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Photo Credit: © Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Best Jim Benning Player Comparisons of the Decade

Let’s play a game.

It’s called “HFBoards poster, or Jim Benning?” It’s simple. I’m going to give you a few examples of player comparisons, and you can guess whether they were made by a random fan on the internet, or current Canucks General Manager James Elmer Benning.

Who compared Brandon Sutter to a generational two-way talent?

Who mentioned Erik Gudbranson in the same breath as Zdeno Chara?

Who said Olli Juoevi reminded him of Nicklas Lidstrom?

If you guessed Jim Benning, you’d be correct.

Benning obviously possesses a number of skills that have kept him employed in the NHL for over 25 years. Chief among them is his ability as an amateur scout, which he demonstrated during his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres and seems to be paying dividends today with the apparent rejuvenation of the Canucks’ amateur department.

One area I suspect even his biggest fans would admit he struggles in, however, is communicating with the media. It’s not clear how much that really matters in the grand scheme of things, but it has produced some pretty funny slip-ups on a number of occasions.

We have officially entered a new decade, which makes today as good a time as any to look back at a forgotten bit of Canucks lore that has absolutely no bearing on the team’s success whatsoever.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2020 is to not take hockey so damn seriously. With that in mind, I give you the best Jim Benning player comparisons, 2010-2019.

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Jake Virtanen = Cam Neely

Last week, Patrick Johnston dropped the latest entry in his fantastic Canucks at 50 series. He took a look back at the disastrous Cam Neely trade, which remains a sore spot for most Canucks fans who are old enough to remember when it happened.

If you were at all curious if there were any players on the current Canucks’ roster whose situation was analogous to Neely’s during his time with the organization, Jim Benning had you covered.

“When Cam played in junior, he was a real good player,” he said, before putting forth a comparison of his own.

“It’s like my patience with Jake Virtanen. Sometimes with those bigger bodies, you’ve got to be patient with their development. We’ve been patient with him because he’s a good skater and he’s a power forward.”

Was it a little over-the-top? Of course, but if we’re grading on a curve here, this one isn’t that outlandish. Neely played a few middling seasons in Vancouver before breaking out in his fourth season upon being traded to the Bruins. Virtanen is currently in his fifth season, and it appears as though the Canucks are going to be rewarded for their patience, since he’s just two points shy of his career-high with 42 games left in the season. From the outset, Neely’s totals were always much more impressive than Virtanen’s, but he also played in the ’80s, when virtually every NHL goaltender played like they were auditioning for a part in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.

I’m very skeptical as to whether or not Virtanen can actually put it all together and become a consistent point-producing forward for the rest of his career, but the Canucks’ decision not to cut bait after a few disappointing seasons appears to have been a wise one. He’s not Cam Neely, but he bears enough superficial similarities that the comparison doesn’t seem that crazy relative to some of the others on this list. He’s big, he ostensibly plays a power forward game, and he looks like a classic late bloomer, even if he’s unlikely to reach the kind of heights Neely did over the course of his career.

Will Lockwood = Jannik Hansen

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 draft, the official Vancouver Canucks Twitter account tweeted out this little nugget, comparing the newly acquired Will Lockwood to a player who had been a staple in the Canucks’ lineup for most of the past decade:

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While I couldn’t find a direct quote from Benning himself, I was able to find an article by Iain MacIntyre from July 2016 published in the Vancouver Sun that explicitly linked the comparison to the Canucks GM.

Once again, it’s an example of a statement that’s more than a little silly, but ultimately innocuous.

At this stage in his career, Lockwood is looking like an afterthought. He’s played parts of four NCAA seasons and has only flirted with a point-per-game pace in one of them, which can be attributed in part to injury trouble.

By the time Hansen was in his fourth year with the organization, he had earned his first call-up and was on his way to establishing himself as a near-point-per-game player in the AHL, so Lockwood has some ground to cover before he can match him.

According to NextGenHockey’s prospect Graduation Probabilities System, Lockwood carries a base expected likelihood of success of 4%, and an expected production of 29.9 points per 82 games. While that level of production is certainly Hansen-like, his XLS% suggests he’s got a long way to go to prove he has a future in the NHL.

Having said that, Hansen was considered a longshot prospect too, and if you’re going to compare a mid-round pick to an NHLer, picking a player who would be best described as a middle-six utility forward isn’t so bad.

Brandon Sutter = Patrice Bergeron and/or Jonathan Toews

This is where things begin to take a left turn.

Yes, this really happened.

It was back in 2015, in the aftermath of the trade that sent a package centred around Nick Bonino to Pittsburgh. Once again, it comes courtesy of Iain MacIntyre, who has a history of getting some of Benning’s best soundbites, to his credit.

To be fair, Jim Benning did explicitly say that he wasn’t comparing Sutter to Bergeron before immediately… um, comparing them. Either way, this quote really didn’t age well, even if you ignore the part where he mentions Sutter in the same breath as two of the best two-way players of this generation.

I’ll spare you all a detailed statistical breakdown of the three players, which would be unfair to everyone involved.

Brandon Sutter had 40 points in his first full season with the Carolina Hurricanes, which is actually one more point than Bergeron had in his rookie year, which I guess is sort of similar, at least?

Gudbranson = Chara

Zdeno Chara is also very tall. Erik Gudbranson is also very tall. The parallels are endless.

This one tops the Sutter comparison if only because Benning’s attempt to use the “I’m not saying he’s that kind of player” line is almost immediately undone by explicit comparisons to Chara’s frame and ability with his stick.

Benning may have earned the benefit of the doubt last time, but in this instance, it’s hard to make the case you aren’t making a direct comparison, regardless of how you preface the statement.

Once again, I don’t think a statistical breakdown is needed.

Both players are very big and use a hockey stick, I’ll give him that.

Olli Juolevi = Nicklas Lidstrom

Poor Olli Juolevi.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the embattled Finnish defenceman, who hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations set for him during his draft year.

In retrospect, those expectations were always too high. Yes, hype around Juolevi’s two-way game was legitimate, as anyone who’s seen him play live can attest to. He’s a great skater who makes very excellent reads and is calm under pressure, but there were red flags even back in 2016 that indicated he may not have deserved his top-10 status.

Juolevi put up 42 points in 57 games with the London Knights in his draft year, which is a respectable total at first glance, but somewhat pedestrian when you consider the absolutely stacked lineup the Knights had that season and the fact that Juolevi often shared the ice with three players who would combine for 142 points in the NHL the following year.

Jim Benning threw gasoline on the fire by comparing Juolevi to former Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest defencemen not only of his generation, but of all time. The comparison is even funnier when you consider that it was made nearly a full two months before the Canucks selected Juolevi.

In Benning’s defence, Juolevi actually did have a similar level of success in Finland at roughly the same age that Lidstrom was making a name for himself in the SHL, although the European leagues have obviously changed enormously since then.

Juolevi probably still has an NHL future given his strong performance at the AHL level, assuming he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, it’s also hard not to say he hasn’t been a huge disappointment so far. That’s largely due to a combination of bad luck, expectations, and the fact that in retrospect he probably should never have been selected so high in the first place (although it was mostly in line with the mainstream rankings at the time).

Some of those issues were outside the team’s control, but expectations certainly could have been tempered by, uh, not comparing him to arguably the greatest defender in history. You live and you learn, I guess.

Dmitry Zhukenov = Pavel Datsyuk

I have to admit, I wasn’t completely certain I hadn’t imagined this, but here’s the proof, in all its glory:

Yes, it’s true. There was once a time, not too long ago, when Jim Benning said future KHL-VHL tweener Dmitry Zhukenov reminded him of Pavel Datsyuk.

That’s a bit like telling your kid that MegaBlocks is basically the same thing as LEGO when even a ten-year-old can tell they’re a cheap knock-off.

There was no reason anyone needed to say this. Expectations were low, and most people would have been very happy if Zhukenov has turned out to be even a depth piece in the Canucks organization.

But Jim Benning is not most people. He’s an artist. One who works in player comparisons the way others work in paint or clay. Where one man sees an underwhelming and undersized forward playing in Russia’s junior leagues, he sees Pavel Datsyuk, and I think that’s beautiful.