How Benning is trying to reverse Canucks’ poor draft history

A top 5 pick is exactly what GM Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks needed. Tomorrow, we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

In contrast with a brisk pamphlet that could exhaustively cover a history of great Vancouver Canucks draft picks, the history of the franchise’s missed opportunities at the draft table is a sordid tome.

There have been glimmers of excellence, of course, the highlight being the flurry of draft-day deals that then-general manager Brian Burke completed to land both Henrik and Daniel Sedin in 1999. A decade earlier, the Canucks stole Pavel Bure, who was widely believed to be ineligible, in the sixth round. That was pretty good, too.

Still, amateur scouting and the club’s draft performance has rightly been an area of concern and frustration for multiple generations of Vancouver hockey fans. In the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012, for example, only 10 players drafted by the Canucks managed to appear in at least 100 NHL games. No other NHL team managed to draft fewer than 15 credible NHL players over the same period.

When the Canucks hired general manager Jim Benning – the author of an enormously successful run at the draft table during his time as the Buffalo Sabres’ head scout at the turn of the century – his ability to identify talent in the amateur draft was a major reason. So can Benning help the Canucks reverse their long history of poor drafting?

As the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo approaches, it’s the biggest question facing the organization. In addition to the necessity of nailing the fifth-overall pick, the Canucks have to find value throughout the draft if they hope to accomplish Benning’s stated goal of manufacturing an environment that fosters “sustainable winning.”

“We look at the draft as a tool where we can add, depending on how many picks, five to seven players every year that can turn out to be, with development, NHL players,” Benning told Sportsnet this week. “So the draft is very important.

“We look at our late round picks, we spent a lot of time (on those),” he continued. “My philosophy is you have to make sure to hit on your first and second round picks and then we want to try and find two more players from the third to the seventh round. I think that’s what distinguishes between teams that do a really good job and teams that just do a good job.”

It’s too early yet in Benning’s tenure to judge his Canucks selection record with any objectivity or fairness, though the early returns appear reasonably auspicious.

Three of the players Benning picked in the 2014 Draft have already played NHL games and two others – goaltender Thatcher Demko and defenceman Gustav Forsling (since traded to the Chicago Blackhawks) – have shown significant promise. In addition, the club’s first-round pick in 2015, Brock Boeser, was the best player on the best team in college hockey in his draft plus-one season.

Vancouver’s draft performance in the Benning era is seemingly off to a good start, but this upcoming draft in Buffalo will be the first in which the Canucks’ amateur scouting operation will really bear his stamp. The club relieved director of amateur scouting Eric Crawford of his duties last summer, promoting Judd Brackett in his stead.

Brackett, 39, is young, well spoken and has a progressive reputation. Hired by the previous Canucks regime to bring new blood and a fresh perspective to the club’s amateur scouting department, he spent six years with the organization as an area scout focused on the USHL prior to this season.

“We saw his potential to be a head scout — with his communication skills, his work ethic, his ability to get on the road and that desire to know all the players — and gave him the head scouting job,” Benning said of Brackett. “He’s just completing his first year and we think he’s done an excellent job for us.”

With his first draft as director approaching, Vancouver’s new head scout isn’t daunted by the club’s history of whiffs on draft day.

“It’s a challenge I welcome,” Brackett told Sportsnet this week. “The draft is subject to revisionist history. You’re going to look back a few years later and maybe wish you’d gone in a different direction. And you can learn from that.

“The draft for us is a huge vehicle though,” he said. “Every year you get to add five, six, seven players to your organization — add depth and identify players that have the criteria or the player type that you want. It’s as vital as free agency or trades, or even more vital. And we know it’s an area where we need to improve and I think we will. The last couple of years we’ve hit on some players and the plan is to do it every single year. That’s what’s most important: our consistency.”

Brackett is active on social media and comes off as conversant when asked about some of the data-driven, comparative approaches making inroads in the scouting community. He is quick to credit Benning with changing the dynamic of how the club’s amateur scouting department functions.

“Jim has a tremendous scouting background and he and (assistant GM John Weisbrod) have been together before and built teams,” Brackett said. “What they’ve really done for us as a scouting staff has been to really outline what types of players we’re looking for, what we’re looking to build and really given us a sound direction when we’re out at games: what types of players we’d identify as ‘a Canuck.’ So that’s been the most refreshing part.

“Jim is out seeing games as well and we just had our amateur meetings last week and he’s a big part of the dialogue and encourages a healthy discussion about players. Giving us direction and being heavily involved in the process has been the biggest change (during my time with the club),” he said.

It will take years to properly evaluate whether the club’s approach to amateur scouting under Benning’s leadership has paid dividends. For an organization desperate for a wholesale infusion of youth and hockey talent, both now and down the road, it’s crucial that it does.

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