By Ben Kuzma
September 21, 2016
Jim Benning went 3-for-4 with his off-season swings to improve the Vancouver Canucks.
That’s commendable and, of course, debatable in a hockey-mad market about how to score the efforts, and if others merit clapping or criticism.
Landing versatile unrestricted free-agent winger Loui Eriksson was a home run. Acquiring the hulking Erik Gudbranson to toughen up the back end and add leadership was a standup double. And convincing impressive college free-agent blue-liner Troy Stecher to sign with his hometown NHL team was a solid single.
The only whiff for the Canucks’ general manager was trying to augment his top-six mix and provide left-winger Sven Baertschi with support and take the load off the projected second-liner. There were no answers in free-agency and any attempt to pry away a young and proven winger meant parting with Chris Tanev or Bo Horvat. End of conversation.
“We wanted to add one more player and we looked at things, but they didn’t make sense,” Benning said Thursday at the annual Jake Milford Charity Invitational golf tournament. “But Sven is up to 195 pounds and he feels strong and fast, so we’re going to take a look at him in the No. 2 hole. If something makes sense and I get a call, we might still look at it (trade).
“But I feel good where we’re at now. We have more experience and depth.”
As the Canucks prepare to open training camp Friday in Whistler minus six players competing at the World Cup of Hockey, their GM knows this much: Off-season additions will help and there’s better depth, but the offensively challenged club — ranked 27th on the power play and 29th offensively last season — will need a lot to go right.
They need a power-play quarterback and are hoping Philip Larsen can transition his strong KHL game back to the NHL.
They need instant chemistry from Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Eriksson. They need creativity and flexibility to not be a one-line team that’s easy to defend — Eriksson could be deployed in a number of ways because he plays both wings — and they need to remain healthy. They need a lot.
In the physical Pacific Division, the Canucks simply can’t afford injuries to core players.
They had eight players sidelined at one point last season and had to ice seven rookies in one game during a slow crawl to missing the playoffs.
Here’s a pre-camp Q&A with Benning:
Q: Erik Gudbranson had poor zone-start Corsi numbers last season and has just 11 goals in 309 career games. He’s lauded for toughness and was third in hits (150) and fourth in blocked shots (73) with Florida. What are you getting in the big blue-liner?
A: “We don’t measure him on offensive stats. He’s a character person and a leader, and it’s the intangibles that he’ll bring. We missed Kevin Bieksa’s leadership in the room last year and that physical presence. We weren’t hard to play against on the back end.”
Q: The power play was a black hole. Everything from four-forward alignments to the drop pass and predictable half-wall setup were tried. The one thing missing was a true power-play point man. Is Philip Larsen really that guy? Players defend much better in the NHL and block shots more readily.
A: “He’s a smooth skater who can walk the line and get pucks through. The last couple of years, the game has changed and offensive transition defencemen is where it’s going. It’s hard to find right-shot and skilled power-play players.”
Q: There was acknowledgment from management that Willie Desjardins has to be better in certain coaching aspects. What are they and where is your level of faith in him?
A: “We’re going to be tighter when we don’t have the puck. And when we do have the puck, players are going to have the freedom to be creative. I think Willie has done an excellent job. He’s a players’ coach and they really like and respect him. Last year was hard on him and everybody because we had to play younger guys up the lineup.”
Q: Everybody has a theory about ownership. What level of involvement, or interference, is in play as the franchise tries to get younger and faster while still pushing for a playoff spot?
A: “I can say this to set the record straight. Ownership has been great and has never put pressure on us to do anything we don’t want to do as a management team. There’s this misconception that they’re involved and tell us what to do. That couldn’t be further from the truth. They have questions, but they let us do what we need to do to get this going in the right direction.”
Q: You created a media storm this week by attaching a number of games Ryan Miller is theoretically expected to play as your designated starter. Are 55 games legit because it would limit your future starter Jacob Markstrom, who logged 32 last season. And doesn’t Miller play better when well-rested?
A: “We have two really good goalies and Ryan has the experience and is the mentor to Jacob. He’s our No. 1 to start the year. Tim Thomas won a Stanley Cup at 36 and goalies can now play until they’re 40, so I don’t look at age so much. But I don’t know what the games are going to look like and how the coaches are going to want to play them.”
Q: Those on professional tryouts are usually camp fodder to crank up the competitive level. This year, they also help compensate for six players at the World Cup. Can James Sheppard, 28, Jack Skille, 29, and Tuomo Ruutu, 33, legitimately push for a roster spot?
A: “It’s up to them. If they have a good camp and deserve to be here. I’m not afraid to make hard decisions and either are Willie and Trevor (Linden). We’re going to do the right thing.”