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.”
Best players here that are unsigned so far are Simek, Rutta (both Czech D) .. no impact forwards that aren't 30ish yrs old IMO https://t.co/Th2L29RaR0
— Ray Ferraro (@rayferrarotsn) May 11, 2017
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.”