To say this is a do-or-die year for the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning is an understatement.
It’s more like a do-or-horribly-die-in-the-media-and-fan-base. The Canucks are desperately looking to get back to the playoffs this season, but even in the weak Pacific Division, there is no guarantee that they will be one of the four teams after the season.
Benning and his management team know they are under intense pressure to make this a positive season for Vancouver. Team owner Francesco Aquilini is a practical type of guy, and he wrote a letter to Canucks season ticket holders at the end of last season detailing his belief in Vancouver’s refurbished roster.
That message is nice and dandy, but it won’t matter if the Canucks crater this season. Head coach Travis Green is working with a veteran team that now includes former Coyotes winger Conor Garland and former Yotes defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson, former Stars center Jason Dickinson and former Bruins goalkeeper Jaroslav Halak. Vancouver ownership and Benning avoided a controversy at the start of the season by agreeing to new contracts with stars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, and core forwards Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat are healthy and ready for battle. They are salary-limited — CapFriendly.com has them at a salary of $ 83.7 at the moment, $ 2 million above the NHL’s ceiling of $ 81.5 million — and they have a real chance of getting to the playoffs in the Pacific. But it will not be given. Drama almost always seems to play a role in Vancouver, and if they do not qualify for the offseason for the sixth time in the last seven years, there will be no reason for Benning to continue running the team.
Vancouver players know what’s at stake for them this season. Experienced NHLers JT Miller, Tyler Myers and Brandon Sutter – players who have been on several teams before joining the Canucks – understand that failing to reach the playoffs and taking some steps when they are there will result in major changes in their lineup. And it will not be Benning who makes these changes. Aquilini did not hire former superstars Daniel and Henrik Sedin to be Canuck’s new advisers to Benning just to sit back and watch games forever. Sooner or later (and probably sooner) they will be confident in taking on bigger roles, and Aquilini will be confident in offering them bigger roles.
There has already been a bit of sadness in the Canucks’ camp this season. Defender Travis Hamonic’s absence from training camp has disrupted their defense force, which is already adjusting to the departure of longtime Vancouver D man Alex Edler. If it takes a while for all the pieces to gel, they will be looking to start goalkeeper Thatcher Demko to help them win matches. And that could be another problem, as Demko has not played more than the 35 games he played last season. Demko wants Halak to support him, but they certainly hope his stats get better than the 16-18-1 record Demko he recorded for a poor Canucks team in 2021. Again, that’s not certain.
You have to believe that the Canucks have players who are essentially untouchable – Pettersson and blueliner Quinn Hughes, who signed contract extensions last week, are in that group – but a disastrous season would force whoever is responsible for not bringing a similar lineup back in 2022 -23. It is unlikely that they would tear things right up to the bottom of the organization because their main gears are almost all in their early twenties. The defense is on average an older group (they have four D-men who are at least 30 years old). But the contracts some of them have-Ekman Larsson have been signed through the 2026-27 season at $ 7.26 million per season. Season-will probably not be moved. Benning has gambled a lot on his moves this summer and pushed all his chips behind his team. If he did not double the players he chose to hire, it would have been the reason for his dismissal a long time ago.
That’s just how hockey works. Bad teams can be bad for a few years, but only if they have young stars in important positions. Team architects never think they will be in a city in the long run if they do not show progress, and show it in a hurry. The fact that Benning has had the reins for four years in the Vancouver market is in itself an achievement for him. Many NHL GMs have been let go after fewer seasons. But Benning also understands what is at stake for him this year. He’s looking for work if the Canucks falter and fall, and he knows it.
Vancouver fans have been suffering from slings and arrows of scandalous misfortune for years now. If the Canucks fail them this season, those fans will be rabid in their push for notable changes. Aquilini has no choice but to change GMs and a reset button for the team will be pushed. Benning’s off-season moves may be the things that get them back to the playoffs, but it’s the absolute minimum for him to keep his job. Something less, and the drama in Vancouver will once again stretch up to its maximum.