Vancouver Canucks: Jim Benning is adapting to the NHL draft


Jim Benning is slowly but surely adapting a modern outlook on the NHL Entry Draft. He looks poised to avoid the mistakes made in 2016 and replicate what was done in last year’s draft.

Mistakes come with any job. You can plan for the unexpected, but can’t always account for everything. I never expect a General Manager to be perfect, but when there is an obvious bad decision with foresight, maybe you can understand why the criticism is laid out.

The National Hockey League is not a charity. Teams don’t get participation ribbons for the season. These are businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so fans and owners should expect nothing but the best, or at the very least, a plan to become the best again.

Sadly, this notion is lost on a large portion of Vancouver Canucks fans. They don’t want to hear anything negative about their favourite team and they are not unique for having that opinion. This always happens with sports teams. Throw in some straw man arguments and appeals to authority and they feel these managers are bulletproof. I will dispel the illusion now. They are not.

With that said, I think every manager has the capacity to learn. Normally, failing this much shouldn’t be rewarded, but you can’t deny that Jim Benning and Trevor Linden are learning, albeit slower than we would like.

The way Benning approaches the draft has changed. It’s not entirely bound by old school methods and is finally embracing a modern approach. We got a taste of this in the 2017 draft and Vancouver is poised to repeat that this year.

Why the 2016 draft was a failure

Instead of breaking down all six players from this draft, I think Rick Dhaliwal summarizes it best in a single tweet.

It was bad enough that a team finishing 28th that year only had six selections in the draft. Vancouver had to rebuild, but it kept being put off, misled by the fantasy that the team was still competitive. Benning sacrificed picks and prospects for magic beans and would have gotten more out of doing nothing.

In most drafts, teams aim to get two NHL players. Since Benning thought he could turn the team around quickly, he hoped for more than that. But the problem with the 2016 draft wasn’t the terrible trade that deprived them of yet another second round pick.

It was a problem of philosophy. A flaw in which the team used their highest pick to select for organizational need and not the best player available. This isn’t hindsight. Olli Juolevi was not going to turn around the Canucks defence overnight and someone like Matthew Tkachuk or Clayton Keller had far more upside up front.

Honestly, Juolevi is trending fine if he was drafted later in the first round. But he wasn’t. The fifth overall pick gives you a much better chance to get an impact player and the Canucks did not the use it to get the best option in front of them.

Will Lockwood‘s reckless style of play injures him every year. Some people are unsure if he will ever play an NHL game. And therein lies the crux of the problem. Walking away from that draft with potentially one NHL player in Juolevi is not what a rebuilding team needs.

Lessons Benning takes away

Fast forward to the 2017 draft and the Canucks adjusted this philosophy. They targeted highly skilled players, traded a mid round pick for two selections and relied more on an analytical approach to evaluate. It’s still early, but Vancouver came out of that draft with a strong group of players.

This brings me to a couple of conversations Benning had with Ben Kuzma of The Province. Right before the Draft Lottery, Benning admitted a major mistake made in the past.

"“It has been my experience that if you go for position, you make mistakes,” said Benning. “You want to take the best available when you pick and that will be our strategy. Positional needs? We can find other ways to find those type of players.”"

More from The Canuck Way

Yesterday, Kuzma discussed the impact of tournaments on player evaluation. Benning made this perfectly clear.

"“When we make evaluations, I don’t know if it changes that much just because a player has a good tournament.“It’s more figuring out what he’s going to be four years from now when he’s fully developed. We’re trying to predict and that’s the tricky part of amateur scouting.”"

How does this relate to Juolevi and the 2016 draft? He was selected for these reasons. First, the Canucks drafted for positional need when the best player available did not coincide with that need. Second, the 2016 World Juniors drastically spiked Juolevi’s draft stock, despite the powerhouse trio of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho in front of him.

Unfortunately, Canucks fans had to learn the hard way when Juolevi floundered in next year’s tournament when those players graduated to the pros. In this year’s tournament, he was much better, playing a more suitable role on the second pairing for Finland.

Expectations for the 2018 draft

In a vacuum, Juolevi will be a fine, second-pairing defenceman in the NHL someday. However, the thought process in selecting him was horribly flawed and the 2016 draft in its entirety stalled the rebuild. Perhaps the 2017 draft successes make up for it, perhaps they don’t. Although, wouldn’t it be nicer to have success in both drafts instead of just accepting failure in one of them?

As for the 2018 draft, I am confident the Canucks should do fine. Once again, it’s frustrating to be short on draft picks, but as long as they keep their modern methods of talent evaluation, they should come out okay.

Jim Benning is saying all the right things. It appears he won’t let small sample tournaments grossly sway his opinion and is flexible enough to not just grab a defenceman out of instinct. However, saying and doing are two completely different things.

Next: Erik Gudbranson vs Luca Sbisa

Regardless, I will give Benning the benefit of the doubt. He has the security of a new contract, so he may be inclined to do something bold instead of tip-toeing around the draft. A lot can happen in the days leading up to the draft, so hopefully we get to see Tuesday Jim. If not, then I say trust Judd Brackett and the scouts. They have more control now and it showed last year.