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Under Further Review – March 1 Edition – 

Open Letter to Francesco – Let’s cut to the chase. The local media may not want to come out and say it but here goes. The Canucks need to wake up and find a new general manager this summer. Jim Benning has had five years at the helm and his time is up. Since the day he was hired I have maintained that he is a Chief Scout masquerading as a General Manager. Find someone younger and more in tune with how to manage in today’s NHL, someone willing to take a risk and someone with an actual PLAN. In a year, the Canucks will surpass 50 years of futility.  Are the fans restless?  Could Miles Davis play the trumpet?

When the Canucks drafted Olli Juolevi fifth overall in 2016, Benning said the team needed to focus on rebuilding the blueline. What did he say immediately following this year’s trade deadline? “We need to address the backend this summer.” So let’s get this straight – you have had three years to improve the defense, yet nothing significant has been done. His big move was to trade for Erik Gudbranson, then when it became clear he could not handle the pace of today’s game, Benning chose to double-down and sign Gudbranson to a three-year extension for 12 million. One year later, Gudbranson is shuffled off to Pittsburgh for the under-achieving Tanner Pearson. This is typical Benning. Bad move followed by bad move followed by desperation. On Monday night, the defense pairings were Stecher and Hutton, Sautner and Schenn and Pouliot and Biega. Sure, Tanev and Edler were hurt but after five years on the job, this is the composition of the defense. It’s beyond pathetic. As Ed Willes pointed out this week, the Canucks top six forwards last Saturday night included Ryan Spooner, Nikolay Goldobin and Josh Leivo. Enough said.

As I have stated ad nauseum, all great teams in pro sports have one thing in common – depth! After five years under Benning, the Canucks still have holes all over their lineup.  They lack size and are not built to win playoff games. Hanging around the West playoff race is nothing to write home about. The main reason the Canucks lack depth is because of Benning’s reluctance to trade assets for picks early in his tenure. He also dealt multiple picks in an ill-advised attempt to fill out the roster. No one can deny that after five years, the gap between the Canucks and the top teams in the league is as massive as ever.

Granted, Benning has had some success at the draft table.  So keep him around in the front office and let him scout. However, you cannot build a championship team through the draft only. None of his trades have worked out. Period. Full Stop. He’s also been way too generous in contract negotiations. Just ask Brandon Sutter, Louis Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Gudbranson. Benning has absolutely no clue how the salary cap works. His work at the trade deadline has been uninspiring and that’s being generous. His best deal was getting Jonathan Dahlen and now he’s packed him off to San Jose for a kid named Linus Karlsson, whom, should he make the team, will presumably need to have a blanket on the bench. When a team gives up four goals to Brad Richardson that tells you all you need to know.

The Canucks should find a GM with an education suitable to the professional sports landscape of today. Hand him a young team with an emerging core and let him develop a plan that can take the team to a championship because I have zero confidence that Benning is that man. It’s Peter Chiarelli – Part Deux!

U.S. Made – The Canucks seem to be slowly seeing the value of selecting players from the USHL and the U.S. National Development team, perhaps because of Assistant GM John Weisbrod and his U.S. connections. The Canucks hit big on two USHL players in Brock Boeser and Adam Gaudette.  They also tabbed Tyler Madden and William Lockwood and have been watching them develop in the U.S. College ranks. The Canucks would be wise to keep mining U.S. talent because there may be no better way to develop players than the U.S. college route.

The Canucks should also be paying more attention to the BCJHL and the AJHL.  Ottawa wisely selected defensemen Jacob Bernard-Docker of the Okotok Oilers in the first round last summer and Jonny Tychonick from the Penticton Vees in the second round. Bernard-Docker is getting great reviews in his freshman year at North Dakota. Give him two years in that program and watch what you have then.

Post Deadline Observations –

  • When you look at all the top teams in the NHL one thing you notice is the back pressure they apply when they turn the puck over. The good teams come back hard and work like hell to get the puck back.  There’s so much speed in today’s game you have to be committed to constant back pressure and not the kind Brock Boeser showed against Arizona on Thursday night!
  • One team that may not be getting enough love in the Western Conference is the San Jose Sharks. I would not be at all surprised if they emerged out of the West and reached the Stanley Cup final against Tampa Bay. In my opinion, the Sharks and the Lightning have had the two best general managers in the league in Doug Wilson and Steve Yzerman. Stevie Y may have moved on but he has certainly left his mark in a big way. You don’t see those guys shopping at the bargain bin. They identify players they think can make a difference and go get them.  Don’t forget, in the playoffs the Sharks will be able to wheel out Burns and Karlsson and one or the other will be on the ice for the entire game. Still a little concerned about their goaltending however. Martin Jones has had a rough year.
  • Did you notice that there was a definite east to west movement highlighting the trade deadline? Four of the top players available – Stone, Simmonds, Hayes and Nyqvist – moved to the Western Conference.
  • The Rangers came away from the deadline with a boatload of picks. They had three first round choices in last year’s draft and now have two more this year plus three second rounder’s. Cue the rebuild in Manhattan! It may sound good to fans but you still need foundational pieces and so far I don’t see any in New York.
  • Marc Bergevin chose not do anything of note at the deadline. Watch out Habs! The playoffs may be slipping away.
  • Nashville made a couple of nice pick-ups at the deadline in Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds but when you have the 31st rated power-play in the league, you aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs.
  • As predicted, Kyle Dubas was afraid to pull the trigger. He didn’t address any of the Leafs shortcomings – a lack of toughness up front, the need for a quality right-shot defenseman and a decent back-up goalie. I said it before and I will say it again, the Leafs aren’t built for playoff hockey. They turtle every time they meet a ‘heavy’ team. They are now 2-and-9 this season against the Isles, Flames, Bruins, Preds and Lightning. That’s all the evidence you need.
  • Buffalo GM Jason Botterill is doing a quietly effective job with the Sabres. Holding three first round picks this summer, he could afford to surrender one of them to Anaheim in the deal for Brandon Montour. He now has three solid D-men to build around in Montour, Risto Ristolainen and rookie phenom Rasmus Dahlin. Botterill also has two foundational centres in Jack Eichel and Casey Middelstadt and a potential star goalie in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who led the Finns to a World Junior gold medal this year. The Sabres also have an owner who’s willing to spend money which is important for a small market team. One oddity for the Sabres – they have had 12 picks in the last two drafts and all of the players selected were from either Sweden, Finland or the U.S.
  • I mentioned last week that Paul Fenton was 0 for 2 after his first two trades as General Manager of the Minnesota Wild. Well, make that 0 for 3 following his trade deadline deal of Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala.
  • Who’s kidding who in Ottawa? Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk are looking at the exit of Duchene and Stone and no doubt are saying “that’s me in three years.”  The Senators are the Montreal Expos of the NHL. One thing to note in Ottawa – the Sens have only 42 million in salary commitments for next year. The cap floor will be around 62 million so they will have plenty of money to play around with. Watch them take a page from the Arizona playbook and take on bad contracts in return for draft picks.
  • Late news flash – Senators fire Coach Guy Boucher! It’s probably because Boucher asked for a raise to 18 dollars an hour.
  • Question for you? Do you really think that Canuck reclamation projects like Spooner, Baertschi, Goldobin and Pearson will be part of a Cup championship team in Vancouver? I doubt it.

Johnny Rotten – So long Johnny Manziel.  It’s been good to know you! Johnny Football orbited the CFL for one whole year and poof, he’s gone. Something about not being a nice boy. He will leave a wonderful legacy in Montreal. The Alouettes sold the farm to Hamilton in order to acquire Johnny. They gave the Ticats receiver Chris Williams, defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman and first round picks in 2020 and 2021.  You don’t have to be a genius to realize those picks could be first overall in the draft considering the current situation in Montreal. I think you can call that an experiment gone horribly wrong!

The Outfield Puzzle – There’s plenty of reason for unbridled optimism around the Blue Jays corps of exciting young prospects led by Vladdy Guererro Jr. However, if you look at the makeup of their current outfield and what’s in the pipeline, there’s a lot left to be desired. The returning outfield is marginal at best. Teoscar Hernandez is the projected starting left-fielder and he’s an accident waiting to happen defensively.  Kevin Pillar returns in centre and while we know he can make the spectacular play in the outfield, his on-base percentage last year was only .282. Randal Grichuk in right can field and hit for power but he too has a high strikeout rate and a low OBP. The jury is still out on fourth outfielder Billy McKinney.

The bigger concern, as the Jays begin the rebuild in earnest, is there is a complete dearth of high-end outfield prospects in the system. Gone are the days of Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Shannon Stewart and Shawn Green. For two decades, the Jays have shied away from choosing outfielders in the first round of the draft, preferring to select pitchers and infielders. The Jays are looking to convert some of their infield prospects into potential outfielders in the hope something may click. In the meantime, they need to find some athletes via trade or the draft who have the tools to make an impact in their outfield.

Good Riddance – Did you catch Troy Tulowitski’s act in the pre-season game between the Jays and the Yankees? Troy the Great (just ask him) hit a dinger off Marcus Stroman in his first at-bat and celebrated like it was the seventh game of the World Series. He followed it up by shooting his mouth off after the game with a long soliloquy about how he was ‘hard-done-by’ by the Blue Jays.

I guess giving him 38 million to walk wasn’t enough. He missed all of last season and most of the previous year with injuries yet I suspect he cashed all of his cheques. Why can’t anyone just take the high road?  All I have to say is good luck playing in New York when the strikeouts pile up and the fans start ripping into you.