VANCOUVER — The last time the National Hockey League bestowed its entry draft on Vancouver, the Canucks maximized their meagre five picks by selecting five players who logged a total of 28 games for the franchise.
In fairness, 2006 first-rounder Michael Grabner turned out to be the Canucks’ best draft pick until Bo Horvat came along seven years later. But Grabner, alas, played only 20 NHL games before Vancouver gave him away – at the 2010 draft – in the “blockbuster” trade for Keith Ballard.
And you wonder why there is a Stanley Cup-size hole in the Canucks’ upcoming plans to celebrate 50 years in the league?
There is, of course, a lot of hope around the Canucks as they stage the 2019 entry draft at Rogers Arena this Friday and Saturday.
Although the draft lottery annually kicks them in the teeth, the draft order has fallen favourably for the Canucks the last two years. Getting Calder Trophy finalist Elias Pettersson fifth overall in 2017 and having dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes fall into their grateful arms at No. 7 last June may prove to be two of the greatest picks in franchise history.
But even with young front-line forwards Horvat and Brock Boeser, goalies Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko and a handful of still-improving supporting players, the Canucks need more, especially on defence.
The St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup victory last week, besides ending their 52-year drought and putting more pressure on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Canucks and Buffalo Sabres to win, illustrated that not only depth but size still matters on defence.
The Canucks don’t have enough of either, which is why general manager Jim Benning reiterated last week that he needs to improve the blue line and wants to add some size at the draft.
The problem is Vancouver’s draft position at No. 10 puts the Canucks in the middle of the mosh pit of talented forwards, several of them sub-six-footers, who are expected to dominate the top half of the first round.
“That’s something I’ve talked to our scouts about; We’d like to get bigger and stronger and more physical,” Benning said “(But) we’re going to take the most-skilled player with our pick…regardless of what position he plays. All things being equal, we’d like to draft some bigger kids this year.
“The further you go in the playoffs, the better the teams are defensively. St. Louis has a big, strong defence that protects the house. It’s hard to get inside on them. At the end of the day, it’s still about competitiveness and mental toughness and the willingness to get to the net.”
Lest you think Benning has anything against small players, his happiest day during five challenging years as GM was getting the five-foot-10 Hughes a year ago. He also said he’d draft Hughes’ equally-diminutive brother, Jack, first overall on Friday if the Canucks had the chance.
“It would be nice to have both the Hughes brothers playing on the same team, if that’s what you’re asking,” Benning said.
The Canucks would love to move up in the draft, even if it’s just high enough to take top defence prospect Bowen Byram, who has both size and talent and is coming off a record-setting junior season for the Vancouver Giants.
But since Benning is unwilling to surrender any of his young stars, moving up is almost impossible.
For the Canucks, trading slightly down is a more likely option because Vancouver may be able to get a defenceman like Victor Soderstrom or Thomas Harley or Philip Broberg in the middle of the first round.
But chances are Benning will use the 10th pick on Friday night. If he does, he may get lucky and have a powerful forward like Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens or Matthew Boldy still available when the Canucks select.
“There are some players that we think are after we pick that we really like a lot,” Benning said when asked about trading down. “So we’re going to keep our options open. Whether it’s acquiring another pick (in return), whether it’s getting a player that can help us now, there’s some players that we like later on in the first round for sure.
“Depending on if teams are going to pick the best player or what fits their need at that moment, the draft could go in a lot of different ways.
“The last couple of years…we haven’t had much luck at the lottery, but at the draft the player that we’ve really liked has fallen into our laps. We’re hoping that can happen again this year.”
Hughes was terrific in a five-game NHL cameo straight out of the University of Michigan at the end of the season and should be in the Calder Trophy discussion next year. Defenceman Olli Juolevi, who has made slow progress since the Canucks drafted him fifth overall in 2016, had his promising season halted by major knee surgery last December and is a huge wildcard for next fall.
But beyond Hughes and Juolevi, the Canucks’ best defence prospects are Jett Woo (second round, 2018) and Jack Rathbone (fourth round, 2017) and both are at least a couple of years away from being ready to try the NHL.
The draft is merely the start of a critical and hectic period for Benning, who still needs to re-sign top defenceman Alex Edler, expects to be aggressive in free agency on July 1 and will be looking to trade for help in the summer.
Benning has nine picks this weekend. The demands are much greater than finding someone capable of playing 28 NHL games.