VANCOUVER – The best thing about an early-June draft for the Vancouver Canucks is that it would leave a small window for general manager Jim Benning to try to save the organization’s relationship with amateur scouting director Judd Brackett.
But months since Brackett turned down a contract extension, retaining him beyond the June 30 expiration of his current deal looks for the Canucks like the human resources equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.
As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman told 650 radio in Vancouver on Tuesday: “Judd Brackett and the Vancouver Canucks clearly are not comfortable with each other. For whatever reason, the organization is not comfortable with him, and he is not comfortable with them. I think everybody can see that at this point in time.”
In many National Hockey League markets, the general fan base couldn’t name their team’s director of amateur scouting. But in Vancouver, where the Canucks’ rebuild has been driven by players drafted since Brackett was promoted in 2015, the 43-year-old from Cape Cod, Mass., is about the third most popular figure in the organization, behind only emerging stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
OK, that’s not true. Goalie Jacob Markstrom is probably more popular than Brackett, too. But it’s close.
The undertow of Brackett’s uncertain status is getting stronger as the Canucks prepare for a likely online draft in June that the NHL is pushing to create interest and content during the greatest mass hibernation of organized sports in our lifetime.
Since the NHL season, halted on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t over, the Canucks are unable to move any players (and future payroll) off their roster to replace the first- and second-round draft picks Benning surrendered in trades for J.T. Miller and Tyler Toffoli.
Based on current winning percentages, the Canucks are in a playoff position and need to keep their players in case the season resumes – not that they’d be allowed to trade them anyway.
Benning said when he acquired Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 17, in exchange for prospect Tyler Madden and a 2020 second-rounder, that he would try after the season – and before the draft – to replace that draft pick through a trade.
Facing a potential salary-cap crisis next season, Benning will likely have to shed salary and at least a couple of current players, and an in-season draft removes a key trading pressure point.
“It’s not perfect, not the way we usually do things,” Benning told Sportsnet.ca on Wednesday. “But we’re going to be prepared and ready at draft time. That avenue of maybe trading some players to recover picks is going to be closed to me. If they decide to do it early, we’re just going to have to figure it out.
“This is just the time we’re living in right now. We’re going to have to figure out what things are going to look like, and it’s not going to be perfect. Things are going to happen that the league is going to make decisions on and we just have to be prepared for it and ready. If they do decide to do an early draft, I think we’re prepared. We’ve been working at it every day.”
Brackett, of course, is at the centre of this preparatory work.
The Canucks’ last three drafts, which included Pettersson coming to Vancouver with the fifth pick in 2017 and Hughes as the seventh-overall selection in 2018, look among the strongest in franchise history.
Clearly, whatever Brackett has been doing has worked. This makes the apparent fracture in his relationship with the organization especially bewildering and maddening to a large element of the fan base.
The problems have been reported as autonomy-based and whether Brackett feels he has enough control over his department. Despite their recent run of good drafting, the Canucks overhauled their amateur scouting staff last summer, replacing four scouts with five new ones.
Sources confirmed to Sportsnet that the contract impasse is not about Brackett’s pay or job title.
“We made Judd Brackett a contract offer and he rejected it,” Benning said. “As of right now, we’ve got a lot of stuff going on (to prepare for the draft). Whatever date the draft is, if it’s early June, we still have time to talk to Judd and figure all this out.”
Benning refused to provide any details about negotiations with Brackett, who was a part-time amateur scout when the GM was hired by former hockey operations president Trevor Linden to replace Mike Gillis in 2014. With a background in the United States Hockey League, Brackett was on the scouting staff during Gillis’s six seasons, which featured the Canucks’ greatest years on the ice and some of their worst at the draft table.
Benning’s management career was built on scouting, which is why Linden hired him to help rebuild the Canucks. Benning’s power increased two summers ago when Linden was pushed out over conflicts with managing owner Francesco Aquilini.
Despite the likelihood of Brackett’s exit from the organization, Benning said he has complete trust in his amateur scouting director to lead the Canucks through this draft. The GM said he’s not worried at this point about losing Brackett.
“I’m not there yet,” Benning said. “We’ve still got lots of time to figure out a way to make it work for him. I do know we have a lot of good scouts on our staff. I’ve never been more comfortable with the group of scouts that we have on our staff than I am right now. I feel every year we’re getting better and better.”
They’d like to keep it that way.