The saving grace to a Vancouver Canucks season which elicited the most frustration since the days of Mike Keenan and Mark Messier, from the fans to management and even the players themselves (how many times have we seen the Sedins dress down their own teammates?), was the potential for a high pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
As we all know, the Canucks were sitting in 3rd prior to the draft lottery and looked to have a good chance at grabbing one of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, or Jesse Puljujarvi, but ultimately fell to 5th, which caused Canucks President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden to make this face:
— Karm Sumal (@KarmSumal) May 1, 2016
However, despite General Manager Jim Benning‘s best efforts to shoot himself in the foot with each asset-bleeding trade or cap-crunching signing, the man has been known as a shrewd judge of young talent, and his record through two drafts at the helm of the Canucks has been far better than what Vancouver fans had previously been accustomed to.
Finding a potential future 1A goaltender in Thatcher Demko in the 2nd round and towering defenseman Nikita Tryamkin in the 3rd round in 2014 look great in retrospect, while snagging future top line talent Brock Boeser at 23rd overall last year is turning out to be a coup.
However, heading into the 2016 draft, it looks like Benning will have very little to work with. Yes, the Canucks currently hold the 5th overall pick, where they have the opportunity to add another top flight forward to the prospect pool, however through a series of recent trades to augment the current roster for short-term gain, the team won’t pick again until the 3rd round, 64th overall, with their next pick coming all the way at 140th overall in the 5th round. In fact, they only have five picks in the entire draft (while a hoped-for 2nd-rounder from the Columbus Blue Jackets as compensation for the signing of former coach John Tortorella will have to wait for another year).
Compare that to the Toronto Maple Leafs or division rival Calgary Flames, which will both pick four times before the Canucks even pick twice.
For a team with just one eye (willingly or not) on the future and a draft which portends to be quite deep, this is indeed ominous and begs the question, just what exactly is Jim Benning’s draft plan? There are a number of potentialities on the table.
What Is Jim Benning’s Draft Plan?
The simplest option is perhaps the safest. The Canucks are certain to land one of Matthew Tkachuk or Pierre-Luc Dubois at number five, assuming they don’t go off the board (which, at five, they absolutely shouldn’t), while Benning could make good use of the 64th overall and remaining picks to hopefully land another future NHLer (long odds, but we’ve seen crazier things happen). So the Canucks could simply stand pat with what they have and hope Benning and the scouting department pull through with a couple late round gems.
Another option is to try to recoup some of the many picks the team has jettisoned recently, but it won’t be easy. Draft picks are currency, and as we all know it takes money to make money, so what exactly would Benning have to do to add another pick or two in the top 60?
The team has few assets on the NHL roster to work with in this regard. Could top-pairing defender Alexander Edler land a 1st round pick from another team? It’s possible, but how much do the Canucks want to gut a blueline which allowed the 8th most goals against (239) last season, even with the addition of Erik Gudbranson?
Dan Hamhuis could be the answer here. It has been assumed by many that the 33-year-old soon-to-be UFA was going to walk this summer, but might the Canucks resign Hamhuis using the money swapped out in a potential Edler trade and try to draft one of the great young defensemen available in the 1st round this year?
#Canucks gm Jim Benning on Sportsnet says the trade for Eric Gudbranson doesn’t mean Dan Hamhuis is done in Vancouver.
— NEWS 1130 Sports (@NEWS1130Sports) May 27, 2016
From a long-term standpoint, it’s a plan that makes sense, as Edler will be moving beyond his prime by the time the team becomes competitive again, his value may never be higher than it is now, and Hamhuis would be a serviceable stop-gap in the meantime. However, such a move seems unlikely, as it would be considered a big downgrade for a team still inexplicably trying to “win now.”
Aside from Edler, what else is there? Jared McCann, the team’s most tradeable young asset, was shipped out a couple weeks ago, and fans would cry bloody murder if another young player of his ilk, say perhaps a Jake Virtanen, were to be moved out. Forward Alex Burrows (who is also a buyout candidate, as the team looks to free up some money for free agency, however that’s another topic for another day) and goalie Ryan Miller are also candidates, but both are in their mid-30s and the Canucks would have to sweeten the pot (likely in the form of retaining/taking on salary) to get something to work there.
Then there’s versatile forward Jannik Hansen, who was arguably the Canucks best forward last season and could likely be swapped straight up for a 2nd rounder, but do the Canucks really want to lose a player who is a) on a very reasonable contract ($2.5 million for two more years) and b) incredibly valuable to the club in a number of facets?
At this point, it should be open season on pretty much everyone on the roster, yet the team has very few tradeable assets which could actually bring back a decent return.
Finally there’s the 5th overall pick itself, perhaps the most valuable asset in the entire organization. Benning has gone on record saying there’s several players the team looked at during the draft combine for that spot, implying a trade down isn’t out of the question.
Benning : “We have a high pick at 5, those 6-7-8 guys that we are considering at 5, we spent little bit more time on those guys.” #Canucks
— NEWS 1130 Sports (@NEWS1130Sports) June 3, 2016
With the Edmonton Oilers 4th overall selection also potentially in play and rumors of teams having wildly different draft lists, there could be ample opportunity for movement near the top of this year’s draft.
The Canucks could consider moving down a couple spots and targeting a defenseman like Olli Juolevi or Jacob Chychrun if it would garner them another 1st round pick and a chance to draft a center like Clayton Keller or Tyson Jost, as the club’s prospect pool is weakest at both center and defense.
However, is that worth giving up a chance at Tkachuk or Dubois, two players who are considered “can’t-miss” offensive prospects? And how much more would they have to add to that 5th overall pick to get such a deal done?
Any way you look at it, the series of draft picks moved out by Linden and Benning has painted the Canucks into a corner for the 2016 draft. How they get themselves out of this mess over the next month or whether they continue to dig themselves in deeper is going to be very interesting to watch.