that needed to be filled so we could be competitive and the kids could develop in a competitive environment."
Five weeks later, Benning went to work on the draft floor in Philadelphia, making four trades and adding right-wingers Derek Dorsett (28), Nick Bonino (26) and Linden Vey (23) along with defencemen Luca Sbisa (25) and first-, second- and third-round picks in that draft.
He would later acquire left-winger Sven Baertschi from Calgary at the March 2015 trade deadline and dealt Bonino that summer to Pittsburgh for centre Brandon Sutter. Last February, Benning added more depth up the middle, picking up Markus Granlund from Calgary for 2013 first-round pick Hunter Shinkaruk.
Vancouver returned to the playoffs in 2015 following a 48-win campaign under Desjardins, but injuries factored in the team's 31-38-13 performance last season. According to the website Man-Games Lost, the Canucks felt the second highest impact in the league of injuries to forwards and defencemen.
These days, Benning feels better about his healthier and younger team despite the fact only one player from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 drafts remains in the organization — right-winger Alex Grenier, who leads the American Hockey League's Utica Comets in scoring with 35 points in 41 games.
"We've drafted well the last few years," Benning said. "We've got [2015 first-round pick] Brock Boeser and [2016 first-rounder] Olli Juolevi coming. We drafted some other players from the third to the fifth round that are playing well in [centre Adam] Gaudette and [right-winger] Will Lockwood. I like the depth in our prospect pool.
Markstrom being groomed to be No. 1
"I think we've overhauled our defence. Alex Edler is now our oldest defenceman at 30 … and Luca Sbisa's really come into his own this year and he's 26." Tanev is 27, injured Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton are 24 and 23, respectively, and Troy Stecher and Nikita Tryamkin are 22.
In goal, Markstrom is being groomed to take over from 36-year-old Ryan Miller and Benning noted Thatcher Demko, 21, "has come along nicely" this season as a first-year pro with Utica, sporting a .901 save percentage in his first 22 games.
Up front, Bo Horvat, 21, is tied with Henrik Sedin in team scoring with 32 points, Baertschi is second in goals (13) and Benning is high on 20-year-old right-winger Jake Virtanen, whom the Canucks drafted sixth overall in 2014. The six-foot-one, 208-pounder started the season with Vancouver and picked up an assist in 10 games while averaging only 10 minutes of ice time per game.
"We just felt for his development he was better suited playing 15 to 18 minutes a night in Utica and playing the power play," said Benning. "He's not scoring like he wants [five goals, nine points in 32 games] but his overall game has improved. When we move forward [in our rebuild] he'll be part of our group."
Retired Canucks defenceman Dave Babych, who worked under Gillis as a player development consultant from 2009-14, would like to see the team remove the shackles from Virtanen and Grenier.
"If you want to rebuild, get the young guys on the ice and be done with it," Babych, one of seven rookies to suit up for the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980-81 season, told CBC Sports. "I'm a true believer of throwing the young guys in there and you teach them how to play.
"They're worried about scoring goals," added Babych, referring to Benning and Desjardins. "[Grenier] can play anywhere and make things happen. If he played with guys that could get him the puck, he'd be a 30-goal scorer. I think Jake would be a perennial 30-goal scorer if they just let him fly down the wing."
If Canucks had a player they felt could step in and score at that pace, Benning countered, "we would try to move people out and get these guys up here and scoring but it doesn't always work like that.
"Usually a player comes here and has to find his way in the NHL. You want your players to develop at their own pace. You have to walk the fine line of being realistic even though they're having success in the American league. The NHL is faster and the players are stronger."