Jim Benning is not a showman.
The new general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, 51, has a square jaw, short dark hair and on his first day on the job on Friday wore a conservative suit, white shirt and red tie. Through a series of interviews and a press conference, Benning’s face was deadpan, hardly any hint of expression. The timbre of his voice was much the same – monotone.
He did, very occasionally, smile and laugh.
Benning was not hired to be the front man. That role belongs to local hero Trevor Linden, hired in early April as president of hockey operations after the ouster of president/general manager Mike Gillis. Benning is the second half of the deal. His job is to be the architect, reworking the Canucks, quickly, to get the team back in the playoffs.
Of everything said on Friday – much of it generalities, and many of the ideas the same as the previous Gillis administration – there were 11 words that stood out. They were the declaration from Benning, a man who has a strong record building teams in Boston and Buffalo – even if this declaration was stated without inflection or exclamation: “This is a team we can turn around in a hurry.”
This is what the man on the way in says. It is not what the guy on the way out said. Gillis, of course, departed wordlessly, fired before the season was over. John Tortorella, the one-and-done coach, had the stage of an exit interview with reporters and dominated the press conference the day after the season’s conclusion to fling his own declarations, a flurry led by his calling the Canucks roster “stale.”
Given the declared goal of the playoffs next year – and the fact teams cannot be wholly remade in one summer because of the salary cap – Benning’s view is the opposite of Tortorella’s. Benning expressed confidence in the core of the Canucks, starting with the soon-to-be-34-year-old Sedin twins. “It’s a good team. It’s a talented team,” said Benning.
The core had an awful season in 2013-14. As just one example, Daniel Sedin had his worst campaign in a decade. Benning’s bet, backed by Linden, is it gets better. If the primary names on the roster manage even average seasons next year, things will get better.
To underpin a revived core, Benning wants, like Gillis before, a solid four-line team, with third- and fourth-lines that contribute to an offensive push and add physical “grit.” He wants, as Gillis did, to get younger players in the lineup, and several times praised last year’s No. 9 pick Bo Horvat. And, all-in – like Gillis before them – Benning and Linden want a team that plays high tempo, aggressive hockey.
The immediate two challenges: the fate of Ryan Kesler, and the choice of a new coach. They are two first-month-on-the-job decisions that will significantly determine the year to come, whether Benning can deliver his turnaround-in-a-hurry.
The goal of the playoffs is step one. Benning cannot turn this team into a Cup contender instantly. But like in Buffalo and Boston, the belief in Benning is he can employ his draft acumen to load up the Canucks annually with young players, returning the team within several years to the status of a true postseason threat, able to handle the likes of the Los Angeles Kings.
Gillis’s six-year reign in Vancouver was primarily defined by his decision to keep together the team that had been assembled by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis. Gillis made a couple savvy moves but many were busts. And the draft record was poor. This defined for Linden, a rookie hockey executive, what the Canucks needed to fix. They needed a guy who could discern talent.
“We weren’t looking for a face of the franchise,” said Linden of Benning.
“I wanted a builder.”