VANCOUVER – In a “perfect world,” Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning wants to draft a defenceman on Friday night.
But as we know, the world is not perfect. And no team personifies imperfection like the Canucks, who are partway through trying to build a National Hockey League team capable of returning the Stanley Cup to Canada’s west coast for the first time since the Vancouver Millionaires won it in 1915.
In his first entry draft in charge of the Canucks, Benning hit on NHL players with his first five picks. That’s phenomenal. Unfortunately, only one of those players actually plays for the Canucks and Jake Virtanen, although improving, is largely viewed as a disappointment given the number of starry forwards chosen after him.
After that 2014 draft, Benning traded his second first-rounder, Jared McCann, to the Florida Panthers to get defenceman Erik Gudbranson. Second-round pick Thatcher Demko, one of the best goaltending prospects anywhere, could make the Canucks next fall.
Benning appeared to hit a home run with third-round pick Nikita Tryamkin, until the hulking defenceman took his bat and glove and size 16s back to beloved Russia. And fifth-round pick Gustav Forsling was traded amid injuries – and a moment of madness – to Chicago for defenceman Adam Clendening, who played 17 games for the Canucks in 2015.
Still, five NHL players from one draft is a haul. Consider that previous Canucks GMs Dave Nonis and Mike Gillis combined over one six-year period to produce just five players who became NHL regulars — we’re being generous – and the best of them, Michael Grabner, scored only five of his 158 goals in Vancouver.
Drafting is what Benning does best. Even most of his shrillest critics will concede Benning’s body of work at the draft is good.
But heading into his fifth talent lottery with the Canucks, and Benning’s 26th as an NHL scout or manager, he has plenty of work still to do. Which is why perfection in the first round on Friday will look like a defenceman: Quinn Hughes or Noah Dobson or Evan Bouchard.
Nearly all of Benning’s best draft picks – Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, Adam Gaudette and Kole Lind – have been forwards.
“My philosophy on the draft is we want to hit on our first two rounds; those guys need to be NHL players,” Benning told Sportsnet. “And in a perfect world, I’d like to hit on at least two more picks from the third to the seventh rounds. If you can hit on four players in every draft that are NHL players, they’re either going to play on your team and make your team better or you can use them to get more draft picks and keep the circle of life going.”
But in his first four drafts, the Canucks had just the basic allotment of 28 picks. Given the construction underway in Vancouver and Benning’s strengths, the rebuild might be slightly ahead if, say, there were four more drafted players in the pipeline.
Benning tried unsuccessfully all season to replace the fourth-round pick he surrendered to Pittsburgh last October to acquire defenceman Derrick Pouliot. And there has been speculation the Canucks might trade down from seventh in Dallas to add another pick, although this is unlikely because Benning probably can’t get the player he wants picking 12th or 15th.
“I’m not making excuses; I’d love to have more picks,” Benning said. “But when you’re coming to the draft, usually if you’re trying to get a second- or third-round pick, you’re trading a player off of your team. To be quite honest, I haven’t had the depth to do that.
“We’re looking for NHL players and trying to find guys who can play in the NHL.”
Like every GM, Benning said he’ll take the best player available at No. 7. Unlike some, he probably means it. After the “big three” forwards of Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina are picked, likely right after generational defenceman Rasmus Dahlin goes first to the Buffalo Sabres, there’s a handful of excellent defenceman ranked in the fifth-to-10th range.
But U.S. under-18 winger Oliver Wahlstrom is a pure scorer who could be another Boeser, and Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi seems to have rocketed up draft lists, partly because there are few elite centres in this draft and most teams are looking for one at the NHL level. So Benning could draft another forward with his top pick.
“The last couple of years, we’ve been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league,” he said. “So we need help with skill and scoring up front, same as we do on defence. I think we just take the best player. And if it’s a defenceman, great. But if it’s a forward that we feel is the best player, we’re going to take the best player, then try to improve the defence in other avenues.
“The depth of this draft is on defence. If we don’t take a defenceman in the first round, we can concentrate on those other rounds to try to add to our defensive depth.”
Sounds like a perfect plan.