Jim Benning on goalies: ‘It’s important to have good goaltenders coming through your system’

Vancouver is called goalieville for a reason.

Long a goaltender graveyard, the Vancouver Canucks enjoyed the luxury of leaning on elite goaltending for a decade during the Roberto Luongo era. During the short-lived Cory Schneider era too. It didn’t end well, as we all well know, but the on-ice results were sparkling. 

From 2007 through 2014 the Canucks enjoyed the third highest 5-on-5 save percentage in the league, behind only the Boston Bruins and the Dave Tippett and Sean Burke Phoenix Coyotes. For our purposes, Boston is the relevant team to note, since that’s where Canucks general manager Jim Benning cut his teeth as a front office executive. 

Perhaps we haven’t paid enough attention in the first nine months or so of Benning’s tenure to the emphasis Vancouver’s rookie general manager seems to place on quality goaltending. Read past the jump for more.

If we look back at what Benning has done in his time as Vancouver’s general manager, there’s two trends that stand out to me. First of all it’s clear that he cares enormously about forward depth and nearly every move he made this summer seemed aimed at supplementing it. Secondly, he appears to believe in his blood that quality goaltending is of the utmost importance.

His biggest move in free agency was signing a veteran goaltender in Ryan Miller. Benning drafted Miller when he was the Buffalo Sabres’ head scout, so there was a personal relationship there, and the contract is outsized and a bit of a tough pill to swallow. Those individual facts perhaps overshadowed the bigger picture: that goaltenders are a priority for Benning and that he’s willing to invest in them. Heavily if necessary. 

At the draft, Benning selected goaltender Thatcher Demko with a high second-round pick. During Benning’s time in Boston, the Bruins weren’t shy about using a first-round pick on a goaltender – see Subban, Malcolm – and he would appear to have carried over that ethos to Vancouver. Whether it’s money, term and cap-space, or a high-value second-round pick – Benning will pay to play when it comes to staffing his crease with talented hockey players. 

When we look at what’s gone on with Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, and the lengths to which the Canucks went to keep Markstrom in the system – ignoring a reported July trade request, sneaking him down on waivers early in training camp – the same trend is evident. Add strategic elbow grease and managerial capital to the list of things Benning is willing to invest in his goaltenders.

This brings us to unrestricted free agent goaltender Matt O’Connor, a 6-foot-5 undrafted NCAA goaltender currently playing for Boston University. O’Connor, 23, has met with a variety of teams in recent weeks and as many as 14 clubs are interested in signing him to a contract, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger

The Canucks are among those teams, and Benning wasn’t shy about admitting it during an appearance on TSN 1040 on Wednesday.

“He was at our development camp last summer and he had a good camp for us,” Benning said during the radio appearance. “We have a relationship with him, so we’re talking to him. Where it ends up? I don’t know. He has a choice to make.

“There’s several teams that are talking to him about signing him. I was into the Beanpot, the games were real good games, he played well, so we’ll see where it ends up.”

There are a variety of things we might unpack here. Let’s start with how good a bet O’Connor is. 

The simple answer is that we have no idea. O’Connor has the massive frame that goalie coaches drool over, and his results this season have been excellent. Among all NCAA goaltenders who have appeared in at least 20 games, he’s managed the eighth best save percentage in college hockey. Of course, he’s also older than six of the seven goaltenders who’ve outperformed him. 

Projecting goalies is a fools errand and this is really O’Connor’s first excellent season of NCAA hockey. He’s huge and he’s won the big games, but the level of interest he’s generating is based on an excellent performance over the course of 600 or so shots faced. It’s a tiny sample, and not one that gives us enough information to conclude much of anything about O’Connor’s puck-stopping talent. 

Let’s move on to how likely it is that the Canucks can land him. 

This is a tough one. With 14 teams reportedly interested and all of them capped as to what they can offer because of the NHL’s entry-level contract system, it’s not like Benning and the Canucks can outbid O’Connor’s other suitors. The only way to really appeal to a guy is by offering him NHL playing time, AHL playing time, or a combination of both. 

This is where the Canucks are likely at a disadvantage. With Joacim Eriksson signed likely to return next season, O’Connor is likely looking at splitting time with another prospect in the Utica Comets’ net next season if he signs with the Canucks. He’s also probably looking at a tougher road to the show considering Vancouver’s goaltending depth then he’d face in, say, Edmonton or Buffalo. 

So it would seem that the Canucks are a dark horse at best to land the highly regarded free agent.

Finally we should spend some time considering whether or not it makes sense for the organization to chase a player like O’Connor. The answer here is an unequivocal yes.

Signing the top undrafted free agent goalie in college hockey is an excellent way to supplement an organization’s goalie depth. That you can do so without wasting a draft pick on a goaltender is a bonus. 

The money quote that Benning delivered during his TSN 1040 appearance yesterday, from my perspective, wasn’t his confirmation that the Canucks are interested in O’Connor. Rather it was about his general philosophy about organizational goaltending depth, which he dropped while responding to a question about the recent stellar form flashed by Lack.

“Goaltending is the most important position on the team,” Benning said. “We have good goaltenders, we have good young goaltenders in our system. I feel, from an organizational standpoint, that it’s important to have good goaltenders coming through your system.”

If we’re looking for signal rather than noise, one thing to keep in mind as the Canucks move forward into the Benning era, is that goaltending will be a priority. 

The Canucks may not land O’Connor, but they’ll pursue him. If they can’t get O’Connor’s autograph on a contract, perhaps they’ll turn their attention elsewhere – like to Yale’s Alex Lyon, who is younger and has better numbers, but is perhaps generating less interest because he’s “only” 6’1, or else spend another draft pick on a netminder. 

Regardless of how O’Connor’s situation plays out, and regardless of how the Lack/Markstrom logjam sorts itself out this summer, this is a trend that we might reasonably expect to not only continue, but to characterize Benning’s tenure as general manager. 

Note: This piece originally and incorrectly noted that Joacim Eriksson is signed through next season. That was in error and has been transparently amended in the post. Eriksson is in fact a restricted free agent on an expiring contract. 

  • You forgot another point: player development.

    Were I O’Connor, I wouldn’t be focused on who offered the most money, or the most time in the NHL/AHL/whatever.

    I’d be looking at who has the best goalie coach, both in the NHL, who would be designing the training process, and in the AHL, because that’s who I would be working with every day.

    Admittedly, that might give Nashville & Colorado the edge over us; nobody can really argue that Korn & Burke have done wonders with their players. But Rollie is well-respected as a coach as well. Why sell short on an asset? Throw him in there: “you’d get to work with a guy who tutored Price, Halak, Theodore, Luongo, and Miller.”

  • Ruprecht

    Being completely objective and factoring in many of the things you’ve mentioned in this piece, I’d say Phoenix is his best bet. Work with Sean Burke, who also has a touch with developing the big goaltender, and have a shot at a quicker rise in their depth chart.

    There’s a job to be had in Edmonton as well, but they haven’t exactly been known as a goaltending factory when it comes to development.

    That’s with things being static, player movement can change everything.