Fan theories are all the rage these days.
As “prestige TV” becomes more popular and widespread, the number of shows that have mysteries for fans to unpack grows exponentially. Probably you can blame Lost for a lot of that — fans never did find out the story with the time traveling rowboat — but TV these days is now just fan theory central. The nerdy McPoyle on Westworld turned out to be Ed Harris, Jon Snow turned out to be the (potentially trueborn) son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and so on.
With this in mind, I’ve got a fan theory for you. It’s one that flies in the face of current thinking in the NHL and even subverts my own previous assumptions. It’s about the Vancouver Canucks, and more specifically their management.
The theory is this: Jim Benning and Trevor Linden aren’t as bad at their jobs as they seem, and are in fact trying to tank the team against the wishes of team ownership.
It’s well-established that the Aquilinis want the team to be as competitive as possible to make sure the franchise is a money-maker, and that ownership doesn’t believe the Vancouver fanbase would stand for a “strip it to the studs”-type rebuild like those seen around the league in recent years. As such, despite the fact that the team is getting older and very obviously worse.
The Canucks are saddled with some really awful contracts, no question about it. Some of those are Benning’s work. But a lot of them aren’t. And in any case, one must keep in mind that of the 26 players currently listed on Vancouver’s CapFriendly page, half of them are up for new contracts next summer, mostly as RFAs. That gives Benning a lot of flexibility to work with, money-wise, going into next season. If he needs to. Which he might not.
If the directive from management is to stay competitive, Benning has to at least create the appearance that he means to do so. Thus the sizable contracts he’s handed out or taken on via trade in the past few years. He can point to these transactions as proof he’s going for it even as he acknowledges the roster isn’t good enough and he has no real way to fix it.
Specifically, the directive is try to stay competitive for the Sedins’ sake, which kind of ties Benning’s hands, because if you can’t trade your two most valuable assets, then really committing to the “shadow rebuild” becomes a lot more difficult. Especially because you have the very unfortunate coincidence of both of your best players being twins who have basically never played apart. Even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t find one trading partner to take $14 million in AAV off your hands. So Benning has to run out the clock on those contracts and just groove on it.
Look at some of the pickups he’s made deeper into the lineup, though. Troy Stecher looks like a great free agent signing (helps that he’s from Vancouver), Markus Granlund and Sven Baertschi were arguably low-risk gambles. The Chris Tanev contract looks like a really good value.
Then you can look at the bad contracts and transactions. All of them have a certain logic to them if you imagine they were intended to be red herrings to misdirect ownership.
People criticized the Loui Eriksson contract as being too long and too rich for a player of his age, but Eriksson is and has been a very good NHLer, and the skills he brings to the table are, like the Sedins’ something that aren’t as likely to degrade with age as another player he was rumored to be shopping for: Milan Lucic. Let a division rival sign the big slow guy who’s going to break down by 33, and you take the one who seems more likely to drive percentages even after the Sedins have had their numbers retired.
And that Erik Gudbranson trade? Well, it’s not great. Except when you consider that the Canucks acknowledged their need to acquire defensemen this summer. In trading for Gudbranson he got a guy (at a relatively low cost to the organization in terms of NHL impact in the near future; you can very easily look Jared McCann’s production at various levels and be underwhelmed) who is size-y and overrated league-wide. He’s not very good, but he’s only signed for one more year. Acquiring him was certainly preferable to splashing the cash on some mediocre, older defender this summer, from the perspective of long-term planning. Of course, it remains to be seen what kind of money or term Gudbranson gets on his next contract, but if you’re trying to tank while appearing competitive, this is a sneaky-good pickup.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Brandon Sutter, who projects as an okay middle-six center who’s a little overpaid.
What you have to keep in mind with all this is that in saying “Stay competitive,” Aquilini is taking the roundabout way of saying, “Please light $30 million on fire every season.” There are ways to spend that money wisely, but if you’re trying to tank, loading up on dumb-looking shorter-term deals for three or four years is a pretty clever way to do it.
Even the Ryan Miller contract looks pretty deft — rather than daft — by this standard. It’s $6 million for a goalie you could have projected to be league-average or a little worse for the length of that contract. So far, he’s delivered on that promise. But the real trick here was that it’s only a three-year deal, meaning that they’re not committed to him for longer than they otherwise might have been tied to a roughly average goalie who was a year or three younger. And if Aquilini had questions about the goaltending situation, Benning could say, “Hey, we got Ryan Miller. Remember how good he was during the Olympics……. in VANCOUVER?”
Even the Luca Sbisa contract, which is among the worst in the league, fits into the “overpaying for a guy who doesn’t actually help you, but that’s the idea” narrative. Can he play? No. Is the contract bad? Yes. But is $3.6 million a lot of money for a guy who people inexplicably think is better than he actually is? Not really! Again, if you have to throw $30 million down the toilet every year, a $1.5 million or so overpayment for a bottom-three defender potentially doesn’t matter. In fact, it helps you achieve your goal without actually making your team any good. And like the Miller deal, it’s only three seasons.
Now, as with most fan theories, there are always bound to be a few inconsistencies here and there. The Sutter trade isn’t in and of itself a good move, but if you’re trying to create the appearance of trying to get better, it’s not-unclever. However, the decision to then extend him for several years with the league’s first-ever retroactive no-trade clause might poke some holes. That wasn’t a move Benning necessarily had to make, but then again he couldn’t trade for a player Sutter’s age and then not try to extend him. If you don’t care about the money because you’re being told to spend it, the only real issue is the term. And maybe that’s just what it took to ensure you actually got the guy.
More to the point, though, there’s no way to justify the Derek Dorsett contract. That’s just bad. But then again, $2.65 million isn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme thing.
A lot of the Canucks’ big-money deals are either legacies left over from before Benning’s time (Burrows, Edler), smart (Tanev), making the best of a weird situation (Eriksson), or possible “strategic overpays” (Sutter, Sbisa, Miller).
That’s why I am now at least entertaining the possibility that Benning is trying to make lemonade out of a batch of pretty rotten lemons given to him by a clueless ownership group. He can’t trade a lot of these players both because they’re not desirable contracts and his bosses won’t let him. So this is what he has to do to ensure the team isn’t good enough to get out of the bottom-five in the league for a few years.
On the other hand, Occam’s Razor dictates that the simplest explanation is the one that’s most likely. And with that in mind, we can probably still conclude Benning and Linden just have no idea what they’re doing.
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