We are back with another edition of ‘From the Community’.
Matthew Dolmage has contributed a few pieces to this series over the past year:
Matthew Dolmage is a lawyer practicing in Northern BC and the producer of The Hockey PDOCast with Dimitri Filipovic. He has been a CanucksArmy reader since 2011.
This time, he is looking at the history of Jim Benning’s tenure as GM and if there was a direction in any of the moves.
As always, please remember that this is a guest post and as such should be treated accordingly. It’s to create respectful discussion.
Fans of the early-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot will remember the opening credits of the series, which ended by declaring that the series’ villains, the cybernetic Cylons, “have a plan”. When it came time for the series finale in 2009, it became abundantly clear to viewers that neither the Cylons, nor Battlestar’s writers or producers, had any plan at all – the opening credits had been a bluff all along.
We’ve heard from Canucks management for some time now that they too “have a plan”. But does Jim Benning really have one, or has he, like the Cylons, been bluffing for the past five years?
I don’t have access to Jim Benning’s personal diary, of course, and can’t say for certain whether he’s been working with a plan or not. What I can do is look at all of the moves Benning has made in his time as GM and try to suss out a pattern by identifying rebuild moves that sacrifice short-term success in order to make the team better two or more years down the road, retool moves are those that make a smaller sacrifice now in order to make team better in a year or two, and a win-now move sacrifices the future in order to improve the team immediately.
Trading a draft pick for a mature roster player is a Win Now move, while trading a roster player for a draft pick is a Rebuild move. Trading a draft pick for a prospect a couple of years on in development, would be a retool move. There are some moves that don’t fit neatly into these categories, and the whole exercise is subjective to some degree, but I’ve tried to give Jim Benning the benefit of the doubt in most
There is, of course, a fourth type of move – the neutral move, or the kind all GM’s have to make regardless of whether they’re rebuilding, retooling, or looking to win now. This includes signing draft picks to entry-level contracts, signing players coming off of ELCs to RFA contracts, signing AHL depth players, making one-for-one trades for players of similar ages and abilities on similar contracts, or signing replacement-level or fourth-line players to short-term, low-money contracts. Because these moves don’t really tell us anything about the direction of the team, we’ll be excluding them for the purposes of this exercise. Including such moves would just add to the noise and obscure the signal.
I want to emphasize that I am not judging any of these transactions. The goal here isn’t to assess each individual transaction, but rather, to determine if there’s a pattern emerges when looking at all of the transactions in aggregate. For this reason I also won’t looking at individual draft picks, as a direction can’t really be determined from judging who the organization chose at 5th or 6th overall, but rather, at how many picks the Canucks had heading into a draft, and how they were distributed – having extra picks in the first three rounds, or having a significant surplus of picks overall, will be considered a “rebuild” draft, while having a deficit of picks in the first three rounds will be considered a “win now” draft.
With all of that preamble out of the way, lets look at Benning’s time running the Canucks and see if he does, in fact, have a plan.
Benning was busy when he took over the team, making a number of significant trades and free agent signings to put his stamp on the organization. These included:
|Sign||Radim Vrbata: Two years for $5 million per year||Win Now|
|Sign||Ryan Miller: Three years for $6 million per year||Win Now|
|Trade||Jason Garrison & 7th for a 2nd||Rebuild|
|Trade||3rd for Derek Dorsett||Win Now|
|Trade||Ryan Kesler for Bonino, Sbisa, & 1st||Retool|
|Trade||2nd for Linden Vey||Retool|
|Draft||Seven picks, including two first rounders||Rebuild|
2014-2015 Mid-Season Transactions:
|Sign||Chris Tanev: Five years at $4.45 million per year||Win Now|
|Trade||2nd for Sven Baertschi||Retool|
|Trade||Gustav Forsling for Adam Clendening||Retool|
|Trade||Alex Mallet & 3rd for Andre Pedan||Retool|
Overall, for the 2014-2015 year, we have four transactions that can be considered Win Now, five Retool transactions, and two Rebuild moves.
|Trade||Eddie Lack for 3rd & 7th||Rebuild|
|Trade||Kevin Bieksa for a 2nd||Rebuild|
|Trade||Zack Kassian and a 5th for Brandon Prust||Win Now|
|Trade||Bonino, Clendening & 2nd for Brandon Sutter & 3rd||Win Now|
|Sign||Brandon Sutter: Five years at $4.35 million per year||Win Now|
|Draft||Seven picks total, but only one in the first top half||Win Now|
*Bonino and Sutter are the same age and play the same position; however, moving down at the draft and giving up a prospect in the trade moves this from Neutral to Win Now territory.
|Trade||Hunter Shinkaruk for Markus Granlund||Retool|
|Trade||Nick Jensen & 6th for Emerson Etem||Retool|
|Deadline||No Moves||Win Now|
Why is “no moves” a win now scenario? This is the season Benning infamously stood pat at the trade deadline, failing or refusing to move Dan Hamhuis, arguably the most valuable player potentially available at the deadline, and also held on to Radim Vrbata, just one season removed from scoring 30 goals and arguably the top winger available. This is a Win Now decision.
Overall, the 2015-2016 season is, much more heavily tilted in one particular direction – Win Now – than any other, with two rebuild moves, one retool move, and five Win Now moves.
|Trade||Philip Larson for a 5th||Retool|
|Trade||McCann, a 2nd, and a 4th for Erik Gudbranson and a 5th||Win Now|
|Sign||Loui Eriksson: Six years at $6 million per year||Win Now|
|Draft||Six picks overall, no 2nd round pick||Win Now|
|Trade||Jannik Hansen for Nickolaj Goldobin and a 4th||Rebuild|
|Trade||Alexandre Burrows for Jonathan Dahlen||Rebuild|
Coming into the 2016 season, Benning was clearly all-in on his vision of the Canucks. The team traded picks and a top-tier prospect for Erik Gudbranson, signed Loui Eriksson to a long-term deal, and gave up a pick to bring in depth defenceman Philip Larsson. As a result of these moves, Benning went into the 2016 draft without a 2nd or a 4th round pick.
There was a sharp change in direction after Christmas, however, as Benning had unquestionably his best trade deadline as Canucks GM, moving Jannik Hansen and the ghost of Alex Burrows for two solid prospects in Nickolaj Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen, and adding a 4th round pick to boot.
So we’ve got a clearly Win Now off-season followed by a clear Rebuild trade deadline.
|Draft||Eight picks, including an extra 2nd||Neutral|
|Sign||Sam Gagner: Three years at $3 million per year||Win Now|
|Sign||Michael Del Zotto: Two years at $2 million per year||Retool|
|Sign||Thomas Vanek: One year at $2 million||Rebuild|
|Sign||Alexander Burmistrov: One year at $900,000||Retool|
|Trade||Andrey Pedan & a 4th to Pittsburgh for Derrick Pouliot||Retool|
Despite having an extra pick, I’m classifying this draft as Neutral because Benning did not acquire (or trade away) any picks – the 2nd was received as compensation for Columbus signing Tortorella as head coach.
|Trade||Vanek to Columbus for Jokinen & Tyler Motte||Retool|
This is the season that sees the clearest commitment to a retool from Jim Benning since his initial flurry of moves in 2014. There are no major moves, but a lot of smaller tinkering around the edges, signing veterans to short-term deals, trading failed prospects for project players, and moving Vanek at the draft for a cap dump in Jokinen, and depth forward Tyler Motte. Most of these moves for the retool category.
|Draft||Six picks overall; however, the team was only missing a late-round pick.||Neutral|
|Trade||Canucks’ 6th in 2018 to Washington for the Caps’ 2018 6th and 2019 6th||Rebuild|
|Sign||Jay Beagle to four years at $3 million per year||Win Now|
|Sign||Antoine Roussel to four years at $3 million per year||Win Now|
I have left the Schaller signing out as it is a short-term, marginal money deal for a bottom six player that falls into the neutral category.
|Trade||Michael Carcone to Toronto for Josh Leivo||Retool|
|Trade||Darren Archibald & Anders Nilsson to Ottawa for Mike McKenna, Tom Pyatt, and a 6th||Retool|
2018-2019 was by far Benning’s most “neutral” season. He made a lot of player-for-player swaps, including Gudbranson for Pearson, Chaput for Kero, Gagner for Spooner, and Dahlen for Karlsson, that don’t make our list. He did pick up a 7th-round pick in the Del Zotto trade, but traded a 7th rounder away for Mazanec a couple of weeks later. Given the insignificance of these deals and the fact that they essentially cancel each other out, it seems best to just leave them out of our plan-finder entirely.
I’ve called the Archibald & Nilsson for McKenna, Pyatt and a 6th a Retool move as Benning did acquire a depth pick back in the deal which nudges it out of “neutral” territory, but like most of the others this past season, it’s pretty minor overall. Benning’s best retool move of the 2018-2019 season was probably swapping Michael Carcone, a solid AHL player, for Josh Leivo, who immediately slotted into the Canucks’ NHL roster and made some solid contributions.
At the time of writing this, we’re between the 2019 draft and free agency. As such, I’ve set the cutoff at the end of the 2019 season. I will be writing a follow-up in July to see if we can glean any further plans from Jim Benning after he’s had a chance to make some moves in free agency, but for now, lets plot what we have and see if Benning does, in fact, have a plan.
Now that we’ve categorized the Canucks’ transaction history under Jim Benning, it’s useful to visualize the information both as a bar graph, and a line graph:
From the time Benning took over the team until the end of the 2016 calendar year, it’s clear that he viewed the Canucks as a winning team. He made a number of moves designed to “rebuild on the fly” when he came onboard, including trading away Jason Garrison and Ryan Kesler, but over these first two and a half years, Benning made twelve “win now” moves, compared to nine “retool” moves and only five “rebuild” moves.
It’s also important to look at the nature of these moves – aside from the Kesler trade that brought back a 1st round pick, all of the “retool” and “rebuild” moves are essentially tinkering around the margins. The most impactful “retool” move Benning made in this time was trading a 2nd for Sven Baertschi, and the most impactful “rebuild” move Benning made was probably acquiring a 2nd for Kevin Bieksa.
On the flip side, the “win now” moves include $6 million contracts for Ryan Miller and Loui Eriksson, and trading picks and an A prospect for Erik Gudbranson. The moves that truly impacted the direction of the franchise and the makeup of the team on the ice, after the initial flurry of moves, were almost all of the “win now” variety.
After the end of 2016, however, Benning’s plan becomes more inscrutable. He had his best trade deadline of his GM tenure in 2017 when he moved Burrows and Hansen for Dahlen, Goldobin, and a 4th. He made a number of reasonable buy-low bets in the summer of 2017 and avoided any major free agent gaffes. It’s clear Benning recognized by in 2017 that his team wasn’t good enough and set about making some changes. However, by the end of 2017 the picture gets much murkier.
Benning went into the 2018 draft without adding any picks (and was, in fact, down one depth pick), signed two older players to longer-term, mid-money deals as UFAs in 2018, and made a bunch of moves that don’t show up on our charts because they’re player-for-player swaps or insignificant scribbling in the margins.
It’s clear that when Benning came to Vancouver, he had a plan. That plan was to move out a few aging players, add a couple of solid picks and prospects, and get back to winning ASAP. After two and a half years of executing on that plan, it seems that Benning recognized it wasn’t working. However, since that time, it’s almost impossible to identify a coherent direction or pattern to Benning’s moves.
Is Benning still executing on a plan – one that’s simply inscrutable to outside observers? Or is he, like Battlestar’s fourth-season writers, on a rudderless ship, drifting aimlessly toward an ignoble conclusion?
Check back after free agency and we’ll see if we’ve got an answer.