Mike Gillis, in his last two years in charge of the Vancouver Canucks, would often remark about the molasses-like market for trades in the National Hockey League.
Starting with the lockout and through the truncated 2013 NHL season, and then over the past year with its cinched-belt salary cap, trades were rare, and rarely of any real import. Gillis, of course, was beaten up by the tight market, holding major cards in his hand that he was unable to deal for anything close to his terms, first losing Cory Schneider and then, finally, sending away Roberto Luongo.
Today, the glacial market is melting a little, significantly loosened by a generous expansion of NHL revenues and the salary cap to give general managers elbow room to work on deals that could result in a pile of big-time names being moved. The prospective trades of Ottawa’s Jason Spezza, San Jose’s Joe Thornton, maybe Winnipeg’s Evander Kane and, of course, Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler has hockey people thinking much more imaginatively than they have for several years.
In this milieu, rookie GM Jim Benning of the Canucks, on the job just 31/2 weeks, is lucky, given that he has promised a turnaround in a hurry for a team that did not look easily salvageable when the season mercifully ended in April.
Benning, in an interview Tuesday, wouldn’t broach the topic of Kesler at all, but said everything is possible in the effort to turn around the Canucks.
“It’s top-six guys, bottom-six guys, depth on defence,” said Benning about the changes he is considering. In his previous job, he was closely involved in last summer’s one big trade, which moved Tyler Seguin to Dallas from Boston for Loui Eriksson. “We’re going to look at everything. We want to get back to where we’re a competitive playoff team every year.”
Vancouver first roster move occurred earlier on Tuesday, when the Canucks put often-injured winger and hobbyist hunter David Booth on waivers as the team prepared to use its second compliance buyout. The team decided Booth wasn’t worth the $4.75-million (U.S.) in cash owed him for one final year of service, and coveted the $4.25-million in salary-cap room his departure frees up.
Booth’s buyout ups the total owner Francesco Aquilini is paying people to not work for the team to more than $20-million, including Gillis, fired coach John Tortorella, Luongo and last year’s buyout man, Keith Ballard. Expensive mistakes, but certainly not the worst around the league, given that it’s two-thirds of what Tampa Bay paid just to jettison Vincent Lecavalier.
Benning now has about $16-million in cap space with which to work, a cushion the team intends to fully use to reload for next season, even if the free-agent crop is sparse.
Interestingly, Benning suggested the Canucks are set in goal, where the team seems ready to take a gamble on two young netminders.
Benning wouldn’t touch a question about whether a deal for Kesler could go down before the draft, but talks with other GMs, in general, are plentiful, said Benning. And with the June 26-27 draft approaching, preliminary conversations have occurred about moving up in the draft from the Canucks’ current No. 6 spot – “we’ve done the initial legwork,” he said. Like university essays written the night before deadline, deals probably won’t happen until draft-day Friday, with action beginning to fire the evening before.
The feeling of imminent change is tangible. Commentators and fans around the Canucks have imagined elaborate deals, three-way trades, players and picks headed this way and that. There is a draft-day prize in Vancouver local and top prospect Sam Reinhart.
“I can’t remember when there have been so many big names in the marketplace,” said Benning. “There are more options. I think probably, in the end, there’ll be more movement going into the draft and around the draft than we’ve seen in other years.”
The last big piece on Benning’s list is a coach. Interviews are ongoing. One prime candidate, Willie Desjardins, has been busy coaching in the Calder Cup finals.
“We want to make sure the coach is a fit for the players we have,” said Benning, adding: “It would be nice if Scotty Bowman was available.” It’s a little laugh amid the pile of work over the next two weeks that will go long to defining Benning’s impact in Vancouver.