Canucks 2020 NHL Draft preview: Will Benning replenish early-round picks?

For the first time since 2010, the Vancouver Canucks could head to the draft without a pick in the first two rounds. At least this time, the team should have no sellers’ regret.

J.T. Miller, acquired at the 2019 draft from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a first-round pick, had a career season in Vancouver, scoring 27 goals and 72 points in 69 games -- plus another 18 points in 17 playoff games -- and establishing himself as a leader and core player.

Acquired in February from the Los Angeles Kings for a second-round pick and prospect Tyler Madden, winger Tyler Toffoli didn’t do too badly, either. He had six goals and 10 points in 10 games playing with Miller and Elias Pettersson before an ankle injury limited him to seven games and four points in the Stanley Cup tournament.

Toffoli and the Canucks appeared to be closing in on a new contract, so the veteran eligible for unrestricted free agency may be more than an expensive rental for Vancouver general manager Jim Benning.

A decade ago, former GM Mike Gillis traded his first-round pick and future 30-goal scorer Michael Grabner to Florida for defenceman Keith Ballard, who flopped in Vancouver and was eventually bought out. Gillis had surrendered his second pick in 2010 two years earlier for Buffalo winger Steve Bernier, who was included in the Ballard trade. Gillis traded his third-rounder for Carolina defenceman Andrew Alberts, so the Canucks’ first draft pick in 2010 wasn’t until the fourth round. Selected 115th, defenceman Patrick McNally never logged an NHL game and last season played in Slovakia.

Benning continues to make trade calls trying to replenish his picks before Oct. 6. If he fails, the Canucks’ first pick will be No. 82 in the third round.

Draft Picks

3rd round, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th (from Anaheim)

Potential Round 3 Targets

Jack Finley, C, WHL Spokane
One of the youngest players in the draft, the six-foot-five centre from Kelowna made tremendous progress in his draft year, tripling his scoring by managing 19 goals and 57 points in 61 games. His skating needs to improve, but Finley has good hands and hockey IQ, uses his size around the net and projects as a third-line centre in the NHL. His dad, Jeff, logged 708 games as an NHL defenceman and, interestingly, was also a third-round pick.

Gage Concalves, C, WHL Everett
A 19-year-old who was bypassed in last year’s lottery, this six-foot centre from Mission, B.C., an hour east of Vancouver, is a draft wildcard who could be picked anywhere from the third round on. Yes, he had a breakthrough year in the WHL, amassing 33 goals and 71 points in 60 games after managing just a single goal the previous season. But it was also what would have been a draft-plus-one season for most good prospects his age. Concalves thrived after being switched to centre from the wing, is an agile skater and stick-handler and may only now be untapping his offensive potential.

Michael Benning, D, AJHL Sherwood Park
Nepotism is a tricky business, but Jim Benning’s nephew -- Michael’s dad is former NHLer Brian Benning -- is a five-foot-10 right-shot defenceman who passes the puck better than most blue-liners in his draft class and will get time to mature and develop at the University of Denver after scoring 75 points in 54 games in Junior-A. Named his league's top defenceman, Benning may not even be available by the time the Canucks pick 82nd. But he sure matches the template for the puck-moving defencemen coveted in the new NHL.

A glance back: 2019's first-round pick

The semi-stunned silence made it easier to hear, of course, but there were actually a few boos in Rogers Arena last June when the Canucks used the 10th pick of their home draft to select Russian winger Vasily Podkolzin.

The consternation among some fans was probably due to the franchise’s abysmal record with Russian players since Pavel Bure bolted town in the 1990s, as well as GM Benning’s preference for Podkolzin over several higher-profile forward prospects like Matthew Boldy (12th), Cole Caufield (15th) and local boy Alex Newhook (16th).

But nobody on the West Coast seems to be booing now. With extremely limited ice time as an 18-year-old on SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, Podkolzin had just eight points in 30 games, before thriving on the playoff stage with three points in four games.

It’s Podkolzin’s style and disposition that appear to make him perfectly suited for the Canucks when his KHL contract expires next year. The six-foot-two, 200-pounder is a tank, a physical winger who engages opponents but also gets to the net.

Organizational needs

Player development on defence has lagged behind what the Canucks have achieved up front, but there are now three prospects ready to challenge for an NHL spot and try joining Calder Trophy runner-up Quinn Hughes on the Vancouver blueline: minor-leaguers Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty, and college star Jack Rathbone.

With wingers Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander on their way to the NHL in the next two years, the Canucks need to get a couple of more centres into their development pipeline. Carson Focht, a 2019 fifth-rounder, is probably the best prospect at centre and he just finished his 19-year-old season in junior.

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