Welcome to the third episode of The Jim Benning Five-Year Rewind, in which we take a good look at Jim Benning’s first year as GM of the Vancouver Canucks—with the benefit of a half-decade’s worth of hindsight, of course.
In past episodes, we’ve looked at the Ryan Kesler deal as well as Benning’s three draft pick-related trades completed shortly after taking the job.
Today, we’re fast-forwarding to July 1, 2014—the day that Jim Benning made his first foray into the Free Agent Frenzy as an NHL General Manager.
For a man who has built the worst parts of his reputation through unrestricted free agency, Benning was surprisingly conservative as a Frenzy freshman. He signed just five UFAs throughout the entire summer and did so within the first 48 hours of free agency—with two signings coming on July 1 and three more the following day.
For expediency’s sake, we’ll be avoiding much discussion of Dustin Jeffrey, Cal O’Reilly, and Bobby Sanguinetti. All three players were signed to identical one-year, $600K contracts and intended as temporary AHL depth—which is exactly what they provided. None of the three saw time with the Canucks while under contract, and all three of them moved on to different AHL teams in 2015/16.
Instead, we’ll spend the bulk of our time talking about Benning’s two major free agent signings—both of which brought in high-impact veterans on fairly short-term deals.
First up, Ryan Miller—signed on the first day of free agency.
Ryan Miller for Three Years at $6 Million Per/
$18 Million Total
Modified NTC (Five-Team List)
Coming off the absolute debacle that saw Roberto Luongo exit the team amid controversy, many expected the incoming GM to roll with a young goaltending tandem of Eddie Lack and the newly-acquired Jacob Markstrom—but Jim Benning had other ideas, committing to the 34-year-old Miller for the next three seasons.
Before we get to Miller’s performance throughout those three seasons, let’s evaluate the decision to not give Lack and Markstrom the reigns.
Hindsight is, unfortunately, not very kind when it comes to the career of one Eddie Lack. Though he arguably outperformed both Luongo in 2013/14 and Miller in 2014/15, there were always holes in Lack’s netminding game—and they only became more apparent once league shooters grew accustomed to him.
Lack may have looked like the heir apparent circa 2014—especially to the fans he won over with his cheery disposition—but it soon became obvious that neither the Canucks nor other organizations around the league truly believed in him as an NHL starter.
As evidence of that, consider that Lack was flipped to the Carolina Hurricanes for just a 2015 3rd round pick and a 2015 7th following the 2014/15 season.
Many expressed astonishment that Lack could be had for such a low price, but with hindsight it now looks like the NHL braintrust had a good read on Lack’s long-term potential. Since leaving the Canucks organization, he bounced around three franchises across four seasons—playing just 61 games at the NHL level and 29 in the AHL.
Injuries have no doubt played a role—limiting Lack to just six games in 2018/19—but his performance has also slipped noticeably. Lack’s save percentage has hovered around .900 since leaving the Canucks—and these days it’s typically somewhere in the .800s, even at the AHL level.
As for Jacob Markstrom, the narrative is almost completely opposite from Lack’s—Markstrom was the real heir apparent in net, but he was far from ready in the 2014/15 season. In his first two seasons with the Vancouver organization, Markstrom played just seven games at the NHL level—and posted dreadful stats throughout.
Starting in 2014/15, however, Miller’s presence on the main roster allowed for Markstrom to develop unimpeded at the AHL level—and develop he did. That season, Markstrom was dominant for the Utica Comets and led them to the Calder Cup Finals.
Through the final two years of Miller’s contract, Markstrom served as his backup—playing 57 games across both seasons and finally managing to put up some competent stats at the AHL level.
With Miller’s departure, Markstrom finally took the reigns in 2017/18—and he’s since established himself as the undisputed starting goaltender of the Vancouver Canucks.
In other words, it’s pretty difficult to complain about the development path Markstrom took to get to where he is today—and the signing of Miller played a considerable role in that.
Miller As A Canuck
Ryan Miller was signed and paid to be a capable starting goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks—and that’s precisely what he was for all three seasons of his contract. Miller was never anywhere near Vezina contention as a Canuck, but he remained steadily at or above-average throughout his tenure with the team—which is saying a lot, given the quality of the rest of the roster.
In 2014/15, Miller’s first season with the team and the only one in which he was part of a competent roster, he led the Canucks to a somewhat improbable playoff berth. Once there, unfortunately, Miller did not play well—ultimately splitting the first round series against the Calgary Flames with Eddie Lack.
The following season, Miller continued to put up respectable numbers as the Matt Bartkowski-led blueline crumbled in front of him. Miller began to develop a reputation as the sort of goalie capable of keeping his team competitive in games it had no right to win—which proved to be exactly what the Canucks were looking for as they cruised to the bottom of the standings.
He repeated the trick in 2016/17, in what may have been Miller’s most important season as a Canuck—despite the team’s abysmal place in the standings.
The 2016/17 season saw the Canucks finish second-last in the NHL—ahead of only the historically-bad Colorado Avalanche. Ultimately, the cellar-dwelling allowed Vancouver to draft franchise saviour Elias Pettersson at 5th overall in the 2017 Entry Draft—but that doesn’t mean the entire season was a write-off.
All of which leads us to perhaps Miller’s most important contribution as a Canuck.
Ryan Miller: Culture Warrior
The 2016/17 also saw some important pieces put into place for the rebuild of the Vancouver Canucks—and Ryan Miller’s presence played an important role in several important building blocks experiencing a smooth transition into the NHL.
After a brief cameo in 2015/16, Nikita Tryamkin played his rookie season. Fresh out of college, Troy Stecher unexpectedly made the team and played the bulk of the year. Brock Boeser joined for nine games late in the season.
Perhaps most importantly, Bo Horvat took his first steps toward becoming a legitimate top-six center in the NHL.
Though it’s impossible to quantify, there can be no doubt that the steadying presence of Miller played some role in the positive development each of these young players experienced at the NHL level in 2016/17. There’s something to be said about having a reliable veteran starter in net ready to make up for one’s mistakes—something that is especially true for a rookie defender like Stecher or Tryamkin.
There’s also something to be said about the notion of being competitive—even when the team isn’t actively competing for the playoffs. This, more than anything, has been at the core of Jim Benning’s rebuild—and it’s something that Ryan Miller really personifies.
Looking at the Canucks’ roster in 2016/17, there was never a chance that they made the playoffs—but that didn’t change the fact that Miller went into every game expecting to win, and was disappointed when he didn’t. This expectation of and desire for success is passed down to younger players on the team, and it helps avoid the development of a “losing” culture in which young players both expect and accept failure.
In addition to the Sedin twins, Miller’s presence in the locker room pushed those young players to be better and never be satisified with a losing season.
The career progression of Horvat, Stecher, and Boeser since then speaks for itself.
Of course, that’s not the only way in which Ryan Miller contributed to the establishment of a strong team culture. For your viewing pleasure, we’ll end with perhaps Miller’s most memorable moment as a Canuck:
With Miller now plying his trade as a capable backup for the Anaheim Ducks, it’s clear that the Canucks moved on from him at the right time—but that doesn’t change the fact that, for three seasons, he was exactly what they needed.
Tune in later this week for Part 2 of “Jim Benning: Free Agency Freshmen” in which we aim for Radim-tion. Vr-tata for now!