Benning, Desjardins Have Successfully Changed the Culture in Vancouver
Last season, the Vancouver Canucks did not play like the Vancouver Canucks. They finished sixth-to-last in the league, their worst finish in a long time. Last year was the first and only season John Tortorella would coach the Canucks, and it would also be the last season Mike Gillis would be the general manager.
The previous saw a roller coaster swing of emotions for fans, including the trading of long-time starter and fan favorite Roberto Luongo back to Florida, just 9 months after they traded Cory Schneider to the Devils. This left them with Jakob Markstrom and Eddie Lack in net, and facing a possible rebuild. But, with a little bit of luck and aggressiveness on the free agent market, they were able to bring in Ryan Miller, along with Radim Vrbata, and also hired Willie Desjardins to be the coach, and since then have been rolling. Currently the team sits second in the Pacific division with 49 points and tenth in the league.
The big chunk of the success of the Canucks this season has come from off the ice. Willie Desjardins has proved to be the coach at the NHL level that they were expecting he would be after a Calder Cup championship the year prior with the Texas Stars. Although keeping Zack Kassian in the doghouse, Desjardins has shown his intelligence as a coach and also in swapping around the lines to spark momentum, like he did when he placed Alex Burrows back on the first line with the Sedin twins before their recent game versus the Islanders, and putting Radim Vrbata on a line with Nick Bonino and Chris Higgins to light a fire back under those players – which worked. Desjardins, in my mind, is currently atop the Jack Adams vote.
Jim Benning has also been an amazing general manager in his short time with the Canucks so far. Benning came over from the assistant GM gig in Boston, and made an immediate splash over the offseason. He picked up the aforementioned Radim Vrbata and Ryan Miller in free agency, and dealt away Ryan Kesler at the draft for a hefty return. He also got Linden Vey for cheap from the Kings, and Vey currently sits with 14 points, tied for 8th among rookies. He also moved Jason Garrison out of town this offseason, and made room for the likes of Luca Sbisa, Chris Tanev and Ryan Stanton on the blueline to get more minutes.
The Canucks also had a very solid 2014 Draft, getting Jake Virtanen sixth overall, Jared McCann with the pick acquired for Kesler (24th overall), US starting goalie for the World Juniors Thatcher Demko in the second round, and solid defenseman Gustav Forsling out of Sweden in the fifth round.
Benning and Desjardins will put the Canucks in the right spot for many years to come. They have collectively turned this team around in just under 11 months, and put this team back on track to make the playoffs again this year, and for many years to come with their young kids. The culture in Vancouver has changed and will take this team far.