This is the first of a three-part series looking back at the 2018/19 Vancouver Canucks’ season. In this series, I discuss the Vancouver Canucks’ team play as a whole, Travis Green’s 2018/19 season as Canucks Head Coach, and in this first installment: Jim Benning’s 2018/19 season, his fifth as General Manager for the Vancouver Canucks.
One of the positives looks on this season came in December when the Canucks acquired Josh Leivo from the Toronto Maple Leafs. This move was a ‘make good’ move by Kyle Dubas, who promised Leivo that if he couldn’t get a roster spot in Toronto, he would trade him to a team that could offer him one.
The deal fell in Benning’s lap since all Vancouver had to cough up was, an undrafted Utica Comet with a career high of 27 points in the AHL. While I was quite pleased with Leivo’s 2018/19 season and the low cost it took to acquire him, it’s hard to view this as a real positive or a ‘win.’ Remember when the San Jose Sharks had to trade Christian Ehrhoff in a quick and dirty salary cap dump? The Josh Leivo trade smelled similar and just like Ehrhoff, the Canucks were more than happy to take that ‘problem’ off their hands.
In January, Canucks fans celebrated as the overpaid and underperforming Michael Del Zotto was traded for pennies on the dollar to Anaheim for Luke Schenn and a 7th round pick in 2020. This deal turned out to be a nice move for the Canucks. Luke Schenn found a new lease on life after a less-than-desirable stint in the American League and Michael Del Zotto, one of the more polarizing signings in Benning’s tenure was off the team. Luke Schenn endeared himself to fans with his rough and tumble performance on the ice. Whether it was hitting anything wearing an opposing team sweater or sticking up for Canucks’ rookie Quinn Hughes, Schenn followed through, a refreshing sight on a fairly timid Canucks squad.
Just like the Josh Leivo trade, this deal seemed a little bittersweet too. It shed light on how short-sighted Benning and the Canucks’ plan was. Two years earlier, the team overpaid for Del Zotto’s veteran presence and offensive approach to the game. Those hopes for MDZ quickly fizzled as he became a liability in his own zone with one too many defensive breakdowns each game. It also made fans wonder if Luke Schenn could do what Del Zotto (and Gudbranson) did for a fraction of the cost, why acquire these players in the first place?
Speaking of Erik Gudbranson, he was traded to the Penguins at the deadline for Pitt’s failed experiment in Tanner Pearson. The two-time Stanley Cup Champion was not finding a good fit there and, luckily for Jim Benning, he was the exact player to insulate the young Vancouver core with — a hard-working veteran who knows how to win.
And yet this was bittersweet too. Just like the Del Zotto trade, it showed a trend in overpaying for a veteran free agent and sending him packing a few years later at a loss.
The 2018/19 season saw two other previous free agent signings, Sam Gagner and Anders Nilsson, traded off to struggling Canadian markets in Edmonton and Ottawa respectively. While I was happy to see these big contracts off the books and roster spots open for the youth movement, I couldn’t help but sit back and think that all of this could have been prevented. Perhaps sign a few overachieving AHL’ers instead of overpaying for veteran free agents? This is a lottery draft pick contending team after all.
That being said, it’s easier said than done.
Last summer, Jim Benning and the Canucks’ made a couple signings very similar to years prior. They overpaid for role players who’s asking price were incredibly steep on the open market. Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel signed identical four-year, $3 million contracts on July 1st. Two players’ dripping with intangibles coming from “winning cultures” ready to teach the young Canucks’ core a hard work ethic, pride and in Jay Beagle’s case, what it takes to win a Stanley Cup in this modern NHL of ours.
While I absolutely love what Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel bring to this young and impressionable Canucks roster, the price tag is definitely steep. You can make all the fair weather or supply and demand arguments about today’s NHL Free Agent market all you want, but it’s still never good to see a team overpay for depth players.
My biggest concern with these contracts is that they are eerily similar to the likes of Sam Gagner, Brandon Sutter, Michael Del Zotto, Loui Eriksson and so-on. Overpaying for a players’ experience or intangibles on a different team and expecting the same impact on a new club is ill-advised, and Benning should know that. Like I discussed on the podcast this past month, intangibles and positive chemistry don’t always transfer from one team to another when a player is traded or a free agent. Those positives usually come from several years growing and evolving with a specific core of players.
It was all about Quinn Hughes this season. The Canucks drafted him 7th overall out of the University of Michigan, and he was touted as everything the Canucks needed and never had, an offensively minded defenceman who was all about zone entries, puck moving and quarterbacking the powerplay. But while that’s all well and good, we’ve seen how it worked out for the last d-man Jimbo drafted in the first round.
Hughes made his NHL debut less than a year later after signing his three-year entry-level deal with Vancouver on March 10th. Would he live up to the hype? Could he? Well, he kind of did…
He looked incredible in the five games he played with the big club, putting up three assists and making countless exciting and smart plays in his own zone. He looked like one of the key missing pieces on the Canucks and one of the most important pieces to any NHL team who wants to be successful in today’s game. Quinn Hughes looks to be that smart and fast puck-moving defenceman and then some.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
The team’s handling of their goaltending situation was embarrassing and incredibly preventable. I wrote about the embarrassing treatment of Michael DiPietro in-full back in January.
For every Josh Leivo, Sven Baertschi or Markus Granlund trade, there is an overpaid and underperforming free agent signed each and every July. As fans, we have to acknowledge that there have been some positive strides in the right direction by this organization, but they are a long way from becoming a contender again if their transaction success rate continues to hover around .500.