Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has a lot of balls in the air these days.
There’s the coming NHL draft – which his team just happens to be the host of – plenty of meetings, and preparations for the opening of free agency July 1.
With young stars such as Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, and presumed captain-in-waiting Bo Horvat up front, Benning feels pretty good about Vancouver’s forward group.
That’s why his focus heading into the big month ahead revolves around shoring up a defence with some nice pieces, and just as many question marks.
Christopher Tanev, Troy Stecher and Alex Biega are the only Canucks blueliners with any NHL experience of substance under contract for next season. Contract talks continue with veteran Alexander Edler before he’s scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, but the clock is ticking.
The team has made it clear it would like Luke Schenn back, while Ben Hutton, who is set to become a restricted free agent, also needs a new deal.
Drafted seventh over all last June, Quinn Hughes impressed in a late-season audition, while Olli Juolevi – selected fifth in 2016 – continues to recover from knee surgery and has yet to play an NHL game.
Hughes should be with the Canucks next season, but it’s hard to know how much Vancouver will be able to lean on a blueliner that doesn’t turn 20 until October.
It all adds up to some murky waters for Benning when it comes to his team’s defence.
“We’d like to upgrade,” he said at the recent NHL scouting combine in Buffalo. “I’d like to continue to do that, whether it’s through a trade or free agency.
“Those are the best avenues to improve our depth and our back end.”
Free agency seems like the most likely option at this point, but the GM has a spotty record when it comes to his signings, with forwards Loui Eriksson, Sam Gagner, Jay Beagle and Tim Schaller just a few examples
This summer’s UFA defence class looks set to include Erik Karlsson – head and shoulders above the rest of the field – followed by the likes of Jake Gardiner, Tyler Myers, Anton Stralman and others.
The Canucks need to work out what will no doubt be a lucrative contract extension with Boeser, a pending RFA, but should have plenty of salary cap space to make a move or two, if they so choose.
The question is, when does a GM know it’s the right time?
“We’ll look at each case on its own merit,” Benning said. “If we feel like it’s a fit with what we’re trying to do then we’ll try to figure it out and sign a player.
“I feel like we’re on the right course.”
But the fact remains the Canucks own the NHL’s second-worst combined record over the past four seasons – just a point better than the Buffalo Sabres – and probably need more than a player or two in free agency to get over the hump and back into the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“We took a step last year, and we’re going to have more young players this year,” Benning said. “We’re rebuilding the team, but if we can sign some guys to help out with the process, we’ll look to do that.”
First up, however, is the draft, where the Canucks are slated to pick 10th.
Jack Hughes – Quinn’s younger brother – and Kaapo Kakko are the consensus top-two selections, followed by a second-tier group, but the first-round draft board could go in a number of directions after that.
“Those top few guys, we all know who they’re going to be,” Benning said. “Once you get to No. 6 or No. 7, whether it’s teams picking the best player or for need, it can go in a bunch of different ways.
“I feel confident at No. 10 we’re going to get a player we really like.”
Benning said he isn’t feeling any added pressure to make a splash in front of Canucks fans, but also isn’t ruling anything out on June 21 at Rogers Arena.
“If there’s some way to move up (in the draft), we’re going to explore our options,” he said. “It’s usually really hard to move up. We know the first round well. There’s going to be some players after we pick that we really like, so maybe we’ll move down.
“We’re going to see how it falls.”