Jim Benning takes centre stage this summer

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Image: Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

We’ve seen this story play out before in hockey. A new GM arrives to a team, and promises change. He promises a better future. He promises free cookies. Invariably in the first year of their reign, not a whole lot changes. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. If you come into a situation and make changes just for the sake of changes in order to show people “you mean business”, it doesn’t show a very methodical approach.

It would be like Jim Benning trading Daniel Sedin three days into his job just to let Henrik know that nobody is safe. Sure, it makes Benning look like a bad ass, but then you have to deal with Henrik Sedin crying himself to sleep every night.

It’s year two where things usually get interesting. By now the GM has a firm idea of what he is working with. He knows the assets of the organization, and can now make the changes he wants in order to get the type of team he envisioned when he took the job. He can put the so called “stamp” on his team, so when the Canucks enter a saloon and the music stops, people whisper “there goes the Jim Benning gang, you don’t want to mess with them!” before the music picks up again and Eddie Lack starts playing the piano.

What makes the Canucks situation so interesting is that the few moves Benning made during his first year didn’t really follow a particular pattern. As a result, there is a lot of speculation of just what kind of GM Jim Benning is and what the future might hold for the team. The current opinions seem to range from “he’s an old school GM who is out of touch with the new direction of the NHL” to “he’s re-building into a tougher team, and his scouting expertise will shine through in the end”.

Both sides have evidence they can use to support their arguments. Those who want to argue that Jim Benning is a horse and carriage guy stuck in an automobile world can point to the Ryan Miller signing, or even the Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett signings. Both Dorsett and Sbisa got paid a lot of money and for multiple years, despite for all intents and purposes, being bottom rung guys.

Dorsett was cited for his leadership intangibles (especially in helping Bo Horvat develop), and Sbisa, well, Benning was infamously quoted as talking about his ability to work “the scrums”.

Higgins - Sbisa - Vey

Image: canucks.nhl.com

 

“Guys, guys, look, I’m Mary Poppins. The stick is an umbrella!”

Now, on the surface that scrum quote is ridiculously easy to make fun of. Luca Sbisa, the poster boy for all that’s wrong with the world according to advanced stats (and the eye test doesn’t really do him many favours either), gets a new multi-year deal, and the GM talks about his ability in the scrums? That’s like trying to hold a yoga party on the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver; it’s going to cause a lot of eye rolling and angry online arguments.

Take away the awful phrasing, however, and it’s not really a bad thing to say about somebody. How many times have the Canucks had scrums break out and seen the other team take liberties, only to have zero response from the Canucks? People still have nightmares of Marchand rabbit kicking Daniel Sedin with no response, so if Sbisa and Dorsett are going to start punching faces in scrums, many fans will happily enjoy that. Of course, people still want more from Sbisa other than “4 million dollar scrum guy”, but the idea of the Canucks sticking up for themselves will appeal to some people.

If we give Benning the benefit of the doubt we can obviously see he can’t just come out and say “Well yeah, Sbisa is trash, but we’re really hoping he turns it around somehow, so cross your fingers!!”. Instead he paid him the nicest compliment he could think of, which was “he’s pretty good in those scrums, guys”, which is on par with telling somebody “they’re really good at owning their mistakes” during a job review. Both sides know there is work to be done, but this is the polite way of saying it. Jim is taking a chance on Sbisa, so now we have to wait and see how it plays out.

Jim Benning also struggled with phrasing when talking about the goaltending situation. Ryan Miller’s contract doesn’t have a ton of defenders out there, but regardless, Jim Benning is seemingly sticking with his boy. When talking about why he is keeping Miller, he mentioned that he wanted to keep an “older experienced goalie” and how he didn’t “feel comfortable going into the season with two young goalies.” This set off a chain reaction of online arguments as people wondered how a 27 year old Lack could be considered young, with many people wondering if Benning simply meant “experience” instead of age.

Again, it’s an easy comment to break down and wonder just what the heck Benning is thinking. Is Benning married to the “intangibles” of the old world where experience, leadership, and gumption win you games? Or is he simply really bad at manager speaking his way through defending his decisions? (He needs to use “leverage our synergies” more, in my humble opinion).

That isn’t to take everything away from the intangibles of hockey, mind you. Some people treat intangibles like a dirty word, but there are many things in hockey that are simply too hard to measure, or people haven’t found a way to measure yet. To discount them entirely because of this would be foolhardy. But poorly worded answers, and more moves like Sbisa, and people will honestly be wondering if this is turning into a Moneyball situation. Not the good Moneyball, but the scene in Moneyball where scouts are making a decision based on an “ugly girlfriend”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6naO8n6HsqE

That’s the fear here, that Benning is supporting Sbisa because he has a “real classic follow through on his slap shot” and that he “has great hockey hair”. Those are the intangibles that make people cringe, and that is the worst case scenario for many Canucks fans. Many people fear a world in which Benning took Virtanen because he was a local boy, not because the team thought his skill set was the best. People fear a world in which Benning ends up being a stubborn GM who won’t try and fix his mistakes and instead will sink or swim with them. People fear a Dave Nonis world, basically.

On the other hand, Benning has made some moves that seem more in line with the advanced stat world of things. Radim Vrbata turned out to be a great value signing. He in fact could end up being a huge tradeable asset due to the fact his deal is very cap friendly.

Trading for Baertschi is looked upon as a very solid roll of the dice according to the biggest advanced stats supporters over at Canucks Army. Selling high on Gustav Forsling for Adam Clendening is also another advanced stats win.

Benning even spent the majority of his time during the playoffs scouting instead of watching the Canucks games, which speaks highly of his desire to invest as best he can into the future. Anything that doesn’t rely on Ron Delorme will be celebrated in Vancouver.

That is why this summer is going to potentially be one of the most exciting summers in recent memory for Canucks fan. Jim Benning doesn’t have a lot of salary cap room, so if he does want to make changes, he will need to trade some players. If Benning wants to recoup draft picks, he will have to trade some players. This is the summer where Benning gets to further clarify the direction he wants to take the team, and can make some informed changes to an aging core.

Even the players he drafts will speak volumes about what he plans on doing. Jim Benning has been packaged as this master scouter, so it will be supremely interesting to see the type of players he goes after in the draft.

Will we be able to evaluate Benning fully after this summer’s moves? Of course not.

If scouting really is Benning’s forte, we might not even see the results of that specialty during his reign. What we will be able to better determine is what kind of team Benning wants. How much does he rely on intangibles? How much will he embrace the players who excel in advanced stats? Who knows, maybe Benning is content doing a mixture of both, and his first season with the team WAS the direction he wants to head in.

Either way, things will become a lot clearer come September, and it is going to be exciting to watch. Unless, of course, Benning excitedly explains how happy he is he drafted somebody in the third round because he owns “a really cool car”. Then we might have a problem.

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Wyatt Arndt Wyatt Arndt is a freelance writer who currently writes for The Province, Canucks Army, Canucks.com and Vancity Buzz. He's probably written in bathroom stalls near you as well. You can find him on Twitter where he is most likely making fun of Eddie Lack's goalie mask.
@TheStanchion

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