A few weeks into the 2020-21 NHL season, Tyler Toffoli leads the NHL in goalscoring.
It’s safe to say that nobody saw this coming, least of all Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who let Toffoli walk in free agency after acquiring him last season for prospect Tyler Madden and a second-round pick.
Even worse for Benning, Toffoli has done most of his damage against the Canucks. He’s scored 8 of his 9 goals in just 5 games against the Canucks this season, an all-too-painful reminder that he could have been on the Canucks instead of repeatedly crushing them.
“He’s a great player, an awesome guy,” said Elias Pettersson after Tuesday’s loss to the Canadiens. “Of course, it sucks that he has to score those goals against us, but it is what it is.”
Toffoli didn’t have to score against the Canucks. This was an avoidable situation and he made it clear that he wanted to re-sign with the Canucks after the end of last season.
“I want to stay in Vancouver and that’s my number one priority as of right now,” said Toffoli. “I felt I fit in really well on the ice and off the ice with all the guys. It was a little shorter than I wanted it to be.”
Why wouldn’t he want to stay? One of his best friends, Tanner Pearson, is in Vancouver. He had instant chemistry with J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson, putting up 10 points in 10 games in his all-too brief stint in the regular season, then another 4 points in 7 playoff games while battling through injury. On top of that, he would be staying on the west coast, where he had spent his entire professional career up until that point.
If staying in Vancouver was a priority for Toffoli, Benning and the Canucks quickly made it clear that he wasn’t a priority for them.
According to Toffoli himself, the Canucks didn’t show a lot of interest in re-signing him.
“I talked to them a little bit, but I think everybody kind of knows what their situation is and was, so they didn’t really have a whole lot of conversations with us, with myself and my agent,” said Toffoli after signing with the Canadiens. “At the time it was frustrating, but thinking about it now, everything happens for a reason, and coming to Montreal and being part of this team and this group, I’m really excited for it.”
The Canucks’ situation, however, was malleable. While the Canucks were dealing with some significant salary cap constraints thanks to a combination of bad contracts, Roberto Luongo’s cap recapture, and the COVID-caused flat cap, there were several ways they could have made room to re-sign Toffoli.
For instance, Benning had the option of buying out Brandon Sutter to add some cap flexibility, but didn’t do so, either because he felt that Sutter was still important to the team or because of financial constraints placed on him by ownership. The Canucks did seem to tighten their belts in multiple ways this offseason.
That wasn’t the only way to make room for Toffoli, but Benning instead prioritized other players.
He signed veteran goaltender Braden Holtby to a $4.3 million-per-year contract after the worst season of his career instead of searching for a cheaper option to play with or behind Thatcher Demko. He also re-signed restricted free agent Jake Virtanen to a two-year deal worth $2.55 million.
Holtby was the goaltender victimized for half of Toffoli’s eight goals and has an .896 save percentage this season, while Virtanen was a healthy scratch on Tuesday night as Toffoli scored twice.
Toffoli signed a four-year deal with the Canadiens worth $4.25 million per year, which is a bargain for what they’re getting. Beyond the goalscoring, Toffoli is an elite play driver with a dominant two-way profile. Considering the way the Canucks are getting out-shot this season, they could desperately use a player that controls puck possession like Toffoli.
Restless Canucks fans
Some fans were quick to defend not signing Toffoli at the time. They reasoned that he wasn’t a great loss from last year’s team because he only played 10 regular-season games, so he can’t have been an essential part of that team getting back to the playoffs. Also, he was acquired when Brock Boeser was injured, so with Boeser back healthy, he wasn’t needed anymore.
That was shortsighted at the time and only looks worse in hindsight. Re-signing Toffoli wouldn’t have been about making the Canucks as good as last season, but about making them better. “Too many good forwards” is not really a problem.
The Canadiens, where Toffoli landed, are an excellent example. Toffoli ostensibly plays on the Canadiens’ third line despite leading the team in scoring and averages under 17 minutes per game in ice time. Their depth is what makes them such a dangerous team.
Besides, injuries are inevitable in the NHL, not to mention the added wrinkle this season of COVID-19 protocols causing players to miss games. When J.T. Miller missed the start of the season in self-isolation as a close contact for Jordie Benn, the Canucks scrambled to replace him in the lineup and struggled badly on the ice as a result. The addition of one more top-six calibre forward on the roster could have eased that pain.
Now, seeing Toffoli repeatedly remind the Canucks that they could have had it all has many fans calling for Benning to be fired.
For many Canucks fans, the Toffoli situation is less the straw that broke the camel’s back and more a capstone to other issues they’ve had with his work as a general manager over the last seven years.
As Jason Brough put it on TSN1040, “This isn’t about a one-week stretch of free agency where Jim Benning had to make some decisions.”
“It’s because of all the things that Jim Benning had done before,” said Brough. “Because Eriksson was there still and he couldn’t move out that contract, because Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle and Brandon Sutter and whoever else you want to add...Overall, most of the damage that has been done to this team as far as the cap situation is concerned is fully self-inflicted.”
But the Toffoli situation has even ardent defenders of Jim Benning changing their tune. Letting Toffoli walk could be one of the defining moments of Benning’s tenure as GM of the Canucks. It could also be what ultimately costs him his job.
Brough outlined why at another time on Wednesday’s morning show.
“I want everyone to imagine that you're the owner of the Vancouver Canucks,” said Brough. “You’ve got very minimal revenues coming in because you can’t sell tickets. You’ve got Jake Virtanen and Loui Eriksson as healthy scratches, so that’s over $8 million that you’re paying those guys per season, not playing…
“Your team loses the game, loses yet again to the Montreal Canadiens and Tyler Toffoli, the guy your general manager couldn’t sign because there was no room, there was no finances available to sign this guy, scores his 7th and 8th goal of the season against your team.”
The writing might not yet be on the wall for Benning, but Toffoli has certainly heated up his seat.