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Ask Me Anything: What's next in Vancouver, Jim Benning?

Which team has bombed the draft the worst in the past decade? Is NHL Player Safety inconsistent? What should Jim Benning do this off-season? And more.

Another potpourri this week for the Ask Me Anything mailbag. Some of you are pondering your teams’ off-season plans, while others wonder what surprises the playoffs may bring, and one of you has a bone to pick with the NHL.

Curtis Mankewich (@CurtisSaysThis) asks…

Who has drafted the worst over the last decade? The Dallas Stars come to mind. Aside from John Klingberg and Jamie Benn in the fifth round, the first round has been dismal…Scott Glennie, Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Campbell, Denis Gurianov (maybe?), Valeri Nichushkin, hoping not Julius Honka too.

I agree with your use of first-round picks to illustrate Dallas’ draft failures, Curtis, as the later rounds are crapshoots, and we can’t really punish teams like San Jose, Chicago and L.A. for weak prospect crops over the past decade when they so rarely got to pick in the top half of the first round. You may have a real case for Dallas having the ugliest recent draft history. Glennie played one measly NHL game, while Oleksiak and Campbell are only finally getting extended NHL looks this year – on new clubs. And what about Radek Faksa? He’s become a nice two-way center, maybe a Selke candidate someday, but on draft day 2012, when he was picked 12th overall, how would the Stars have felt if we travelled back in time and told them “He’ll be a good checking center who tops out around 40 points.” Is that top-12 material? It’s debatable. Even Riley Tufte, chosen in 2016’s first round, cracked our scouting panel’s list of prospects whose stocks have dropped the most in the past year. So did Gurianov. So the Stars have gotten remarkably little from their first-rounders over the past decade.

Can any team compete with that? The Coyotes did snag Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Clayton Keller with their top picks in 2009 and 2016, but they whiffed horribly on Brandon Gormley, Connor Murphy and Henrik Samuelsson from 2010 to 2012. Heck, Max Domi has regressed to the point he’s suddenly more bust than boom. And how much more development time does Dylan Strome get before we declare him a disaster pick at third overall in 2015? Players chosen after him in the top 10 included Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski and Mikko Rantanen. Yikes.

The Red Wings have a history of unearthing late-round gems thanks to scouting magician Hakan Andersson, yes, but we can’t let them off the hook for their first-rounders. They took Riley Sheahan 21st overall in 2010, and Evgeny Svechnikov has taken longer than expected to develop since going 19th overall in 2015. Their 2016 and 2017 picks, Dennis Cholowski and Michael Rasmussen, were considered reaches in their slots, especially Cholowski, so we’ll see if they pan out.

The best challenger to the Stars may be the Buffalo Sabres. Their first-rounders since 2009:

Zack Kassian, 13th

Mark Pysyk, 23rd

Joel Armia, 16th

Mikhail Grigorenko, 12th

Zemgus Girgensons, 14th

Rasmus Ristolainen, 8th

Nikita Zadorov, 16th

Sam Reinhart, 2nd

Jack Eichel, 2nd

Alex Nylander, 8th

Casey Mittelstadt, 8th

We can’t evaluate Mittelstadt yet, though he looks like the next Mathew Barzal in my opinion, so that’s likely a win. As for the rest: who other than Eichel has lived up to his draft status? Maybe Ristolainen? The Grigorenko-Girgensons combo in 2012 was particularly hideous.

Still, Dallas has to take the unofficial crown. Most of Buffalo’s misses are still NHL players. They simply haven’t performed like first-rounders. Some of Dallas’ first-rounders, on the other hand, have become legit NHL washouts.

James (@sun2skis) asks:

Why is NHL Player Safety so inconsistent?

That’s a loaded question, James! I’m not going to take the bait. I’ll answer this question with a bit of a bias on the other side of the argument – but hopefully it’s an educated bias.

During the 2014-15 season, I wrote a piece criticizing the Department of Player Safety for a not suspending a player for a late hit. They reached out to me and explained that the hit wasn’t late, that they follow time parameters to define what is or isn’t a late hit. I was fascinated and told them I wish I could be a fly on the wall and learn exactly how they make their decisions. They said sure, come on down, so in winter 2015 I headed to New York and spent a night in the war room watching all the games, interviewing DOPS members and learning everything I could about how and why players get suspended. You can read the full story right here.

One of my key takeaways was how consistent the DOPS members actually are in their decision making, contrary to what a lot of people think. And by consistent I mean consistent in their enforcement of what’s in the rulebook. That’s the biggest thing a lot of fans misunderstand: the DOPS is bound by what’s in the rulebook as laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. It can’t enforce anything that isn’t in the rulebook. The example explained to me at the time by Damian Echevarrieta, the department VP, was Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard in 2010. It was a brutal headshot, but at the time, rule 48.1 didn’t exist as we knew it today. There was no specific language in the rulebook about targeting players’ heads so, as dirty as the hit was, it could not be punished. Once the rules were changed that summer with the CBA amended to make headshots illegal, the DOPS could start suspending players who did what Cooke did.

So I don’t believe the DOPS is as inconsistent as a lot of people think. It doesn’t mean the decision makers get it right every time by any means – and I’ve told them I don’t always agree – but the majority of their actions can be explained away if you know your rulebook. The other thing is: so much of the analysis of the controversial hits comes down to the physics of a collision. There’s a huge difference, for example, between skating toward an opponent with your elbow sticking out and aiming versus a shoulder-to-shoulder impact that launches the hitter’s elbow up into the air after the contact and as a result of the contact. If you watch for things like that, you’ll suddenly identify patterns for which hits earn suspensions – and thus you’ll notice consistency.

Does that answer your question? I gave it my best shot. In a perfect world, if we could magically download the rulebook into every fan’s brain, Matrix style, the DOPS would have far fewer critics. Not that supplemental discipline is perfect. I wish every suspension was triple the length, and I don’t think fines deter players from anything. But overall the DOPS is a hardworking crew that puts a ton of time into evaluating every play. It’s unfair to them when they’re labelled as spinners of a roulette wheel. They really try their best.

Dave Harrison (@forestrydave) asks…

Which potential division winner do you see as most likely to bow out in the first round of the playoffs this year?

Washington, and it’s not close. It almost feels too easy to pick the Caps, doesn’t it? But they’re set up for one extreme or the other this season. As coach Barry Trotz suggested when we spoke a couple weeks ago, maybe this is the year his team is a post-hype sleeper with no pressure, which finally allows for a deep run when no one suspects it, like we saw with the San Jose Sharks in 2016. In a purely intangible sense, that may be true, but most of the actual numbers suggest otherwise.

The Caps rank 25th in the NHL in 5-on-5 adjusted Corsi, per, and they generate the fewest shots on net of any NHL team. Factor in that Alex Ovechkin leads the league in shots and that’s a massive indictment of every other Caps player, isn’t it? Goaltender Braden Holtby has also struggled so much this season, just two years removed from winning the Vezina Trophy, that he isn’t even locked in as the team’s playoff starter. It’s an open competition between him and Philipp Grubauer.

Washington just doesn’t have the trappings of a division winner right now, yet it holds the Metro lead by four points. The Atlantic Division champ, Tampa Bay or Boston, should earn the No. 1 seed and will likely play whoever wins the fight between New Jersey and Florida for the second wildcard spot. Washington, on the other hand, would get whoever slides out of the Metro into the No. 7 spot between Philadelphia, Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Flyers would be a pick ’em opponent given their own struggles in net, but Columbus is the NHL’s hottest team right now, winners of 10 straight games, and there’s nothing left to say about Washington’s struggles against Pittsburgh. Even Trotz admitted to me two weeks ago that the Pens have held a “mental edge” over his team.

Alex H (@alexhoegler) asks…

If you’re Jim Benning, how would you go about this off-season? Would you move on from the Sedins and trade out as many veterans as you can (Sam Gagner, Alexander Edler, Michael Del Zotto, Brandon Sutter, Anders Nilsson etc.)?

Hey Alex,

A good meaty question there. The Canucks are still in rebuild mode, so I suspect a lot of their moves will be transitional as they evaluate their young players – everyone from jury’s-still-out prospects like Jake Virtanen to the exciting big-ticket prospects like Elias Pettersson and Olli Juolevi.

I met up with coach Travis Green in January and asked him whether he thinks Brock Boeser’s breakout and Pettersson’s huge season in Sweden and at the world juniors have accelerated the team’s rebuild. His reply:

“We’ve got these young guys (Pettersson and Olli Juolevi) that were in the world juniors, and we have to see how they progress through the rest of this season, their strength level. We hope they’re both ready to play in the NHL next season. Then there’s the next step. Once they’re ready, and if they’re ready, what kind of players are they? They don’t all come in and become Brock Boesers. Sometimes it takes a young player, like Jake Virtanen as an example, it’s taken him a little time. But I really like how his game’s progressing. And I’ve said, you just don’t know when a player’s going to become his best player within himself. I’ve said many times Jake Virtanen might become his best player at 23. And you have to make sure as an organization that you’re not giving up on a young player before he’s reached his max – or make sure that if you know a player can’t become a player, and he’s not going to be a player, is it time to move on.”

What I took away from that comment is that the Canucks are still figuring out exactly what they have, especially since this is Green’s first year as their coach. I thus don’t believe Benning has to be uber-aggressive just yet. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see Daniel and Henrik Sedin re-up on a short-term deal, even just for one year, obviously for far less than their current $7-million price tags. Green already transitioned them to secondary roles this season, with Henrik averaging 15:23 of ice time and Daniel 15:03. For perspective: Derek Dorsett averaged 15:17. So in terms of lineup deployment, I don’t think the Sedins are really getting in the kids’ way, and what better mentor could there be for center Pettersson than Henrik Sedin? Having a similar player and fellow countryman could work wonders for Pettersson’s development and, I think, up his chances of sticking in the NHL and challenging for the Calder Trophy next season.

As for trading away some of the other veteran deals: easier said than done. Brandon Sutter seems like more of a buyout candidate than trade candidate to me. He’s not worth a $4.38-million AAV for three more seasons. His numbers have been artificially repressed this year because of his extreme defensive usage against vicious competition (here’s a great breakdown of it), but that still doesn’t justify the cap hit. The Canucks also already retain salary on Roberto Luongo’s contract next year and beyond, so they have to be careful about taking on money. They only have so many bullets. Gagner poses the same problem as Sutter to me, with multiple years left on a bad contract.

Edler, Del Zotto and Nilsson should be tradable in the final years of their deals – but they probably make more sense to the Canucks and to the acquiring parties as trade-deadline options next year. Summer rental deals carry a different kind of risk. Do you want to surrender a prospect or pick to acquire one year of a guy when you don’t yet know if your team will be in contention next spring?

So I wouldn’t be too shocked to see Vancouver play it conservative this off-season. I believe a Sutter buyout would be prudent, however. It would clear a spot on the depth chart for Pettersson’s ascension.

Jordan Samson (@jsamson198) asks…

You get to suit up and practice with one NHL team. Which do you pick and why?

This decision was shockingly easy: the Vegas Golden Knights. First off, you get to fly to Vegas and enjoy the weather and entertainment that comes with Sin City before and after your practice. Secondly, Golden Knights practices have become the stuff of legend. City National Arena regularly gets 1,000 fans. So even just practising with the team would provide a taste of the raucous game atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena.

Lastly, Vegas has some great personalities to practice with. Nate Schmidt is one of the happiest, friendliest, most positive people in the game. Deryk Engelland, a Las Vegas native, could tell you everything you need to know about the city. And most importantly, you’d get to hang with Marc-Andre Fleury (assuming he’s healthy in this scenario). He’s the most beloved character in the sport among other players, and a big reason why is his fun approach to practising.

Ever watch Flower in practice? It’s hilarious. He chirps his teammates throughout. In his Penguins days, he loved participating in shootout drills, too. Maybe four or five years ago, Pittsburgh was in town to play the Leafs, and I was working on a Fleury story. I decided to sit at his end of the rink during a morning skate and watch everything he did. He and Chris Kunitz battled like crazy the entire time, jawing at each other, shoving each other and laughing. And every time every Penguin player scored on Fleury, the player celebrated hard and got in Fleury's face. All I could think at the time was, “They love this guy.” He makes the practice atmosphere so fun.

So with all those factors combined: it’s gotta be Vegas for my practice pick!



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