Vancouver Canucks: Where are Jim Benning’s defencemen now?

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 25: Matt Bartkowski #44 of the Vancouver Canucks skates up ice with the puck during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena February 25, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 25: Matt Bartkowski #44 of the Vancouver Canucks skates up ice with the puck during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena February 25, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Jim Benning has had a lot of trouble finding good defencemen from the free agent and trade markets. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and see where some of these players are now.

Defence. The biggest and most important talking point concerning the Vancouver Canucks. With one of the better prospect pools in the NHL, fans are more than familiar with the deep group of forwards that are developing into potential players. Goaltending is also in a solid spot. Vancouver is not rich with defensive prospects, but have one exceptional blueliner and a couple notable ones thanks to their drafting.

But when we move from the amateur side of acquisition, the picture is not so rosy. As we look back, Jim Benning has brought in quite a few defencemen through free agency and trade. These defencemen were supposed to accelerate the rebuild much like the forwards acquired to “bridge the age gap.”

Today’s focus will stay with the forwards. Personally, I feel I’ve talked a lot about the eight defencemen returning from last year. Additionally, I believe my coverage on our prospects has covered much in terms of our defensive draft picks. For the sake of brevity, we will stick to defencemen brought in as an unrestricted free agent or via trade. Let’s take a look at where these players are now that they are no longer with the organization.

Luca Sbisa

And we start things off with a good one. Luca Sbisa was part of the package that Jim Benning received in the Ryan Kesler trade. Up until losing him in the Expansion Draft, he was the only piece left from that trade.

Perception is a funny thing. In Vancouver, Sbisa could not suppress shot attempts, break up plays, prevent zone entries. He became infamous for delivering pizzas to the other team, turnover the puck right in front of his own goalie or just giving the puck to the opposition with an ill-timed pass.

Fast forward to his injury-plagued year in Vegas and he’s apparently a top four defenceman (who was carried by Nate Schmidt-perhaps a little too well thanks to outside help). Yet, after a poor showing in the Stanley Cup Final, Sbisa was not re-signed by the Golden Knights. Where is he now? Last I checked, he is with the New York Islanders on a professional tryout. You know how much Lou Lamiarello likes his old school defencemen. Top four D don’t usually struggle to find work in the NHL. Funny how that works.

Adam Clendening

Ah, yet another example of the age gap strategy. Turning drafted players into already developed ones. Sounds good in theory, but Adam Clendening was one of several examples of why this didn’t work. The Canucks thought they knew something these other teams didn’t. Turns out they were wrong.

Benning turned a good defensive prospect, Gustav Forsling, into a player who would be out of Vancouver after 17 games. Clendening was slow and just plain bad. His shot was his only saving grace, but since he rarely had the puck on his stick, the offence never happened.

Today, Clendening is bouncing from team to team, clinging to his hockey career in the AHL. Columbus is taking a chance on him this season, but considering that he played 5 games last season, he may have to accept that he is an AHL defender.

Andrey Pedan

I never understood the first Andrey Pedan trade. The Canucks dropped off Alexandre Mallet and a 3rd round pick to acquire the big Lithuanian in 2015. That third round pick went to a couple teams and made its way back to the Canucks in the Brandon Sutter trade. Granted, that pick downgraded the selection retrieved in the Kevin Bieksa trade, but who’s keeping score?

Pedan seemed more focused on fighting than defending. He just didn’t stand out despite being so tall. I remember when he and Nikita Tryamkin would be the twin towers on the third pairing. That dream lasted about a week. Pedan eventually got the team Derrick Pouliot after throwing away a fourth rounder on top. This season, Pedan signed a contract in the KHL.

Matt Bartkowski

More from The Canuck Way

Man, Matt Bartkowski might be one of the nicest guys on this list. Well, Luca Sbisa is up there. It’s too bad these guys aren’t good at playing hockey. Benning was familar with Bartkowski from his playing days in Boston. We were promised speed and we got it. Problem was, Bartkowski rarely knew what to do with it. Although, he did have that one game where he scored twice and we got to listen to how caring his mother was on the broadcast.

I did forget that Bartkowski had 18 points that season. He would have been hailed as a star on the current Canucks blue line. Although, Dan Hamhuis may have had something to do with that. Since then, Bartkowski has bounced from team to team, signing a one-year, two-way deal with Minnesota this season. At the age of 30, his NHL options are starting to narrow.

Philip Larsen

Philip Larsen had a lot of potential. Although, I don’t think he was worth investing a 5th round pick. Marketed as a puck-moving, power play specialist, he was supposed to give the Canucks a much needed boost. Like all of these defencemen, things did not work out as planned.

Larsen struggled, failing to produce much offence. Worst of all, he will only be remembered by Canucks fan as the guy who was victim to that devastating hit from Taylor Hall. And look who is at fault. Luca Sbisa fed Larsen the suicide pass in his skates and if you watch closely, he accidentally kicks Larsen in the head as he confronts Hall. Thank goodness Jacob Markstrom did his best to shield him.

Where is Larsen today? He returned to the KHL last year and will remain there for next season.

Patrick Wiercioch

There’s not a lot to say about Patrick Wiercioch. He was part of the crazy spending at the 2017 free agent frenzy. The local kid was just a depth piece, but he did play a large role in Utica, supporting rookies on the blue line. He joined a KHL team over the summer.

Philip Holm

Philip Holm was one of the few good decisions on this list. He was signed for depth, but I think he was hoping to give the NHL one more try. Easily Utica’s best defenceman, he wasn’t played very often in Vancouver. But he did net us Brendan Leipsic, which is the best way to acquire tweeners. When you aren’t sacrificing draft picks or prospects, I have no problem with turning free assets into other players. Holm chose to return to Europe, joining a KHL team as well.

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So, what can we take away from this? Well, Jim Benning doesn’t have the best eye for defensive talent. Oddly enough, he can identify positive traits in amateur players but has a poor grasp of it on the pro side. Seems to me that our amateur scouts give him a much bigger boost in evaluation. Too bad that doesn’t translate with pro scouting. Seems to me Benning is an ordinary scout, which is not a bad thing. But I would think twice before boasting about his scouting acumen. It’s been four years and the best defenceman he has found has yet to play an NHL game.