Brandon Sutter got a lengthy and expensive contract extension from the Vancouver Canucks this week, as Jim Benning continues to shuffle his feet.
Does anyone have a clear indication of what Benning is going for here in his attempted... what do you want to call it? Rebuild? Rebuild on the fly? Remaking? Retooling? It could be all or none of those things, depending on your viewpoint. And also, it's important to stress “attempted.”
Because what Benning has done to the Canucks over the last several months frankly just comes across as baffling. They've had a fairly quiet summer in terms of free agent signings — Matt Bartkowski, a useful-ish middle-of-the-lineup defenseman Benning would know from his Boston days, is the marquee name in the small group — but the GM has certainly been working the phones for trades.
Since the end of the season, Benning has made five different trades, involving a hell of a lot of pieces. Some of the deals haven't been that big — blue line prospect Patrick McNally for a seventh-round pick next season is a good example — and some of them are, to use Benning's own term (against him?) “foundational;” the big Brandon Sutter trade could in many ways be a defining moment for his administration, however much longer it may have.
The net result of all these trades is below. Try to make out what you think he's doing:
He traded four clear NHLers of varying quality. Bieksa had to go, Lack is demonstrably good but was was the odd man out in a crowded crease, Kassian never lived up to his potential for many Vancouver fans, and Bonino was part of the bait used to lure Jim Rutherford into giving up a bottom-six center. McNally was a good defenseman for Harvard last year but hasn't played a second of pro hockey, and Clendenning is a promising if unfinished product. He also gave up a fifth-round pick, but that doesn't really matter one way or the other.
In return for those seven pieces, he brought in two third-round picks, two seventh-round picks, and Brandons Prust and Sutter, neither of whom are smiled upon by the corsi gods but for whom old school hockey guys will speak almost too highly. Even if we're accepting the arguments that Sutter and Prust are better than their numbers suggest (though, at what point do we take them at face value?), and with the acknowledged benefit of no longer having to pay — much less extend — Bieksa, this represents a clear downgrade for the team as it struggles to remain in any way relevant in what any reasonable observer accepts is a rather poor division.
At the recent summit for season ticket holders, Canucks brass said flat-out that they traded Lack because they thought Ryan Miller represented a better goaltending option, and if they'd wanted to offload their Six Million Dollar Man (who posted a .911 save percentage last season as a 34-year-old) they could have, because there were offers. The cap savings alone might have been worth it, but there seems to be some belief that Jacob Markstrom — who dazzled in the AHL last season as he has many times before without ever representing himself too well at the top level — could be in a position to overtake Miller for the top job if he gets a real chance. Now, we can argue about the merits of having a $6 million backup on hand in that scenario, but Benning made his decision.
If you want to argue that depth was a problem for the Canucks last season, you'd be right, and some of Benning's moves seem designed to address that. If the Calgary Flames push you around as badly as they did Vancouver in the playoffs, that should set off all kinds of klaxons about your team's quality. Sutter, and to a lesser extent Prust, ostensibly shores up some of those concerns. Maybe you say Bartkowski does to, because he represents an upgrade over Bieksa. Fair enough.
But in that summit with season ticket holders, Benning said that the reason they lost to Calgary was not their depth, but their lack of emotion. He cited Micheal Ferland as a big driver of why the Flames advanced to the second round — only to get pasted by Anaheim like everyone knew they would — and not his team. This is silly, obviously. The Canucks are now paying a whole crapload (expressed here as $8.45 million, or almost 12 percent of the cap) for, and this is true, Derek Dorsett, Brandon Sutter, and Brandon Prust, and have not actually improved despite those pursuits. Moreover, that number goes up in 2016-17 because Sutter's ludicrous new extension kicks in, and Prust will probably re-sign and get a raise on his current $2.5 million as well. (And Luca Sbisa makes $3.6 million for the next three seasons as well.)
And again, the Canucks are worse today than they were at the end of last season. Which is saying something. Everything done so far this summer really comes off as facile thrashing around in search of upgrades so they can, I guess, beat the Flames more consistently. What's it really for? How much reasonable change can really be made that would get this team even close to being among the top teams in the Western Conference?
What it recalls, once you get far enough away from all of it, is the team desperately trying to hold onto what little relevance it has in the league in a way the Calgary Flames did before they spiraled into laughingstock status.
Making the playoffs isn't really a milestone that should be celebrated. It means you finished in the top 57 percent of the Western Conference. It's no big deal. Not really. And yet that's the Canucks' goal. Holding onto this aging core (Alex Edler, the Sedins, Radim Vrbata) doesn't achieve anything because by definition the returns are going to diminish. Those Flames teams, Going For It as they were brought in middling veterans that could theoretically improve the team, overpaying them because no one wants to play for a team on the back 9 unless there's extra compensation involved. And to what end? Zero second-round appearances in four years for the Flames following the 2004-05 lockout, then five years of missing the postseason altogether.
That's a far cry from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, and hey, Vancouver made it there too a few years back. Their postseason record since? Three first-round exits and a DNQ. Now, even if Markstrom turns out to be what people think he might become, the former result looks like a pretty decent best-case scenario. This could be considered tire-spinning at best, if Benning weren't also actively working to extend people without making them prove their worth in the Vancouver system (Sutter) or even after they proved to be really quite bad (Sbisa, Dorsett).
This happens as the few demonstrably good players on the roster approach the NHL version of old age. The Canucks wade deeper into dark water that, while difficult to see through, is growing noticeably more populated with dorsal fins poking menacingly above the surface.
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