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Jim Benning at the Worlds: seeking ‘European skill with North American heart’

During the second intermission of Thursday’s Canada-France game at the World Hockey Championship in France, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning was a guest on the TSN Radio broadcast (carried on TSN 1410 locally). Now given this was a national broadcast heard across the country, it’s difficult for hosts Jon Abbott and Dave Tomlinson to drill too deeply on many of the issues they usually would if the interview was conducted for a Vancouver audience only. Still, they were able to broach several key issues with Benning including his reasons for scouting the World Championship, the recently conducted National Hockey League draft lottery and preparation for both the NHL expansion and entry drafts next month.

The interview began with Benning asked about his approach to scouting a tournament like the Worlds and if he had his eye on any particular players:

“Well, we have our pro scout Lars Lindgren who does a lot of the work during the course of the year for us. He’s given me five or six names of players from teams to watch. He knows them really well. I’ll see them three of four times here in the next week to ten days and I’ll get a good feel for them. And from there, we’ll have our end of the year pro meetings and we’ll talk about them some more and talk about if we’re going to sign any of these players.”

With the tournament staged in both Paris, France and Cologne, Germany, Benning was asked if he had plans to make his way to Cologne to take in any action in Group A. To this point of the tournament, he’d only seen games in Group B (Canada’s group along with the Czechs, Slovakia, France, Finland, Belarus, Switzerland and Norway). His answer was revealing because it certainly narrows the focus on the player’s Benning and the Canucks are interested in:

“I’m going to end up staying here. As it shakes out, the players that Lars wants me to watch are mostly on this side here. I’m going to end up staying here and then I guess if something comes up in the next day or so and he wants me to fly over there, but I’m planning on staying here.”

As for players Benning has his eye on, he was questioned about how he can be certain they can transition to the NHL and perform the way they do on the larger European ice surface. His answer certainly received plenty of attention on social media – and not necessarily for the right reasons.

“That’s the tough part when you’re scouting European players is how they’re going to play when they get on the smaller sheet of ice in North American and how they’re going to compete. I tell our guys we want European skill with North American heart even though they’re European players and they can seem to get to the smaller ice surfaces and they do great. We’re looking for skilled players. We’re looking for defensemen that can move the puck. There are all sorts of different things we look at when I’m over here, but the games have been good so far and it’s been exciting.”

At that point in the interview, the line of questioning switched to life back home and the Canucks’ readiness for next month’s expansion draft to stock the Vegas Golden Knights. The Canucks – and all existing NHL teams – have to submit their protected lists to the league by 2 pm Pacific on June 17th.

“I’ve talked to George McPhee a couple of times now and (assistant general manager) Kelly McCrimmon who’s helping him out just to get a feel of what they’re leaning to do with our group of players. I have a pretty good idea. We’ve talked about some trade scenarios. George is talking with every general manager about ‘if you don’t take this certain player, I’ll give you that guy.’ It’s going to be an interesting time of the year. It’s going to be fun to see the way it all plays out and I think there is going to be a lot of movement before that.”

While Benning is in France to watch the Worlds, he was unable to attend the recently completed World Under-18 Championship in Slovakia. It’s a tournament he had intended on scouting himself, but with the Canucks making the decision to replace Willie Desjardins and subsequently hire Travis Green, Benning admitted business at home became a priority. It was during this stretch Benning watched the Canucks drop to fifth in the NHL draft lottery.

“I had planned on going to the Under 18s, but with what happened at the end of the year and getting Travis in and spending some time with him as we hired him, I didn’t make it over there. I have talked with (team’s director of amateur scouting) Judd Bracket and our scouts that have been over there and they like some of the players that were in the tournament and they’re excited about this year’s draft. I know it was unfortunate going into the lottery draft when you’re at two and you end up going to five, but I feel at five we’re still going to get a good, skilled player.”

Benning concedes the results of the draft lottery changed the way the Canucks will handle the prospect they select fifth overall next month. They were holding a big-league roster spot for either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier, but barring a significant trade to move up in the draft order, it appears the Canucks are prepared to play the long-game with the player they choose with their first-round selection.

“Well, when we were in the top two, we were kind of planning on that player playing on our team next year. Picking at five, we’re going to have to be a little bit more patient with that player as he continues his development to be an NHL player. We’re still going to get a really skilled player at five and at the end of the day, even the player we get at five could be as skilled as any player in this draft. We’re excited about that. There are some play-making center icemen and some power play defensemen that are in the mix. So it’s going to be a fun time for our fans and our scouts and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked if he’s been watching the Stanley Cup playoffs with an eye toward identifying trends with the final four teams still in the hunt, Benning quickly pointed to the contributions teams are getting from the blueline – a glaring weakness of the Canucks. He certainly sounds like a manager considering using his first-round pick for a second straight year to bolster the team’s back end.

“If you watch the NHL playoffs back home, it seems now it’s all about speed. It’s about defensemen that can get back and transition the puck up ice and defensemen that can help out on the blueline in the other team’s end. You look at that Nashville defense and how they help out in the offensive end and then how when they get back to their own end, they get the puck and get it up fast so they spend less time in their own end. You look at Anaheim’s defense that is a mobile, puck-handling defense. I think we’re seeing trends. I think the game is getting faster and faster every year and it’s about speed and it’s about defensemen that can get the puck and get moving with it.”

And finally, on the topic of puck-moving defensemen, Benning was asked about Brooks Bandits standout Cale Makar whose draft stock continues to rise as he prepares to finish his season at the RBC Cup. Benning merely skimmed the surface when Makar’s name was floated in the interview and seemed to want to bring the discussion back to generalities in the draft rather than focussing on any one player in particular. However, he reinforced the notion that the Canucks are looking at just two positions with that fifth selection – either a centre or a defenseman.

“He’s a good player, and we’ve watched him closely all year. He’s a skilled guy. He can skate, and he can shoot the puck. There are a bunch of skilled defensemen in this year’s draft. If we can add either a playmaking centre iceman or a skilled defenseman, I think that’s what we’re going to be able to do at this year’s draft.”

  • Boddy604

    People seem to wanna lean to this narrative that Benning is super interested in Makar.

    Of course they watched him. Everyone did.

    I’ve never heard him even so much as mention him though unless specifically referenced. & even when he did talk about him it was the standard “he’s a good skilled player” trope we’ve heard about everyone.

    Liljegren though, another story.

    He flat out called him a top pairing cornerstone d man who could run a power play.

    Big difference. & a bit telling on who he probably ranks higher.

    Idk

      • Neil B

        I believe Boddy is referencing this quote from Botch: “Some around the team believe they have Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren higher than most teams on their board, and some even think the Canucks have him in their top five. This theory is reinforced by some comments Benning made earlier in the season, when we he said Liljegren can be a cornerstone defenceman. He said he was a “dynamic” skater with a good shot who the Canucks could view as answer to their power-play problems.”

          • Neil B

            Can’t find the original quote online (perhaps your Google-fu is stronger than mine, so go ahead). Botch’s phrasing gives me the mind that it was around Dec/Jan.

            As per his draft stock falling this season, well, we’ve seen that time & time again with top-ranked D. Sometimes they don’t get passed (Jones), sometimes they end up #4 (Chychrun). Either/or, it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on their development. In Liljegren’s case, there’s not just the front-running D bias that is almost always there in scouting, there’s also the expectation that he would jump back from mono at the same level that Patrick would jump back from abdominal surgery. (Because it’s exactly the same thing, right?)

            Even if Liljegren falls to 17th, I still see him at 50% odds of playing next season. If we take him, there’s a decent possibility that he posts numbers equivalent to the Provorov-to-Werenski range, as he would slot in as our best offensive weapon from the blueline pretty much immediately.

          • Ghost

            Why cant I reply to Neil B last post? Have not posted here in awhile.

            Jones draft stock did not really fall like this imo, I think he was a contender for 1st overall until mackinnon’s memorial cup, I think quite a few were surprised he fell to 4 on the draft floor. Nashville was doing cartwheels.

            Chychrun gets brought up quite a bit when it comes to liljegren falling. Keep in mind chychrun being ahead of juolevi or sergachev is also due to the fact he was the most nhl ready D man, that much was not disputed but who will become the best dman (Mcavoy and sergachev are my bet) is very much still up in the air and to be decided. I also like to bring up kylington here whose draft stock also plummeted and it looks like so far the pro scouts got it right.

            My concern with liljegren is benning loves the bartkowskis who love to rush the puck up the ice, my concern is watching liljegren and why many have concerns is his decision making this season when he gets passed the blue line, at times he has looked lost. To me I am not sure if i see him as much of an improvement on juolevi. If we walk away from 2 5th overalls with 2 dmen who might be a top pair (or 2nd pairing) if were lucky but definitely not a number 1 it would be disappointing.

            I know makar has his concerns as well especially given the league he plays in but i am higher on him and Heiskanen then I am liljegren, many scouts are as well. With that said I agree with the original poster, I have learned how transparent benning can be in interviews, and to my sadness he did not sound over the moon with makar. If were lucky maybe brannstrom is available with our early second, not much difference in shl production between him and liljegren and he is one of the youngest players in the draft.

            Beside those I like Mittelstadt and pettersson and behind them vilardi at 5.

            Dont see much in glass either, despite the excellent numbers I dont see any dynamic offensive talent when i watch his games.

  • G-Bear Delight

    Good to see Benning is still fully aware of the critical need for top end, puck moving defence. Drafting a mobile skilled defenceman is paramount to any real quality rebuild. The Canucks should ignore the centerman this year due to the lack of pure stand outs and draft Liljegren or Maker. The Canucks should have another shot at top 3 overall next season with some better up front talent hopefully.

    • Neil B

      Plus, there are better 1C prospects in next year’s draft (even if Mittelstadt’s *not* being artificially inflated by playing half his season against inferior opponents). If we draft Liljegren this year and thenend up drafting in the top-5 again next year, we either end up with one of 3 top-end 1C prospects, a demon RW. Or we draft first overall, take Dahlen, and have the potential to end up with Nashville’s ‘problem’ of having too many top-pairing D.

  • Letters_to_management

    I’d just like to start by saying I’m not impressed with these dumb racist tropes about “European skill and North American heart”. I know it’s pretty pervasive in hockey, especially when talking about Russians, but I’d like to see the broader conversation in hockey steer away from dull, racist stereotypes. As for the rest of the interview, the most exciting part was when Jim mentioned his interactions with George McPhee. The expansion draft will be the most engaging and interesting part of the offseason bar the draft and it’s nice to hear directly from Benning that he has reached out to McPhee.

    • Seth

      Devil’s advocate –
      he could mean that he wants someone whose heart is in North America (ie dreamt to play in the NHL) instead of either never even trying (Jasek) or going back when the going is tough (Tryamkin).

    • Carl Jung

      “European skill and North American heart” isn’t racist.

      It’s white on white wink-wink-nudge-nudge dog whistle language.

      Ignoring the ancient Kemetic roots of hockey and a number of White countries rhetorically asking “who owns this game?” is racism.

      • Neil B

        Ignoring the impact of First Nations sports like baggataway, the Cree stick-and-ball game on ice that was co-opted under the Scottish settler game ‘shinty’, and double-ball, to promote an Old-World-centric origin for hockey might also be considered racism.

        Since the origin of the ‘code’ of hockey sounds suspiciously like the code of baggataway, “[passing] the ball was skilled trick while dodging a rival player was considered an act of cowardice”; players “decorated themselves and their sticks with charcoal and colors [sic]. Religious ceremonies held the night before and players participated in a dance ceremony with fancy clothing. Sex was not allowed while sacrifices and other rites were organized to pray for the victory”.

        If by “European” you mean settler cultures, and by “North American” you mean First Nations indigenous cultures, then Benning was giving pretty much as pure a definition of modern hockey as could be asked for.

        • Roy

          The “settlers” were genocidal colonizers, and “co-option” is dog whistle for white (mis)appropriation. The description of baggataway here was written by an ignorant white colonizer who had little to no understanding of the history, lore, tradition and culture or language of those who practiced what was being witnessed. Let’s not perpetuate the myth that there are “noble savage” roots to this game. It’s 98% white people playing a ridiculous sport on ice that thankfully requires a modicum of athleticism and skill for almost all the participants, now.

          • Neil B

            “co-opt” can’t really be a dog-whistle for appropriation when the definition of co-opt is “divert to or use in a role different from the usual or original one”. It literally means appropriation.

    • Bud Poile

      Ken Hodge,Stan Mikita,Salming,Forsberg,Lidstrom,Jagr,Hasek,Samuelsson,Kurri….
      Naslund,Sedins,Salo,Gradin,Sundstrom…..
      Bure,Larionov,Mogilny and the hordes of Russians that grace the NHL are all players that adapted to the smaller ice with skill and heart.
      Most,if not all hockey fans intrinsicly understand exactly what Benning said.

    • sloth

      Sometimes these tropes reflect xenophobia, for example whenever Don Cherry singles Europeans out for being lazy or soft or wearing visors, but we shouldn’t just ignore that there is an inherent difference in the playing style and professional culture between European and North American hockey, due in part to the size of the ice surface, but also the fundamental differences in the organizational structures and cultures around sports in different countries. Players who grow up in North America are conditioned by the cult of the NHL and the Stanley Cup, the Prep Schools and Major Junior system, and the intensely competitive youth hockey environment created by vast numbers of players with (overly?) devoted and demanding parents and clubs and scouts in every small town in Canada and the US. European countries have their own pro leagues and junior systems, which structurally resemble those in European football more than North American hockey, that create a different culture and attitude among their players, still competitive and emotional and intense, but different nonetheless. This is not to assign any comparative value to these things, just to acknowledge the reality that these differences exist.

      Perhaps I’m going too far to defend Benning here, but when I think of “heart” vs. “skill” in NA vs Europe, I think about the importance of the hard forecheck and board battles and defensive structure and net traffic and “giving 110%” that are necessary to be successful on a small ice surface, contrasted with relative value of vision and passing and puck handling on a larger ice surface where you have a little more time to make incisive plays with finesse, and less time to chase down opponents or pin them in the corners. The use of emotionally charged words like “heart” and “skill” tends to obscure the fact that these are merely physical and mental attributes that are possessed by all hockey players, each in unique quantities, but certain qualities are valued differently in different competitive environments, so the development systems in different countries will tend to focus on the attributes that produce successful players in those particular competitive environments (meaning the socio-cultural environment as much as the ice size).

      So Benning is looking for players who have the skills of “skill” (vision, patience, creativity, “hockey IQ”) as developed more widely in the European environment, as well as the skills of “heart” (competitive aggression, physical strength, confidence, pragmatism, team-first discipline) as developed more widely in the North American environment. He doesn’t care where the player comes from, because players from either environment can develop any and all of the above skills in unique combinations, and nobody is suggesting otherwise.

    • TheRealRusty

      There are the trend setters and there are the followers. Not hard to see which camp GMJB is in; from chasing the Boston model to the LA model to the Nashville model. It is never ending.

      I’ve said it once and I will say. It again. Pick a model and stick with it. Draft the players you need, develop these players under the system you pick and play them in their roles when they get into the NHL. Be the best at what you do and success will follow. Copy and constantly change organizational direction, and you will forever be playing catch up….

  • The_Blueline

    ” I tell our guys we want European skill with North American heart”

    I do not even mind the racist nature of this statement because it’s too dumb to insult anyone. But I am really concerned that a man giving such idiotic instructions, and even admitting it publicly, is running the Canucks.

    I was very patient with JB, but I have finally had it. He is an idiot and I want him fired.

    • The_Blueline

      oh yeah, what I forgot. Every given year he makes statements indicating that he makes his draft decision based on the current playoffs. “There is a tendency to speed and puck moving D, so that’s what we draft”. Every armchair GM can do that. I expect him to have a vision where the game is going to be in 5 years and then build the team to get there.

      #firebenning

      • Pat Quinn Way

        Totally agree with this – cr@p GMs like Benning just follow and try to copy the blueprint of the Cup winners year after year chasing their own tail while smart GMs like Peter Chiarelli, Lou Lamorello, Jim Rutherford and Stan Bowman are actually devising and implementing the masterplans that build great teams and win Stanley Cups ahead of everyone else.

        What everyone seems to forget is that our only GM of the year, Mike Gillis, was adamantly advocating that speed and skill were the way he wanted the Canucks to be, but after the Boston game (and LA’s cups) everyone wanted to kneejerk into being a tough physical grinding forechecking team – now it’s flip flopped again… why not be a combination of ‘both’ like Edmonton and Nashville are Jimbo!

        #benningthefraud
        #firebenning
        #nocanuckscupever

        • defenceman factory

          Is it great vision that causes you to trade Grabner for Ballard or draft Schraeder?

          There is no reason evident that Benning is a good GM but your diatribes and revisionist history are just boring and wrong. The Gillis draft record stands as one of the worst in league history.

          • Pat Quinn Way

            Here we go, another delusional fool who cannot accept reality. What part of 5 division titles, two Presidents trophies, one Western Conf Championship, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and NHL GM of the year don’t you get mate? Were you even cheering for your team through those wonderful years pal…

            The two best players on the Canucks are ‘still’ Bo Horvat and Chris Tanev – both Mike Gillis signings. End of!

            #speedandskillthegillisway
            #benningthefraud
            #benningout
            #nosuccessunderbenning

          • Bud Poile

            Grabner is lighting up the playoffs eight years after Gillis gave him away.
            Karlsson is dominating the ice nine years after Gillis chose Cody five spots ahead of him.
            Ryan O’Reilly 2009) instead of Schroeder and Jensen over Saad (2011) highlight the worst drafting record in Canucks history.
            Gillis rode in on the backs of the twin superstars,Luongo,Kesler,Burr,Salo and all the Canucks that Nonis/Burke assembled.
            Gillis was fired three years ago and no NHL team has nor will hire a former GM that can’t scout,draft,build or develop.

        • DJ_44

          Everyone forgets (or painfully remembers) that Gillis inherited the speed and skill that was in the Canucks lineup ( as well as not one but 2 franchise goal tenders).

          GMJB has stated numerous times since 2014 that you build from the net out. Draft and signing decisions have followed that philosphy, while attempting to plug the massive dessert in prospects Gillis and Gilman left the organization with. You will be hard pressed to find any professional hockey analyst who does not agree with the last statement.

          Your constant affinity for the Edmonton rebuild blueprint is beyond comical. They got incredibly lucky and won the McDavid sweepstakes. That is the single lynch-pin upon which their recent, and future, success is built. No Conner, and they would be winning this years lottery as well.

          I think you fumbled your mic drop.

          • Pat Quinn Way

            Yawn…. Burke and Nonis were unable to get the team over the ‘playoff’ hump – Gillis promised the owners he would do so and he did, adding the key pieces necessary and raising the games of the Sedins, Kes and co to the elite level of which they haven’t been able to attain before or after GMMG… only key injuries and Tim Thomas prevented Gillis from winning that one game he earned and deserved for Canucks immortality, and all you sad bellyachers were jumping for joy during those fabulous years and SC Final i bet… or you weren’t Canucks fans in the first place.

            As for Edmonton that is utter tosh. Chiarelli has built a fantastic ‘team’ around McDavid in only two years since Conor was drafted. Yes, he is the icing on the cake but it takes a TEAM to make the playoffs and win like they did even after McDavid was held pointless in a 7 goal Oilwes win and was blanketed by the great Ryan Kesler – who knew what was coming under Benning and bolted… and i don’t blame him one bit!

            #ficklecanuckfans
            #benningtheloserout
            #keslerwasright

          • Bud Poile

            Kesler:
            #dbag
            #traitor
            #Americanwhanker
            #lockerroomcancer
            #primmadonnaplayboy
            Never played a game for Benning but put a gun to his head,instead.
            No surprise you support Kesler’s act,PQW.

  • Living in Canada, the Stanley cup is the holy grail, NHL hockey is it. Not all Europeans see it that way. They grow up in a different environment, without NHL hockey on TV. They are proud of their own countries and players the same way we are here.

    • Northnuck

      If they don’t see the Stanley Cup in that light, then why do they want to play in the NHL? The entire 82 game schedule is a grind, and if you want to win bad enough, you get to play in the playoffs. The playoffs are completely different animal, the entire game, everything about it becomes more intense. You have team mates who have nothing on their minds but lifting the cup, what is on the mind of the team mate who really doesn’t care one way or the other if he wins or not? That would suck, I would much rather have a guy like Dorsett beside me, than a guy who has all the skill in the world, but not desire because he “didn’t grow up” watching hockey. That is not how any team wins the “holy grail” of hockey.

  • neal

    The defence can win some games. However, if you can’t score you don’t win.Winning teams start from the back out. If you do not have skill on the forward lines you lose. Simple.

  • neal

    The defence can win some games. However, if you can’t score you don’t win.Winning teams start from the back out. If you do not have skill on the forward lines you lose. Simple.

  • Northnuck

    This article is poo! This topic has been hashed out for many a year, hear is why. I myself have played hockey for more than 18 years, the reason that European players get such a bad rap for “BEING SOFT” is because typically they are. Look at Hank and Danny, I do not question the fact that they are amazing men of great character, that has never been the question with them, the question, as it still stands, is their desire to win. The willingness to pay the price to win the cup, wich requires blocking shots, making big hits at the right time, scoring timely clutch goals, maybe even get in a bit of a scrap. It has been in very rare occasions that either one of the Sedins block shots, nor have they ever really fought, and in the playoffs they pretty much all but dissappear. This is what is referred to when they talk about being soft, and to add there many North American players who fall into this catagory as well. So having said that, I would say that this article is more about stereotypes than racist remarks, or descriminating, the draft is all about finding players for the future that will carry your team to the next level, example McDavid, Crosby, Matthews, the list goes on, I believe what Benning was trying to say was just that, he wants to find that player that has the same level of drive as the above mentioned young players.