Breaking news: the Vancouver Canucks are having a tough time.
They seem aimless and lost. The direction of the club is a bit of a question mark. They have some legitimate stars in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. Thatcher Demko looks like an above-average NHL starting netminder. Young players such as Nils Höglander, Vasili Podkolzin, and Jack Rathbone look like they could be key contributors for the future.
Beyond that, there is a lot left to be desired.
GM Jim Benning has been on the job since May of 2014 and his calling card from day one was his draft acumen. The only problem with that is that it’s questionable whether or not he has cleaned up on the draft floor the way some in the Vancouver fanbase have claimed.
Sure, the Canucks have seen some hits at the draft table, but there have also been some tragic misses. There is also the fact that they haven’t made a pick in round one since selecting Podkolzin at 10th overall in 2019. For a team that seems to be closer to rebuild than true contention, that seems like bad business.
Let's break down his draft history in Vancity:
The Early Benning Years: 2014-2016
Positioned with the sixth overall pick in 2014 – Benning's first year on the job – the Canucks may not have been in a position to draft a franchise-altering talent, but a player who can make a big impact and be a major building block going forward was on the table. The selection of Jake Virtanen came with a mixed bag of reactions.
While some saw Virtanen as a player who could model himself after Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, others noted that despite his impressive point totals, some wondered how he'd translate his game to the NHL. With players such as William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers on the board, there was immediate concern that they may have passed on the best player available.
That concern wound up being a reality within just a few years.
Not to worry, however, the Canucks had a second first-round pick in the 2014 draft. At 24th overall, they selected center Jared McCann. McCann progressed well in junior and was able to play in 69 games with the Canucks before being shipped off the Florida Panthers along with a second and fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft for Erik Gudbranson and a fifth-round pick.
Both Virtanen and McCann are gone, but McCann's career numbers trumped what Virtanen was capable of.
Beyond round one, Benning seemed to do a decent job of finding players. Demko was taken No. 36 overall and Gustav Forsling was taken in the fifth round. Forsling never played a game for the Canucks but at least they were able to acquire defender Adam Clendening (17 games with Vancouver) in exchange for their fifth-round find.
The 2015 draft started strong for Benning and Vancouver. With a playoff birth in Benning’s first full year at the helm, he picked 23rd in the first round. Finding Minnesota-born Brock Boeser was a great pick, with the sniper becoming a Calder Trophy finalist before posting 218 points in 266 games to date.
The only other player to play double-digit games in the NHL from the Canucks 2015 draft was Adam Gaudette, who played 152 games over parts of four seasons. Gaudette was never able to secure a full-time spot in the Canucks lineup but the skill level and scouring acumen from his NCAA days, where he won the Hobey Baker in 2018, presented enough upside to give him a shot. In fairness to the Canucks Gaudette hasn’t been able to find a role in Chicago through a year and a half either.
In 2016, the Canucks were once again selecting quite high in the draft, this time at fifth overall. With the selection of Olli Juolevi, the Canucks were hoping that they found a stalwart for their backend. Instead, they invested a top-five pick in a defender who never cracked the NHL lineup on any sort of full-time basis. Traded to Florida just prior to the season, the Juolevi experiment in Vancouver ran its course.
In fact, among the nine defenders taken in round one of the 2016 draft, only 28th overall pick Lukas Johansson has played fewer games despite Joulevi being the first blueliner off the board. Making it even more painful is the fact that among all defenders drafted that year, Juolevi sits 19th in scoring. Not really a great sign for a player touted to bring at least a solid offensive game to the table.
The rest of the 2016 draft didn’t amount to anything for the Canucks. Their next pick came in the third round with Will Lockwood being the prize from the rest of the class. To say that Benning’s third draft was anything but disastrous would be an understatement.
The “Golden Benning” Years: 2017-2018
‘Golden Years’ is part sarcasm, part truth. It’s weird, just like this era of Benning drafts. He truly made some game-changing picks while also seemingly glossing over players impacting their respective NHL rosters already throughout the middle rounds.
Starting in 2017, the Canucks made arguably their most impactful pick since the Sedin twins in 1999. At fifth overall, Benning walked up to the stage and selected a thin and physically immature Elias Pettersson. With their recent history and tendency to draft physical specimens over talented players, one would have guessed that they would have taken Cody Glass (6-foot-3) , Gabe Vilardi (6-foot-3), or even Michael Rasmussen (6-foo-6).
Instead, they went with the most talented and skilled player on the board and wound up with a top-two player from the class, with only Cale Makar proving to be in the same class of talent. Pettersson went on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and while he has struggled the past two years (he missed most of last year with an injury), he's still a major piece for this organization.
The rest of the 2017 draft class proved to bring value, but none of them have really blossomed just yet. Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Michael DiPietro, and Jack Rathbone have all made their debuts but none of them are full-time NHLers yet.
Lind was Seattle’s choice in the expansion draft and has played a few games in the NHL, but has been having a good year in the AHL. Gadjovich was claimed off waivers by the Sharks and has begun to work his way into games at the NHL level. DiPietro is a young and promising goalie whose biggest roadblock may be the fact that Demko is also quite youthful. Rathbone looks like he will be an NHLer soon but a couple of cups of coffee haven’t led to a full-time gig.
In 2018, Benning followed up his first-round homerun of the Pettersson pick by selecting dynamic blueliner, Quinn Hughes. Hughes has arguably been the best or second-best player from the 2018 crop. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2019 with the Michigan Wolverines before joining the Canucks and becomign a Calder finalist. He had some ups and downs last season, and while the entire Canucks organization seems snakebitten this year, the talent and future outlook for Hughes remains extremely high.
The rest of the 2018 draft is somewhat of a mixed bag. Defender Jett Woo has been playing better this season in the AHL but he was not looking like a player living up to being a high second-round pick as he stagnated in the WHL before an underwhelming AHL rookie year last year. Forward Tyler Madden looked really promising with Northeastern in the NCAA but he was promptly moved to the Los Angeles Kings when the Canucks acquired Tyler Toffoli for their ill-fated playoff run that likely never should have been in 2020. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Canucks also sent a second-round pick, just to not re-sign Toffoli.
The rest of the 2018 draft class - Toni Utunen, Artem Manukyan, and Matthew Thiessen - were all late-round picks who haven’t done too much to put their names on the map. Grabbing Hughes at the top of the draft was a huge win but trading what likely is the second-best player from the class for a few games of Toffoli to help push them into an awkwardly ill-advised playoff run was yet another flop for Benning.
The “Lack of a Plan” Benning Years: 2019-present
The 2019 draft was a very good class. There were options all over the board that could have been a very good pick for the Canucks at 10th overall. With the pick of Vasili Podkolzin, the Canucks made it clear that they wanted an NHL player but maybe at the cost of passing on an NHL difference-maker. Names such as Matthew Boldy (Minnesota at 12), Cole Caufield (Montreal at 15) and Alex Newhook (Colorado at 16) were all available, but they opted for the safer Podkolzin.
The Russian power forward has had a better season than the other three, although Caufield’s run with Montreal in the playoffs last year may be evidence enough that his time will come. This means the Canucks are ahead of the game now for the 2019 draft but for how long? In two years, will we still be saying the same thing?
The big win for the Canucks in the 2019 draft was their second-round choice of Nils Höglander. Making his debut last season, the sparkplug forward is currently tied for fifth on the team in scoring with Pettersson this season. He has been a true injection of excitement and talent to a roster sorely needing it. He’s a clear win for Benning.
Since the Höglander pick at 40th overall in 2019, the Canucks have have selected just one other player in the first 80 picks of the draft, with Danila Klimovich out of Belarus going to them at No. 42 last year. Klimovich has looked decent at the AHL level and could make an impact at the NHL level sooner than other players from his draft class because of his fairly simple approach to the game. But it's far too early to tell.
Making any judgments on players drafted the last two seasons may be a little hasty. Development, specifically for players drafted as late as the Canucks have recently, takes time. Defenseman Joni Jurmo (2020, 82nd overall) has looked decent. Lucas Forsell (2021, 201st overall) has been showcasing his game well in Sweden. It’s pretty thin pickings beyond that as the Canucks strategy of only drafting in the mid-late rounds the last two years during a rebuild hasn’t exactly warranted high-end players.
The Missed Opportunities
The results of the Benning-era of NHL drafts in Canucks history will go down as a series of hits and misses. In hindsight, when we look back in a decade, we will likely feel like he did an underwhelming job as he whiffed on a couple of top-ten picks but also drafted a few of the building blocks for the future. He just failed to surround Pettersson, Hughes, and company with competent veterans to fill out the roster.
At least, that’s how it will look on the surface. When you really dig in and take a look at some of the players who they selected versus the players drafted within a few spots of them, it'll look much worse. Especially due to the fact that many of the players the Canucks drafted were often viewed as ‘okay’ bets at their draft slot.
Jared McCann was taken one spot before David Pastrnak in 2014. Joulevi could have been any one of Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, or Mikhail Sergachev who were all taken within four picks of the Canucks’ draft choice. In 2017, Lind was taken ahead of Nic Hague and Jason Robertson. Woo was taken one spot ahead of Alexander Romanov in 2018.
While all teams have these, it remains a painful point of discussion amongst Canucks fans. Have they been reaching? Could they have found better value? Hindsight is 20/20, but some decisions seemd bad from the get-go.
So is Jim Benning the draft savant that he’s been billed to be over his tenure with Vancouver? The argument is laid out and the answer is obvious, but don’t worry, Jim just needs more time. Right?