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Some thought GM Jim Benning wouldn't last into 2020, and now look where the team he built is standing.
Jan 18, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; San Jose Sharks forward Barclay Goodrow (23) reaches for the puck against Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller (9) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
The Professional Hockey Writers Association — a confederacy of filberts and misfits of which your agent has been a proud member for 30-odd years, emphasis on odd — announced its midseason awards this week.
Most of the results were predictable. Connor McDavid won the Hart; John Carlson the Norris; Cale Makar the Calder with Canucks’ rookie Quinn Hughes finishing second.
There was one category, however, in which the results weren’t quite as obvious, where voters had to stop and think about their ballot. The Jim Gregory Award goes to the general manager of the year — or half-year in this case — and it went to Colorado’s Joe Sakic over the Coyotes’ John Chayka and the Blues’ Doug Armstrong.
But it also raised a question in at least one member’s mind; namely, did any GM do more to improve his team over the first half of this season than Jim Benning?
Benning, as it happens, finished fourth, which at least means his work with the Canucks isn’t a complete mystery to the national media. But you wonder if the voters fully appreciate the transformation that has taken place in Vancouver and the turnaround Benning has helped create.
In looking at the season to date, the wonder isn’t that the Benning rebuild has the Canucks in first place in the Pacific Division. The wonder is he stayed employed long enough to see the project through.
St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks
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We need not revisit all the mistakes and missteps accrued over his first four years on the job, but a loose list includes a series of sideways trades low-lighted by the deal for Erik Gudbranson, the Loui Eriksson free-agency signing, and the drafting of Olli Juolevi — although that story is still being written.
There’s also the small consideration of four consecutive seasons in which the Canucks’ highest placement was 23rd overall. Throw in an ownership group that has demonstrated an itchy trigger finger and Benning seemed like a sure bet to be replaced.
Then things changed in a big way.
Again, you’re likely aware of the details. The bigger picture is 17 of the 21 skaters who’ve played at least 14 games for the Canucks this season were drafted, signed or traded for by Benning. And 11 of those players have been added in the last two seasons, including core pieces Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, J.T. Miller, Tyler Myers and Tanner Pearson. The Miller trade, in particular, registers as a master stroke after it was roundly criticized when it was made.
So back to our original question: Did Benning do more to improve his team than any other GM?
It’s an interesting one that involves a degree of subjectivity. Sakic has the Avs second in the Central and four points ahead of the Canucks in the West. He started, of course, with a better foundation, but he also delivered a notable series of wins for the Avs, trading for Nazem Kadri this off-season, signing free agent Joonas Donskoi and setting Makar loose on the NHL.
The 2018 trade for then minor-league defenceman Ryan Graves is also shaping up as a home run. In his first full season, the 6-5, 220-pound Graves has eight goals and 19 points in 48 games and leads the league at plus-34.
Suffice to say we have no problem with Sakic’s selection.
As for the other two GMs who finished ahead of Benning, Armstrong has the scoreboard on his side in St. Louis and it’s difficult to argue with a Stanley Cup winner. We’d simply point out virtually all of his heavy lifting was done before this season.
Chayka, meanwhile, is an interesting one. Like the Canucks, the Coyotes suffered through a horrendous stretch before clawing their way out of the NHL’s catacombs this season. Chayka’s biggest moves, however, involved trading younger players and future assets for 32-year-old Phil Kessel and pending unrestricted free agent Taylor Hall.
The ’Yotes last made the playoffs in 2012, so you can understand why Chayka would put the priority on this season. But whether or not they make the post-season, there’s a bill coming due with the Coyotes, which is part of the equation here.
In the interests of transparency, I had the Leafs’ Kyle Dubas on my ballot largely because I voted just as the Leafs were starting a 1-3-2 swoon that had the centre of the universe in a state of agitation. Still, Dubas deserves credit for replacing Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe and the contributions of a number of call-ups from the AHL. Or maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by TSN.
You can also throw Carolina’s Don Waddell into the mix.
Back to Benning. You can parse this question any number of ways, but you have to concede the Canucks’ GM has taken his team farther and in less time than any other GM in the league this season. Is that worthy of a trophy? Who knows.
But we can say this: After a four-year reign of error, Benning has done more to rehabilitate his image and the image of his franchise than any other general manager this season. Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate what’s taken place with the Canucks, but Benning should be recognized for his work.
And when you consider everything that’s happened here in his five years on the job, that’s quite a story.
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