PHILADELPHIA – Shortly after the Canucks announced the Ryan Kesler trade, I received a text from an NHL employee.
“Three quarters for a dollar,” it said.
That’s a fair assessment of a trade that saw the Canucks receive Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and the Anaheim Ducks’ other first-round pick for former Selke winner Ryan Kesler. Even admitting that Kesler’s not the guy who destroyed everyone and everything in the 2011 playoffs — first the Nashville Predators, then the San Jose Sharks, then, finally, himself — he’s still worth more than the sum of those spare parts. No offence to Nick Bonino, who is likely to replace Kesler as the Canucks’ second line pivot, but he’s no Ryan Kesler replacement. (Say what you will about Bonino’s points, but he was playing for a team committed to scoring goals, not a team allergic to it. And he’s not the same shutdown corner.)
But the Canucks don’t care. This wasn’t about who they got. It was about who they got rid of. This wasn’t a hockey trade. It was a Tylenol trade.
Benning wanted to keep Kesler. For all of an hour. Looking over the roster he had inherited, and considering his pursuit of a “meat and potatoes” team, i.e. the Louis Armstrong diet, Kesler seemed to fit it. And then, shortly after he plugged it in, the phone rang. As Jason Botchford noted in the best get of the weekend, Kesler’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, called Benning on Day 1, before the new GM had even had a chance to adjust the height, posture correction, and armrests on his desk chair, and things got shouty almost instantly.
They stayed shouty for weeks. “There was a lot of threats both ways,” Benning told Botchford. “Kurt would phone and yell and scream at me. I’d yell and scream at him. We’d put it to bed.”
Kesler wanted out, and he wasn’t budging. But he wouldn’t go just anywhere, and with his no-trade, he didn’t have to. He would only go to the best teams, teams that are contenders without Kesler, and could conceivably become super-teams with him. Screw rivalries. Those are the concern of Vancouver’s residents and players, and Kesler had no interest in being either any longer.
So he also had no concern for the Canucks making a trade that helped them too, a fact that was clear as day when Kesler whittled his list of destinations from six teams to three, and after Pittsburgh started looking a little shaky, two. Six teams might have given the Canucks room to create leverage. But then they might turn things around, or get enough back to prevent Kesler’s new super-team from winning the Cup. So two it is.
Kesler and Overhardt’s gameplan: be loud. Be aggressive. Make it clear that the longer Kesler’s around, he’ll be a headache and a distraction and Luongo part two but less fun and move him now or this phone’s never gonna stop ringing. Make the Canucks make the trade just to hear themselves think.
And then, just for giggles, Kesler burned the Canucks on the way out. Asked to explain his reasons for wanting to go, he mumbled, in his inimitable way, “The fact they’re in a rebuild and are looking to get younger and are years away from being a contender, I think it was just time for me to move on and win, and hopefully take home a championship.”
At the risk of sounding like an embittered fan, Kesler was never about the Canucks. He was about Ryan Kesler. That’s fine, mind you, so long as he’s on your team. Selfish and miserable athletes come through pro sports franchises all the time. An all-encompassing desire to win is a nice quality when you make the playoffs. It’s a lot less nice, however, when the guy’s not wearing your colours.
The guy was always a beanbag. But he was our beanbag. Now he’s not, so goodbye and good riddance, beanbag.
Trevor Linden admitted that the Canucks briefly considered refusing Kesler’s outrageous demands, telling him they’d see him at training camp, sweating him out. But in the end, Jim Benning, who drives the bus, would rather have three quarters than the loudest, most obnoxious dollar around, so he dropped Kesler off at the curb.
Can you imagine Kesler sulking around the locker room next season? Kesler was already not particularly well-liked in the room. From Sportsnet:
The guy is prickly, and by my contacts within the Canucks organization, that attitude went well beyond his dealings with media and stretched to team employees, few of whom will be sad to see this transaction finally get made.
Inside the room, Kesler’s wish to be dealt at the March 5 trade deadline was seen by one Canuck veteran I spoke with as a guy jumping ship when times were tough. He was happy to be a Canuck when they were winning the Northwest and making Cup runs, but the minute times got tough he was ready to move on.
Guys like that are easy to let go.
And this is the big takeaway from the first draft weekend under the new regime. They’re willing to win a trade by losing it. Contrast that with the Gillis era, a group that was unwilling to admit when there was egg on their face, when they were over a barrel, when it wasn’t going to get any better for them. They became a laughingstock. They wound up playing Eddie Lack until they practically had to tie him to the goalposts to keep him up. The Canucks aren’t chasing Ryan Miller right now if Mike Gillis is willing to take a haircut on Luongo just to get out from under that contract, but he had to be the smartest guy in the room. No doubt, plenty of times, he was, but the wisest man in the room knows when to let others in the room think he’s unwise.
And he knows when to play the hand he’s dealt, which is what Benning did this weekend, and pretty well, at that. No, he didn’t get a top prospect in the Kesler trade, and that’s a loss. But he did get a second first, which made him feel comfortable about trading for Linden Vey with his high second round pick, acquired in the Jason Garrison deal. (After Kesler, is it any surprise that Benning wanted to shed another no-trade clause?)
Vey is believed by many to be the Kings’ top prospect, but after re-upping Marian Gaborik and deciding not to buy out Mike Richards, there was no room for Vey in the Kings’ lineup, effectively. Luckily, the team named after a lumberjack was more than willing to help clear up a logjam, and thus, Vey makes for two Lindens in Vancouver.
Following that, the Canucks went about day two of the trade whistling while they worked, happily selecting a nice little crop of prospects, and even getting another goalie prospect, who, as it happens, really wants to be here after hearing his Dad, a one-time UBC student, speak of the city’s wonders.
“We want players who want to play for our team,” Benning said this weekend, more than once. When the top-ranked goalie in the draft fits that criteria, especially after all that’s gone on, you make that pick.
With the pick the Canucks received in the Kesler trade, they selected Jared McCann, who plays a Kesler type of game and even admitted to modelling himself after Kesler. That’s a red flag, but the Canucks got a decade out of Kesler before the inevitable divorce. If the same happens with McCann, so be it.
Plus ten years is a long time. More than likely, he’ll be someone else’s first-day headache.