Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Canucks GM Benning takes things Day By Day

I was once a Contributing Writer for Hockey magazine, which was published in Southport, Connecticut. It billed itself as “The Quality Hockey Magazine” for its collection of great writers. This brought me absolutely no notice in my own country, however, since it didn’t circulate in Canada. I had made the acquaintance of its Montreal correspondent, the late Keith Bellows, through a mutual friend there. He was soon named editor and asked me to cover the west. I wrote stories out of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and L.A. My lone cover story was on Dave Taylor of the Kings, who leveraged it to negotiate a contract that was even richer than Wayne Gretzky’s then was. You can still buy a copy of that issue on eBay for $20. Hockey magazine went out of business in 1982, owing me $550.

Since he played in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks, Bellows asked me in 1980 to write a profile on top draft prospect Dave Babych. I started by interviewing his brother Wayne, who played for the St. Louis Blues. I always remember him relating how his bear-like younger brother started shaving at age 10. I traveled to Victoria to see the young defenceman play and to arrange an interview. Unfortunately he was injured and couldn’t suit up for that game, but a very helpful Victoria Cougars PR person let us share a tiny scout’s box to watch the game. We were joined by my hockey-playing buddy Rolf Maurer, who had once worked with me at The Province and tagged along on my assignment because he was chasing some woman on the Island. We had a great talk with Babych which mostly focused on business aspects of the sport. These interested Rolf and I so much that his New Star Books published my Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line in 2004. Babych, however, was focused throughout the game on his stand-in, who was running the power play and penalty kill. I recall that the 16-year-old had a breakout performance as a result of the opportunity. Jim Benning would go on to score 139 points in 72 games the next season and be picked fifth overall by the Maple Leafs, for whom he scored 51 points in 1983-84. He even spent a few years playing for the Canucks while I was a season ticket holder in the late 1980s. His lack of size, however, held him back in what was then a very different NHL. If Benning had played under today’s rules, he would have lit up the league like Quinn Hughes is doing now. Instead the Canucks finally demoted him in 1990 to their minor-league team in Milwaukee and his career was effectively over.

Little did I know then that Benning would one day be charged with running the Canucks and finally delivering the Cup for which we long-suffering fans have thirsted. His drafting has undoubtedly been the team’s best ever, and the collection of young stars he has assembled is acknowledged by most to be its finest core yet. Canucks fans are notably impatient, however, and after enjoying top-10 draft choices from 2016-19, they want results now. The team’s surprising performance in last year’s post-season bubble only piqued their appetite, to mix metaphors badly. Getting to the Final Five only to lose in a heart-breaking seventh game was what I compare to a “false spring,” that 15-degree sunny day in February which provides a preview of warmer weather to come. This year, of course, the whole world has been turned upside down by a pandemic in which the team was unable to even play pre-season games, yet still fans and some nattering nabobs in the online media demand results now. They don’t understand that this team was not built to play in a speedy all-Canadian division but instead to compete against the heavier California teams and then win in the playoffs. They don’t realize that the Canucks had a record of .333 against Canadian teams last season, so they were surprised when the team opened the season at a similar pace. Slowly but surely the team has pulled itself back into the playoff race by briefly hitting .500 and it currently sits only two points back of fourth-place Montreal with 19 games to play. But still the naysayers howl that Montreal has games in hand and urge Benning to trade off his pending free agents. Luckily he knows much better how to run the team than do the nattering nabobs of negativity. A patient man, he will stay the course and we will all thank him in the end. Well, most of us, anyway. It seems that Benning has some downright haters.

Worst of all, they mock the slow-talking Albertan. Honest and genuine to a fault, he keeps handing them ammunition, like a recent comment about PowerPoint presentations and things jotted down on pieces of paper. The latest came when he gave his first press conference in a long time and responded to a question by saying that the team was about two years from contending for the Cup, which seems about right given the youth of his squad. The trolls had a field day with that one. But a more enduring meme has ensued from his mention that “we live day to day, like we’re in today’s world.” It seems a sensible strategy in a business with yearly timelines. You still have to be vigilant enough to jump on opportunities like Benning did recently, picking up Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd on waivers from talent-laden Toronto. The phrase has been hung around his neck like an albatross, however, by fans and media members who want him fired for poor performance.

But those who have been following the Canucks for the past 50 years well realize that, aside from a few overly-generous UFA signings, Benning’s performance has been outstanding. Taking things day to day can actually be a recipe for success, like the slow and steady tortoise that wins the race. It brings to mind a song of similar title by local band Doug and the . . . er, Slugs.

Day By Day

Bad news don't ruin my appetite
Don't let the papers tell me if it's wrong or right
I just do what I do and I do it
Day by day by day by day

Live a life, might take it slow
Made mistakes but oh that's the way it goes
I just know what I know and I know it
Day by day by day by day

Day by day I'm feeling stronger
Day by day I'm lasting longer
Day by day you help me make my way

I’ve got a great idea. Just like Blues fans did a couple of years ago with the song Gloria, true Canucks fans should make this their theme song. They can learn its lyrics by heart and sing it before, during, and after games in an effort to spur the team on and pay fealty to its visionary GM. It could even be the theme song for the Larschcast. I fully expect it to be playing at Rogers Arena soon.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Why does Thomas Drance hate the Canucks so?

It used to be that sports journalists covered local teams objectively, in a semi-detached manner. Growing up as a Canucks fan and aspiring sportswriter, I well recall that the coverage was rarely positive because the results were almost always negative. The team made so many blunders that local scribes had a field day lampooning its foibles. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Jim Taylor did it so deliciously. Radio gnome “Big Al” Davidson would carve the hapless Canuckleheads into a million pieces. But they never tried to run the team, from what I can recall. Nowadays the local sports media is mostly a bunch of millennials who think they know everything, to the point where they think they should be running the team they’re covering. This is the problem with millennials, and I for one am fed up with it. 

The absolute worst, of course, is Thomas Drance of The Unathletic, as I call it. The former tour bus guide got into covering sports as a blogger. Blogs were popular 20 years ago, before social media came along. Nowadays with Facebook and Twitter, they have faded in popularity but still provide an outlet for those with something substantial to say, like me. They actually qualify more as long-form journalism amid the barbs and snipes on social media these days. But to his credit Drance persisted with blogging, and what he lacked in writing ability and insight he more than made up in sheer volume. He rose to managing editor of the Canucks Army blog, which unfortunately became so negative that I came to call it the Anti-Canucks Army. Now that Drance has been promoted to lead Canucks correspondent for The Athletic, his criticism has become as relentless as it is strident. 

Even amidst a streak in which the team has pulled itself back into the playoff picture, Drance advocates in today’s . . . er, edition that the Canucks should throw in the towel and start trading some of the team’s most vital starters. Here’s his lede: “In dismal fashion, the Vancouver Canucks have won six of their past eight games.” Dismal fashion? This year’s Canuckleads have pulled off a series of thrilling victories of late, last night scoring in overtime on the road to extend their dominance over the Ottawa Senators. Sure, they’re one of the league’s worst teams, but if you can’t beat them you’re never going to get far. He goes on to explain how the streak, which has seen the Canucks also beat the Oilers, the Habs, and the division-leading Leafs (not once but twice – and on the road at that), has been “a mirage of favourable results.” 

I would argue that this is more like the plucky Canucks we came to know and love in last summer’s bubble, when they came within a game of getting to the Final Four. Perhaps the team’s inexplicably dreadful performance to start the season was instead a mirage of unfavourable results. But not according to Drancer. “The Canucks’ recent winning run has been less vibrant, dynamic saunter and more wobbly, zombie stagger,” he writes. WTF, as the kids say. I coulda sworn I’ve been watching smothering defensive play, timely goals, and brilliant saves. “The club’s 5-on-5 form has been appalling,” Drance continues. “Vancouver’s defensive structure has been every bit as brittle of late as it was in January.” What on earth is he going on about? Finally we get to the root of his problem with them winning.

They’ve managed these wins while being outshot in every single game this month, often by a wide margin. The Canucks have in fact been outshot by 67 at 5-on-5 in the month of March. Outshot by 67 in just eight games!

OMG, as the kids also say. They’ve been outshot! Geez, I always thought it was the shots that go into the net that determined the outcome of hockey games, not the ones that don’t go in. When I was a goalie, and not a very good one at that, I couldn’t care less if the other team blasted away as long as it was from distance and I got a good view of the shots. Lotsa shots kept me warm and dialed into the game. It wasn’t the quantity of shots I worried about so much as the quality, so all I wanted was for my defence to clear pucks and players from the front of my net. The goalie I admired most was Ken Dryden because his Habs dominated so much that he often went many minutes without seeing a shot yet was still able to stop almost all of them. The simple fact is that since the Canucks tightened up their defensive play to the point that they’re not giving up any more breakaways, their record has improved accordingly. 

The problem with hockey’s new wave of “experts” is that the fancy stats they use – a/k/a analytics – are mostly based on shots. That’s not what wins hockey games. If you only went by shots on goal, the old Soviet Red Army team would have been the worst in history. Instead they might have been the best. They took very few shots, as Team Canada learned to its chagrin in 1972, but they passed the puck around so exquisitely that they had you tied in knots before one of them finally tapped it in. The NHL game is different, of course. Creating traffic in front and getting pucks to the net is the formula for success these days. That’s why you need a monster netminder who can stand in there and hold the fort, like the Canucks had in Markstrom last season and have in Demko now. But according to Drance, Demko’s recent brilliance is actually cause for concern.

It’s a cruel twist to this lost season that even positive storylines — like what Demko has managed in making the Canucks crease his own — are being constantly undermined by the visible seams of organizational dysfunction.

OK, we’re getting closer now to diagnosing Drancer’s problem. It’s his long-standing Benning problem. If only the Canucks got rid of GM Jim Benning, all would be right with the team and the world. According to Drance, Benning is somehow making a mess of things by not re-signing the coaching staff (despite the pandemic) and should immediately trade away any and all assets to ensure that the team doesn’t make the playoffs. That way, of course, Drance will have continued cause to call for Benning’s head. You see, it’s all a mirage, thanks to Demko.

A serious organization can’t afford to see the comforting bright side in the Demko mirage, particularly not at the expense of ignoring the significant challenges it’s facing in reality, or the distance it still has to travel in the years ahead to ice a meaningful contender. And it can’t get distracted from doing what needs to be done, which is selling creatively and selling aggressively, and pursuing that end with singular diligence and focus over the next three and a half weeks. 

That’s right. Trade ’em all! Every player on an expiring contract should be shipped out for a mid-round draft choice, even RFAs like Tyler Motte who are cost controlled and have yet to hit their ceiling. Forget all the hard work done in acquiring and developing them. Let’s start all over again. Motte, for example, was acquired in trade a few years ago for Thomas Vanek, who was signed as a free agent. Let’s just forget the time spent in developing the promising Motte and cash him in for a lottery ticket that may or may not pay off in about five years. This is Drance’s idea of building a team. Of course Tanner Pearson should be the first to go, according to Drance. It took years to find a sympatico winger for Captain Bo, but let’s just start that search all over again. He even advocates shopping Nate Schmidt, for whom Benning settled in his off-season quest for a puck-moving defenceman (after originally pursuing Oliver Ekmann-Larsen), despite him being under contract until 2025 at less than $6 million per. “They should consider those types of more difficult possibilities,” argues Drance in a comma splice sentence I have repaired by injecting attribution. “That’s the level of urgency and open-mindedness that’s required at this trade deadline.” (I couldn't resist also axing his repetition.)

This club is going to need every ounce of flexibility it can get this summer, every sliver of additional prospect and draft capital it can carve out by monetizing whichever veterans on expiring contracts it can manufacture a market for.

As Babe Pratt usedta say: “That’s a buncha hooey!” Get off it, Drancer. The Canucks have prospects coming outta their ears now thanks Benning’s fantastic drafting. They have all their draft picks this year and lack only their third rounder next season, which was surrendered for Schmidt. They hardly need more lottery tickets. Instead of quantity, like shots on goal, they should be going for the highest quality possible. From what I can tell, the Canucks are making another run for it this spring. Drancer can like it or not. I’m sure he’ll be grinding his teeth every minute.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Three clues that Thomas Drance doesn’t know WTF he’s talking about

First let me make an admission. I don’t subscribe to The Athletic. I tried it for a while because I appreciate good sportswriting, but I cancelled my free subscription because its Canucks correspondents then included J.D. Burke, the former head blogger at Anti-Canucks Army. The Athletic has since dropped him, but Thomas Drance isn’t much better. Why should I pay to read his whinings when I can read the better-informed and more well-reasoned Iain MacIntyre for free? Imac is an old pro, which is a dying breed in local sports journalism. The recent shuttering of TSN 1040 was another major loss for well-informed sports journalism in Vancouver. In its place what we have are a bunch of bawling bloggers all singing from the same song sheet.

Their brand of pack journalism was never more on display than when Canucks GM Jim Benning faced the Zoom cameras with his first press conference of the season on Friday. Can you blame the embattled executive for being camera shy given how much abuse he suffers whenever he dares to answer press questions? It doesn’t matter how honest he is or how right he is, he will be vilified by Vancouver’s sports media, which unfortunately now seems to consist of little more than a few bloggers. I did my best, as a devoted Benningbro, to parry their thrusts on Twitter using the hashtag #thankyoujim. I even managed to get muted by the socialist Burke, who first called me an idiot for daring to disagree with him. But then I saw some praising Drance’s column “Canucks can’t afford Jim Benning’s patient, passive approach ahead of a crucial trade deadline” as a major takedown. “Drancer nails this, on every level,” wrote Farhan Lalji of TSN and NWSS. I figured I’d better give it a read, so I got a friend who is a subscriber to copy the piece for me. Nailed it? C’mon. More like pulverized his thumbs in trying. Drance made so many errors that his credibility with me is almost gone. How was he wrong? Let me count the ways. 

The Canucks plan to prioritize extension talks with 28-year-old middle-six stalwart Tanner Pearson over the five weeks ahead of the NHL trade deadline while saving the more formative extension talks with their core 22- and 21-year-old superstars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson for after the deadline. This is exactly backwards, but that’s fitting.

Whether Pearson is worth extending or not, the time to deal with him is now with the trade deadline looming. If an extension in the range of $2.5-3 million can be agreed, Bo’s left winger might well be worth keeping. Pearson is making $3.75 million at the moment, so that would mean taking a pay cut, but this projection has him worth $2.65 million. He has fit in well on the captain’s port side. That spot may go long-term to Vasili Podkolzin, who may join the team from the KHL this season, but he might best be started in the Bottom 6 and work his way up. Then again, Hoglander started on the second line and that has worked out well. The time to deal with extending RFAs like Hughes and Pettersson is in the offseason. It would be prudent to see what the market is like before even making them an offer. The black hole that is team revenues this season makes it unlikely that teams will be throwing around Big Bucks on July 28. Offer sheets to RFAs will be almost out of the question. When they see what kind of deals are being signed, Hughes and Pettersson will likely opt for bridge deals until the economy improves and the salary cap increases. This is something the tiny, private Drancer fails to take into account in making his next big blunder of assertion.

Pettersson, Hughes and Thatcher Demko are going to see their compensation increase by a factor of 10, year over year, this offseason.

That would mean Demko will be pulling down $12 million next season, while Pettersson and Hughes make $9.25 million. That would eat up all of the $27 million the Nux have coming off the books after this season, and more. Sorry, Drancer. That’s not how it works. Even in a normal season, salaries go up more gradually, except in exceptional cases. These three players are just finishing their first contracts. None even has arbitration rights. Demko is only in his second NHL season. He shows great promise, but he is not yet a made man. His predecessor, Jacob Markstrom, went from making $1.4 million in the last year of his second contract to $1.5 and $1.6 million in his third deal. Demko should get a nice raise, depending on term, but will likely take up no more than $2 million of next season’s salary cap. Hughes is hampered by his status as a 10.2(c) RFA because he played fewer than 10 games in his first season, which means he is not eligible to receive offers from other teams. Pettersson is, but the Canucks can match any offer he gets or else opt for lush draft choice compensation. The projection I referenced earlier predicts that Pettersson will sign for $7.9 million, which I think is a bit high unless it comes with a bit of term, while Hughes gets $5.8 million and Demko $2.4 million. That adds up to $16.1 million instead of more than $30 million, as Drance asserts. That will leave more than $10 million to re-sign the Canucks’ other free agents, including Edler, Juolevi, Gaudette, and Hamonic. 

But the third and fatal blunder Drance makes in his failed takedown of Benning is what makes it instead a face-plant of his own. He’s back after Pearson. “Hearing Benning discuss a possible Pearson extension on Friday — leaving aside the way Benning sacrificed his own club’s leverage in those talks with his commentary — is an insult to the intelligence of hockey fans in the Vancouver market. Pearson is a good, reliable professional. But he doesn’t in any way move the needle for this club.” That’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to it. I happen to disagree, having come to see Pearson’s value. But it is in next urging the Canucks to trade not just Pearson but all of the team’s other pending UFAs that Drance demonstrates his lack of understanding how the system works. 

Dealing Pearson should be a no-brainer for any front office thinking critically about what this team needs and when. Same goes for Brandon Sutter. And Travis Hamonic. And Jordie Benn. And Alex Edler. These deals are going to be complicated, though. They’re going to require the Canucks to retain salary.

No, they won’t. This is why trade deadline deals are often popular with teams looking to make a Cup run. They can be expensive, as the Canucks found out in acquiring Tyler Toffoli last year, but they don’t affect the salary cap much. While teams may be constrained by the cap throughout the season, by the time the trade deadline comes around most of player salaries have been paid. NHL players, to the surprise of many, do not draw salary during the playoffs and are instead playing for a share of Cup bonuses. No, Drancer, these deals are not going to be complicated, and they’re not going to require the Canucks to retain salary. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be much.

By now you might be wondering just who on earth Thomas Drance is. A graduate of the University of Toronto (2009), he worked as a tour bus guide and in a law clerk’s office before turning to blogging. He excelled, rising by 2015 to head the nine-website Nation Network . . . er, empire. He was then hired by the PR department of the NHL Florida Panthers, but that didn’t last long. We’ll let him tell that story. So now he's back to bedevil Jim Benning. That’s OK, because he’s fair game. But even a so-called journalist should strive to at least ensure that their analysis is based on fact, not fancy. Those of us who have followed the Canucks for the past half century well realize that this is perhaps the club’s most talented team ever. Benning should be praised for putting it together. We have watched for too many years while the team’s leadership squandered draft choices on scrubs. It is so refreshing to see the opposite for a change.

So you can count me in with Earl from Mission and Bud Poile over at Canucks Army. Keep up the good work, and #thankyoujim. Drancer . . . not so much.