Thursday, July 2, 2015

Jim Benning and the Canucks do have a plan: Steve Stamkos

It is a dark time for the Canucks. The team's recent moves have been a serious clearing of the decksoffice. Fan favourites Kevin Bieksa, Eddie Lack, and Zack Kassian have all been sent packing, as has longtime Assistant GM Laurence Gilman. One can find logical reasons for all of those to go; Bieksa's getting old, Lack was crowded out in competition with Miller and Markstrom, and Kassian wasn't turning into the player the team hoped he would. Gilman may not have been seeing eye-to-eye with the new regime; we may never know what happened there.

Say what you want about the sensibility of those moves. I am mostly in agreement with those that would say that the Canucks didn't get as much of a return in trade as one would hope. I think Gilman was a unique asset to the team in terms of his understanding of the cap and the player market in the league; obviously, Benning and Linden didn't agree. Those questions are being analyzed to death elsewhere. I'll spare you another analysis of that.

One comment that I will discuss: Does Benning have a plan? My answer is that yes, he does:

“We’re in a transition period where we’ve got some good young players now in our system,” explained Benning. “When these guys are ready to play we want the room for them to step in and play. With cap room next year we can be more active in the high-end unrestricted market.”
(thanks to Thomas Drance at Sportsnet for the quote)
Benning sure showed his cards there. He's got a vision of how to turn the Canucks into a winning team: clear as much cap space as possible to bring in a superstar to build around. The player he obviously has his sights on is Steven Stamkos, who will be a 26-year-old UFA next summer if Tampa Bay can't lock him up. The Canucks will have cap space to burn next year; Dan Hamhuis, Brandon Prust, and Radim Vrbata will be off the books, creating the option of offering an $11m+ salary to Stamkos, if they wanted to.

It's regularly rumoured that Stamkos wants to come home to the Toronto Maple Leafs (he was born in Markham), but Stamkos has remained tight-lipped about the possibility whenever asked. It certainly makes a lot of sense. It would also make sense that he'd be wary of Toronto, given the way they treated Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

It's another question if he would actually be willing to come to Vancouver. The team will be a shell of its former self, still employing the Sedins and Ryan Miller, and with a thin defensive corps. The young forward group offers some promise.

That's Benning's plan. This isn't some stealthy attempt to tank - he's trying to free up jobs so players like Horvat, Virtanen, McCann, Cassels et al can have a shot in the NHL and the team can figure out what it has. 2015-16 may well be an ugly year, but Benning's hope, one would think, is that there's enough talent there to surround a big star player like Stamkos and make it a winning team.

It's not the worst plan. I'm not sure I trust Jim Benning to execute it, given his checkered track record in both trades and contract negotiation, but that's what I think he's up to.

(an edit for clarification: I don't think that Steven Stamkos in a Canucks uniform is a likely result. It's just the only end-game that I can rationalize as an explanation for why Benning has been making the moves he has).

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