A tale as old as time, and probably enough to make Vancouver Canucks fans sick to their stomachs: the NHL draft ‘what if’s. The Canucks drafted Boston University defenseman Tom Willander 11th overall in the 2023 NHL Draft, but it’s the guy who was drafted two picks later that has grabbed all the headlines.
The Buffalo Sabres’ 13th overall pick Zach Benson has been regularly practicing in the team’s top-six in training camp and in preseason, and the young forward has been carving up opposing defenses left and right. Benson has four goals and seven points in only six preseason games, and only Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt of the New Jersey Devils have produced more offense in the exhibition slate.
When the Canucks drafted Willander, they clearly identified a position of need within the organization and proceeded from there. The problem, though, is that years of poor drafting has made virtually every position a position of need; a lose-lose situation for a franchise starved of positivity and success at nearly every turn.
The 18-year-old defensemen is still absolutely a great player and will transform the Canucks’ blueline in the years to come. With Benson’s early success, it’s fair to wonder how different Vancouver’s outlook would be with the forward slotting into their top-six already.
Outside of Andrei Kuzmenko, the Canucks have a left wing group of Phillip Di Giuseppe, Dakota Joshua, and Nils Aman. Di Giuseppe had a great game in the Canucks’ preseason finale, but he’s simply not a top-six forward at this level. Vasily Podkolzin couldn’t even make the NHL roster this year, so he’s out of the equation for now too.
It’s not an indictment on Willander by any stretch, but Benson appears to be a truly special player so far. Usually when 18-year-olds make the NHL right away, they’re some of the most special talents in the league; think of Jack Hughes, Connor McDavid, Connor Bedard, Auston Matthews, Brady Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, so on and so forth.
Right now, it’s looking like the Canucks would have been better off taking Benson and deferring their blueline needs to the defense-rich 2024 NHL draft class. Of course, it’s early, but those draft nightmares of years past are starting to creep back into the rearview mirror.
For now, the Canucks will instead focus on the start of the 2023-24 regular season under Rick Tocchet, while also monitoring the status of Willander and other prospects around the globe.