We’ve been playing it coy with these player preview articles thus far, but we can finally stop beating around the bush. The NHL and NHLPA have formally agreed to a 56-game regular season schedule starting January 13, 2021, with training camps set to open on January 3.
That means that, as you read these words, we’re less than two weeks from the Vancouver Canucks taking the ice and about three from seeing them take on their new all-Canadian rivals in the North Division.
And while that might change our level of coyness, it’s only increased our desire to get out all of these CanucksArmy player previews before we get some real-life hockey to report on.
With that in mind, it’s time to talk the embattled Jordie Benn, and whether he’ll be able to bounce back in 2021.
Jordie Benn Now
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Benn arrived in Vancouver on the heels of a career season with Montreal, and the idea at the time was that his $2 million salary constituted a bargain — and that he could realistically slot anywhere in the Canucks’ defensive depth chart and perform adequately. Heck, there was even some talk of Benn being paired with Quinn Hughes.
By the end of the season, however, Benn was firmly ensconced as the team’s seventh defender, and it’s only the departures of Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, and Oscar Fantenberg that have led to talk of Benn regaining a regular spot in the lineup.
Put bluntly, Benn was the Canucks’ worst defenseman in 2019/20, and one of the worst in the NHL overall. That was especially true in the playoffs, where Benn’s rough-and-tumble nature was supposed to make him extra valuable. His postseason Corsi For of 37.63% was fourth-worst among NHL defenders, ahead of just Fantenberg, Calvin de Haan, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Thus, Benn’s 2021 game-plan should center around him re-establishing himself as a genuine big league talent that the Canucks can feel comfortable throwing out there on a nightly basis. Anything on top of that is gravy.
The Best of 2021 Benn
If Benn manages to stay in the lineup for all 56 games, that alone would constitute a major success. It would mean he’s performed better than the litany of rookies looking to take his job, and that he’s fully regained the trust of coach Travis Green.
At age 33, it’s probably a bit much to expect Benn to post numbers anywhere close to his 2018/19 record statline, but even a return to his career average PPG would nearly double his 2019/20 production, and help out the Canucks’ overall bottom-line.
Far more important than his offensive totals, however, will be Benn’s ability, or inability, to not be a liability on the ice. No matter the competition, Benn got buried last year, and that has to change if he wants to suit up for all 56 games.
The Worst of 2021 Benn
The reality of injuries should ensure that Benn spends at least some time in the lineup in 2021, but he could easily find himself in the pressbox for half of the regular season, or more. Given that he only scored once in 2019/20, it’s not much of a stretch to envision a goalless campaign for Benn, with the totals above only a notch below last season’s rate.
Such an outcome could prove to be a positive for the Canucks as a whole, as it might mean that, regardless of Benn’s performance, a younger defender has played well enough to take his job. But don’t expect Benn to be happy about it.
What else does a successful 2021 for Benn look like?
Hockey isn’t all about numbers, and that’s especially true for a lunchboxer like Benn. Here’s some of the more intangible ways he could live his best on-ice life in 2021.
A permanent spot in the lineup: For a multitude of reasons, this is pretty much Benn’s 2021 barometer. If he stays in the lineup all year, it’s a bounce back. If he doesn’t, it’s a disappointing end to a disappointing two-year stint in his home province.
Playing on the right side more often: Benn’s career year in Montreal came while playing primarily on his off-side, and there are many who will contend that’s where he plays his best hockey. He’ll be competing with Brogan Rafferty and Jalen Chatfield for a right-side spot in training camp, and winning it could be his ticket to success.
Fending off several rookies: The Canucks’ brass clearly want to start cycling youngsters like Olli Juolevi, Rafferty, and Chatfield into the lineup, so Benn’s going to have to give them a real reason to keep handing those minutes to him. Fending off the lot of them to maintain his lineup spot is a win for Benn, but giving those prospects a genuine challenge to overcome could also benefit the Canucks in the long-term.
A return to passable possession: Regardless of competition, Benn has been a mostly positive possession player before coming to Vancouver, but his advanced stats tanked in 2019/20. Getting his Corsi and the like back up to 50% or higher is a must if Benn is going to re-earn Green’s trust.
A prominent and proactive role on the PK: The penalty kill was the only area in which Benn actually received passing grades in 2019/20, and the Canucks will be leaning on him even more heavily in 2021 with Tanev out the door. If Benn can take the lead there, it will increase his odds of staying out of the pressbox.
Far more physicality: Benn didn’t supply nearly as much physicality as fans were expecting, and his hit rates were down a little from his career average. In the warzone that will be the North Division, the Canucks will need Benn to step it up in this regard and start putting the hurt on those opponents they’ll have to face nine times over.
Utilizing Eastern Canadian expertise: Speaking of the newly-established North Division, Benn spent parts of three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with the Canucks. His expertise in the Habs, Leafs, and Senators could prove invaluable on and off the ice in 2021.
Adding value in the playoffs: Benn was supposed to be the sort of defender that thrives in the postseason, but he somehow performed even worse in the playoffs for the Canucks than he did in the regular season. If the Canucks make it again in 2021, he’ll simply need to be better.
What might get in the way?
Of course, there are more than a few things that could interrupt the arrival of Prime Benn.
A permanent spot in the pressbox: It seems doubtful that coach Green would run a D-core with two full-time rookies, but Juolevi, Rafferty, Chatfield, or even Jack Rathbone could change his mind in training camp. There’s a possibility that, no matter how well Benn plays this year, he could find himself in the pressbox more often than not after being usurped by younger players.
No bounce back: Benn’s 2019/20 could prove to be less anomalous and more the first step on a downward trend. If Benn plays about the same in 2021 as he did last year, the Canucks will simply have better options to employ.
Another signing: Benn must be sweating at the rumours of Travis Hamonic signing with the Canucks. That, or the signing of any other veteran right-handed defender, would put Benn in direct competition with Juolevi for the last spot in the lineup, and that’s a battle we don’t think he would win. Another free agent arrival probably spells Benn’s doom in Vancouver, at least until injuries inevitably strike, that is.
What sort of season are you expecting from Jordie Benn? Sound off in the comments below, and stay tuned for the rest of our player preview series.