The Vancouver Canucks have historically struggled at the draft table, but that’s something general manager Jim Benning is ready to change.
In his first year on the job, Benning regularly showed up at WHL rinks from Prince George, B.C. to Kennewick, Wash. He even missed the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs so that he could go scout the U-18 tournament in person.
Though Vancouver’s aging NHL team is constructed around a core group that hasn’t been out of the first round since 2011, the Canucks continue to insist that they’ll look to rebuild on the fly. It’s already a difficult task, and one that becomes impossible if the organization can’t draft talented players and develop them effectively.
Here are five players the Canucks might target with the 23rd overall pick:
The Canucks have some intriguing young defencemen in their system, but the organization hasn’t had a blue-chip defenceman prospect in the pipeline in eons — 10 years, to be precise.
Brandon Carlo is a 6-foot-5 behemoth out of the WHL’s Tri-City Americans.
“For a big guy he’s got good feet,” Benning said of Carlo. “He’s got good mobility, he can get the puck and make a good first pass. I think he’s a guy that you can develop into a shutdown guy.”
Prospects with Carlo’s build and skillset are good bets to develop into future NHL players, although with only four goals and 21 points in 63 games, there could be questions about Carlo’s offensive upside.
It’s also worth noting that the Americans were among the WHL’s worst teams at controlling play, according to puck possession estimates found at CHLstats.com.
When Oliver Kylington played 32 games in the SHL as a 16-year-old, the hockey world took notice.
One of the best skaters in the draft, the Swedish-born defenceman was expected to be a top pick before the season started. Since then his stock has taken a hit and most public scouting services and mock draft boards – including the latest mock from Sportsnet’s Damien Cox – now have Kylington pegged to go off the board in the mid-to-late 20s.
Benning says there are three defencemen that have broken away from the rest of the group: Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski.
“After that, in the next grouping, all the defencemen have different qualities about their game, whether they’re high-end skaters, transitional puck movers, guys who play an all-around game, or physical stay-at-home guy,” Benning said. “We’re going to look at it and assess it.”
If the club decides to take a defenceman that’s a high-end skater – and they should probably think long and hard about it after the way the Calgary Flames forechecked the Canucks blueline into oblivion in the Stanley Cup playoffs – Kylington could be their guy.
Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Ryan Pilon teamed up with likely top-10 pick Ivan Provorov to form a dominant first pair and help lead the ‘Wheaties’ to the WHL Final. Along the way the sturdy two-way defender managed 11 goals and 52 points in 63 games — stellar production for a first-time draft-eligible defenceman.
Though the left-handed shooting rearguard was often overshadowed by his more highly-regarded teammate, Benning thinks he has a good handle on what Pilon can do.
“We’ve watched Pilon play last year a lot when Provorov wasn’t there too,” Benning said. “I think we have a good understanding of his game. Both (Provorov and Pilon) are real good together, but I think we have a good read on what Pilon’s all about.”
Czech-born two-way defenceman Jakub Zboril of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs is expected to join his teammate Thomas Chabot as a first-round pick at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. The cerebral defender currently projects to be picked by the Canucks with the 23rd overall pick in Sportsnet’s latest mock draft.
Zboril possesses both projectable speed and physicality and fits that transitional defensive defenceman mold that the Canucks appear to value.
The Canucks would probably prefer to land a defenceman with the 23rd overall pick, but Benning says they’re looking to take the best player available rather than draft for need in the first-round.
“When you’re picking at the end of the first round like we are there’s so much that goes into a player’s development,” Benning said. “So we want to try and take a player with a high upside to his game, so that in four years’ time, with development, he can grow into a top-six forward or a top-four defenceman for us.”
One forward that might tempt the Canucks if he’s still available is Prince George Cougars centre Jansen Harkins. Benning has scouted the WHL’s third-most productive 17-year-old point producer (behind only Nick Merkley and Matthew Barzal) on multiple occasions throughout the season.
“We like his game,” Benning told the Vancouver Province. “He’s a smart two-way player and because of his hockey sense, he can play in a lot of different roles and be a top-two line centre because he has the hands and the skill. He’s good on the half-wall on the power play and that’s a skill he has that others in this draft don’t. He also played a third-line checking role at the world under-18 tournament.”