It took just one question for the excuses to start during Jim Benning’s press conference on Friday morning.
The embattled Vancouver Canucks’ general manager spoke to the media for the first time since his ill-fated comments about running out of time to re-sign Tyler Toffoli a month ago. Benning has typically been open to media inquiries for even a quick quote in the past, but since that interview, it's been radio silence.
For the GM of a team mired in the basement of the NHL to go into hiding in such a way is unconscionable and a press conference was necessary. It was an opportunity for Benning to take responsibility for the team being where it is today and layout a plan to improve for the future.
He did neither.
A series of unfortunate excuses
Instead, his response to the very first question was to list the expected excuses for his team’s dreadful 10-15-2 record that has them sixth in their division and 27th in the NHL by points percentage.
“We had the week training camp, no exhibition games, and then we started the games,” said Benning. “I think part of, you know, part of our problems early on were we played 16 games in 25 nights, and in those 25 nights, we had two practices in 19 days.”
Those things are true enough, but the rest of the league also had a shortened training camp and no preseason. Certainly, the Canucks had more games early in the schedule than some other teams, but even since those first 16 games in 25 nights that Benning used to excuse their early struggles this season, the Canucks are below .500.
In those 11 games, while playing their best hockey of the season, the Canucks are 4-5-2. That’s a .455 points percentage that would place them sixth in their division — exactly where they are right now.
Benning brought up multiple other excuses throughout the press conference, whether it was playing only Canadian teams in the North Division, the tighter schedule brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, or the flat salary cap, all of which would hold more water if they were not the same circumstances being faced right now by every team in the league.
He also suggested that the Canucks’ biggest problem is that they’re a young team, as opposed to the rest of the North Division.
“Our best young players are 21, 22, 23, years old,” he said. “Teams in this division, they're physically mature, their star players are older players.”
Really? Let’s take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team in first place in the North right now. Their top two forwards, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, are 23 years old. The Canucks’ top two forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, are 22 and 24. William Nylander, selected two picks after the Canucks took Jake Virtanen, is 24, unsurprisingly the same age as Virtanen.
Bo Horvat’s 25 and J.T. Miller is 27. Sure, Quinn Hughes is just 21, but the rest of the Canucks’ defence is 29+. The Canucks are not that young.
Holding out hope for the playoffs
The Canucks are not out of the playoffs mathematically — hockey analytics site HockeyViz gives them 7% odds, while MoneyPuck is a little more bullish at 14.2% — but the writing is on the wall. It's just that Benning is refusing to read it.
“We still have 27 games left in the season, we’ve got 16 games ‘til the trade deadline. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been in all the games,” he said. “We’re gonna continue to work and compete every night, we’ll see where we’re at at the deadline and then we’ll make the appropriate decisions at that time.”
Waiting until the trade deadline to make decisions about whether or not to trade players is gross mismanagement on multiple levels. The Canucks need to be proactive to set themselves up for the future — waiting until the deadline is purely reactive. No wonder he “ran out of time” on the Toffoli deal.
The other issue is one he brought up, albeit in the context of acquiring players via trade, which is absolutely not something the Canucks should be doing this season. He pointed out that any player acquired via trade would need to go through quarantine, then will take time to get back up to gamespeed.
That’s true for teams around the NHL. Even teams in the U.S. in states with looser COVID-19 protocols have to abide by the NHL’s protocol which requires a seven-day quarantine.
With that in mind, it’s even more important to be proactive well ahead of the deadline, as teams will be looking to add players as early as possible in order to get them through quarantine and into the lineup in time to have an impact on their season. If Benning waits until the deadline to make a move, it may very well be too late.
"We live day-to-day."
Benning doubled down on his trade deadline statement with one of the most bewildering quotes of the press conference.
“We live day-to-day,” said Benning. “We live with today, we're in today's world. Like, we got a game against Toronto, we played Toronto last night, I thought we competed hard, we played a good game. They have a real good team. We play them tomorrow night. That's what we're focused in on right now.
“The trade deadline's five weeks away and we'll wait 'til we're closer. I'm talking to other general managers at this moment. I talked to two or three guys yesterday, to make preparations for the trade deadline, so we're prepared. But we're gonna just wait to see where we're at as we get closer to the deadline before we decide what we're going to do.”
If there’s any quote that summarizes the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mentality of this management group, it’s, “We live day-to-day.”
As an existential statement, it’s a truism. As a statement from the general manager of a billion-dollar organization, it’s extremely troubling.
An NHL GM can’t live day-to-day. They have to constantly be thinking about the future and the long-term consequences of every decision they make. Having conversations to prepare for doing something in the future isn’t enough. That’s not being proactive. That’s not a plan.
It's illustrative, however, of how Benning has approached the job. Free agents are signed and players acquired in the trade market with little regard to how they might impact the team in future seasons, but only in how they might theoretically help the team in the immediate future.
When given an opportunity to take some responsibility for one of his worst contracts, Loui Eriksson's six-year, $36 million deal, Benning instead made more excuses.
"Every team in the league has bad contracts, that's just the nature of doing business. You're never going to be perfect," he said, then suggested the frequently-scratched Eriksson was still a good two-way player before adding, "That's hindsight. That's the nature of doing business. There's gonna be some decisions that you make that you wish you could have back, but it is what it is."
It's been seven years — what's two more?
This is the seventh year of Benning’s tenure as Canucks GM. Only Pat Quinn served as GM longer and he got the team one win away from a Stanley Cup. What does Benning have to show after seven years? A team that barely made the playoffs last season and looks more likely to pick in the top-ten at the draft than make the playoffs this season.
This isn’t what Benning promised. Back in 2016, he laid out a timeline for when the team would be a true contender.
“Realistically, if you’re asking me when will the day be that we can compete with the best teams in the league, I think that [Sedin contract] timeline is fair,” said Benning. “This is year two, and by our fourth or fifth year, I hope we’ll be there with the elite teams in the league.”
The Sedins’ contracts ended and they retired without getting back to the playoffs. It’s year seven and the Canucks are not there with the elite teams. They’re in all likelihood not even a playoff team.
When asked when fans could expect the Canucks to be an elite team, Benning equivocated.
“We're gonna have to have patience. When you talk about drafting, developing, and when these players are ready to play, stepping in,” he said. “We have some players that step in right away like Petey and Quinn and they have success right away and then there's other players like Olli Juolevi that takes a little bit longer to develop.”
In response to later questions asking for more of a plan or a timeline, Benning said that, after seven years, he needs a couple more.
“Our core players, they still need to mature a little bit yet. I think in two years time, I think we're gonna be real competitive and have a chance to compete for the Cup,” he said. “But we have to keep building, keep adding players to our group and our young core players have to continue to grow and get better.”
Here’s what happens in two years: Brock Boeser will need a new contract after his very reasonably-priced bridge contract. Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko will already be in the second year of their new contracts. The Canucks will have money coming off the books as some of the worst of Benning’s contracts will expire, but there will be all-new opportunities for more mistakes in free agency.
Very few GMs get nine years with one team to build a Stanley Cup contender, particularly with so many seasons out of the playoffs along the way. There’s only so much patience available.
In 2016, Benning said that the Canucks would be ready to compete with the elite teams in the league in two years. Now, five years later, he’s saying the same thing. You can’t let a GM keep kicking the can down the road.
At some point, the excuses need to stop and someone needs to be held accountable.
A post-script on the most concerning thing Benning said
Reflecting as I wrote this article, one of the most troubling statements of the entire press conference was when, unprompted, Benning explained why the team couldn’t trade for a player to help fix their current struggles because of the quarantine required because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Part of the problem in this pandemic world that we're playing in right now is that when you trade for a player — unless it's going to be a younger player that kind of fits our group here moving forward — there's a two-week quarantine where that player needs to stay isolated,” said Benning. “And then when you haven't done anything for two weeks, it's another week to start working out, to start skating, to get in shape to play.
“So any player that we look to trade for and bring in, he's three weeks away from probably playing a game for us so we can't look from the outside to improve things.”
Here’s why this quote is so concerning: no one asked.
At no point did it ever occur to anyone to suggest that the Canucks trade for a player. Why in the world would a team in the NHL’s basement — a team that does not look like a playoff team in the slightest — try to add a player via trade? Why would anyone suggest they do so?
It’s telling, however, that Benning brought it up. If not for the two-week quarantine, would Benning have already made a desperation trade in hopes of rescuing this season? What would that trade have looked like? Is there any possible world in which the Canucks could win such a trade?
No one looking at the Canucks from the outside thinks they should be buyers in the trade market. If anything, they should already be sellers, not even waiting for the trade deadline. If Benning is looking at the team’s current situation and thinking a trade could potentially fix things, that is very worrying.