One of the criticisms leveled at the Canucks’ current management group is their unwillingness or inability to acquire draft picks. The Canucks have made 34 picks at the NHL draft over the last five years under Jim Benning’s tenure as General Manager, which is one fewer than the allotment of 35 picks that each team receives each year: 7 picks, one in each round.
That seems unusual for a rebuilding team, but particularly for a GM that has staked his reputation on scouting and drafting. Ultimately, Benning has sent out more picks in trades than he has acquired. Heck, one of the draft picks they acquired — a 2nd-round pick in 2017 used on Jonah Gadjovich — wasn’t from a trade at all, but compensation for the Columbus Blue Jackets hiring John Tortorella, who still had term remaining on his contract with the Canucks.
These are old arguments, of course, and there’s no intention here to feed a fed horse, as PETA would have us say. But it does provide some context for Jim Benning’s comments in an article from Iain MacIntyre on Thursday morning.
Benning provided reassurance that even though the Canucks are in the hunt for the playoffs, he wouldn’t be looking to bolster the team for a playoff run by trading away draft picks.
“We have a plan in place and I’m not moving picks from this year’s draft to make the team better now,” said Benning. “It’s going to be about the guys in that room pulling together and having a good run. And that will dictate whether we’re a playoff team or not.”
Benning did say that he would be willing to make “hockey trades” that involve moving a roster player to acquire another player if it makes the team better.
All told, Benning struck a patient tone with his comments, emphasizing that they have a “long-term plan” and that hints of success in their current season won’t make them stray from it. Instead, he said, “The core pieces are starting to fall into place” and, “We’re on the right path.” For anyone fearful the Canucks would be buyers at the trade deadline and jeopardize their future success, these are reassuring comments.
There was one quote, however, that had some fans sit up and take notice.
“The numbers speak for themselves if you go over the history of the draft,” said Benning. “If you’re looking at the top five picks, they have a chance more often than not to become impact players over time. But if you look at the bottom five picks in the first round, some of those guys don’t even play.”
It’s not that the content of this quote is incorrect, but that it’s an odd thing to say in the Canucks’ current situation.
In fact, this is the core of the argument made by those on Team Tank — the Canucks fans that have advocated for tanking in the standings over the last several seasons in order to improve draft position. It’s absolutely true that the prospects with the best chance of becoming true impact players in the NHL are pick with the top-five picks in the draft: this is why those on Team Tank want the team to finish lower in the standings to improve the odds of getting one of those impact players.
We’ve already seen this happen: the Canucks slid down the standings to end the 2016-17 season, finishing in 29th-place. Though the Canucks lost the draft lottery and had three other teams pass them in the draft order, they only fell to the fifth-overall pick, where they were able to pick Elias Pettersson.
If the Canucks had finished any higher in the standings in 2016-17, there is a very good chance that they wouldn’t have Pettersson, a franchise-defining forward.
But the Canucks are not currently in contention for one of those top-five picks; they’re in contention for the playoffs. That’s what makes it so odd to hear Benning discuss the value of those picks right now.
In context, however, Benning was truly talking about the other end of the scale — the bottom-five picks in the first round — in the context of a potential Alex Edler trade.
An Edler trade is unlikely due to his full no-trade clause and his desire to stay in Vancouver, but Benning also downplayed the value of acquiring a pick for Edler, even a first-round pick. If Edler were to be traded, it would presumably be to a Stanley Cup-contending team that would be likely to go far in the playoffs. The further a team goes in the playoffs, the later in the first round they get to pick in the following draft.
Essentially, Benning suggested that late first-round picks aren’t worth acquiring, at least at the expense of a key player like Edler. After all, “some of those guys don’t even play.”
That in itself is an odd argument to hear from Benning, who has previously stated his belief that he and his team can draft NHL players in every round. It’s also odd as one of the cornerstones of the Canucks’ core, Brock Boeser, was drafted 23rd overall — not quite in the bottom-five picks of the first round, but close.
Benning also mentioned that draft picks were likely to be hard to come by at the traded deadline.
“I think teams, even the top teams that are trying to win the Stanley Cup, are more reluctant now to give up their picks maybe than two years ago,” he said. “But it’s early yet [for this year’s trade deadline] and maybe I’m wrong.”
Benning made similar comments at last year’s trade deadline, when he said, “Picks and prospects are going to be like gold. It’s going to be harder to do, I think, some of the deals that we’ve done in the past.”
At the deadline and in the week leading up to it, 35 draft picks were traded amongst NHL teams.
The Canucks have already added a couple draft picks for the 2019 NHL Draft set to take place in Vancouver. They acquired the Washington Capitals’ sixth round pick at the 2018 draft when they moved down in the sixth round, and picked up the Ottawa Senators’ sixth round pick in the Anders Nilsson trade.
Benning’s comments, however, suggest they won’t be adding any picks higher up in the draft. In the Canucks’ current place in the standings, they will be neither buyers nor sellers. Instead, any potential trades are likely to tinker around the edges of the current roster with “hockey trades,” meaning players like Nikolay Goldobin or Derrick Pouliot might be on the table, but not necessarily any veterans that might be moved for picks and prospects.