For a rebuilding team like the Vancouver Canucks (they finally admitted it this year), the NHL Draft is the most important event on the calendar. The Canucks knew they’d get a top prospect in Round 1 (an unfortunate loss at the lottery had them picking fifth overall), but to get this team back on track they need to draft well beyond that as well.
It’s a whirlwind two days where strategical decisions on which players to pick, where to pick them and what to trade are made and discussed at a frantic pace. Each team has its own table on the draft floor, where future courses of NHL organizations are charted.
The Canucks gave us an inside look at the goings-on at their table by fitting GM Jim Benning with a microphone. We got a taste of what the team was thinking and glimpse at a few potential pick-swapping trades that were negotiated. Here are some of the highlights…
THE RANGERS SPOOKED VANCOUVER FROM TRADING DOWN TOO FAR
It seems as though Vancouver assumed Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar would be picked in some order with the first four selections. At that point, Swedish centre Elias Pettersson was Vancouver’s guy and Benning believed he could trade down a couple slots, add an extra pick, and still get him.
Initially, Benning was talking trade with new Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill about moving to the eighth pick. However, after the New York Rangers acquired the seventh-overall pick in a trade that sent Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan to Arizona, Benning shied away from the Buffalo deal, thinking there was a shot New York would take Pettersson.
“Now that the Rangers popped in there, I don’t know if… I’m scared to go all the way down to eighth,” Benning told Botterill.
“The Rangers were the wild card,” Bening told his staff after selecting Pettersson. “Like I had no idea, and they might have taken Pettersson if he was there.”
Benning was also in trade talks with the Vegas Golden Knights to swap picks (moving Vancouver down one to No. 6), and pick up another selection later on. Vancouver’s thinking was that if Vegas wanted Cody Glass, someone they weren’t targeting at No. 5 anyway, it was an opportunity to get a free pick.
In the end, Golden Knights GM George McPhee decided to stay put, and both teams got the players they were after.
DID THE CANUCKS GET A FIRST-ROUNDER WITH THE 33RD-OVERALL PICK?
Before Round 1 is over we catch Benning wondering why a certain prospect was still on the board.
“Why isn’t anyone taking Kole Lind?” he asked.
Lind more than doubled his goal and assist totals from his WHL rookie season, leading the fifth-place Kelowna Rockets in scoring with 30 goals and 87 points in 72 games. Projected as a potential first-rounder (ranked No. 29 on Jeff Marek’s top 100 list), Lind’s name wasn’t called on Friday night.
Entering Day 2 for Rounds 2-7 of the draft, Benning told us what the team’s focus was: “Speed and skill, remember. Speed and skill.”
The Canucks got that in Lind, a 6-foot-1, 178-pound right-winger, who they nabbed 33rd overall.
A GM CALLS THE WRONG TABLE
Someone, we think Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, dialled the wrong table. “Hello? No, this is Jim Benning. You got the wrong number Brad.”
“He thought I was Garth Snow,” Benning said to his staff.
Was that call about putting the final touches on the Travis Hamonic deal? Either way “Brad” called back later to joke about the slip of the finger.
HIGH HOPES FOR THE REST OF THE DRAFT PICKS
Everyone always leaves the draft believing the future of the organization is strong and excited at the players they’ve picked, so it’s interesting to hear Benning and his team discuss some of the players they chose just before they picked them.
On Jonah Gadjovich, 55th overall: “He’s money in front of the net,” said assistant GM John Weisbrod. “This is the guy that creates a safe work environment for us.”
Asked Benning: “He’s tough, too?”
“He’s hard,” Weisbrod confirmed.
Gadjovich scored 46 goals and 74 points in 60 games with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.
On Michael DiPietro, the 64th overall: “You can never have enough good goalies,” Benning said. “His save percentage is, whoa!”
DiPietro posted a .917 save percentage in 51 games for Windsor this past season, the highest mark of any goalie who played as many games as he did in the OHL.
“If DiPietro is there you have to take him,” advised director of amateur scouting, Judd Brackett.
On Jack Rathbone, 95th overall: “Yeah, Rathbone’s an elite skater,” Weisbrod said. Brackett confirmed: “And he can hammer the puck.”
Picked out of Massachusetts high school hockey (Dexter), the 5-foot-10 defenceman scored 35 points in 22 games for his school.
On Kristoffer Gunnarsson, 135th overall: “Gunnarsson’s playing in the Swedish Elite League and he’s, you know, we can leave him over there for two years…” Benning said.
“We’ll let him stay there another year and then we’ll bring him over the following year.”
A 20-year-old defenceman twice passed over at the NHL Draft, Gunnarsson played 10 games with Frolunda in Sweden’s top league this past season (scoring zero points) and got one assist in seven games at the world junior championship. He spent most of his season (29 games) on loan to IK Oskarshamn of the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second league, where he scored one goal and one assist. A 6-foot-1, 205-pound defensive defenceman with not a whole lot of offensive upside, Benning seemed to like Gunnarsson’s long-term potential if he’s brought along slowly.
“I wanna take Gunnarsson,” Benning told Weisbrod. “I think he’s gonna play.”
THE VALUE OF LATE-ROUND PICKS
We often joke about what kind of haggling goes into adding a fourth-round pick to a deal and we saw the Canucks staff discuss the merits of a late pick swap with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Benning initially calls Stan Bowman offering pick No. 112 for picks Nos. 119 and 181, but Bowman wants to keep 119 (which Chicago used to take defenceman Roope Laavainen). The Hawks GM shoots back a counter-offer of 135 and 181 for the 112th selection. So Benning asks his two most senior men if they think he should take the deal.
“Yeah I think it gives us another shot,” Brackett said. “We’re late, like at this point we’re only going to up our odds of getting someone and I’m OK with that.”
Weisbrod: “It’s a matter of whether the extra picks later are of value to you really.”
The Canucks did make that trade and selected Gunnarsson 135th and Petrus Palmu 181st.
It’s all about those lottery tickets.