In the middle of the hockey season, the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks has embarked on a long scouting trip of draft prospects.
The past couple of nights, Jim Benning was in St. Catherines, Ont., watching top major junior prospects at an all-star gathering of teenagers. On Saturday, he's in Mississauga to see Canucks prospect Jared McCann, drafted late in the first round last June, a pick acquired as part of the trade of Ryan Kesler. It's all part of a trip of several weeks for Benning, a rookie general manager whose foundation in the game is on the road, in cabs and hotels and small rinks, scouting.
Benning is made for today's NHL, where teams are built through the draft, with few outstanding players ever available by trade, or free agency. What the Canucks do in late June at the draft table in south Florida will mean a lot more, in the long term, than whether the team manages to hold on to its playoff spot.
The Canucks of the present, like a year ago, are only so-so. Under John Tortorella, the team had a roster of leading players in their 30s, and a strong goalie. Before it imploded, things went relatively well, and at the 45-game mark of last season, the Canucks had 55 points, and were seventh in the Western Conference. This season, the players are one year older, and there's a strong goalie. It's the same result: 45 games, 55 points, seventh place in the West.
One can presume the Canucks do not implode this winter . But it's hard to see the team drumming up much more than it has. Since a late-November peak, the Canucks have slumped, as puck possession and scoring chances have worsened.
So the focus, for Benning, is prospects. His career in hockey management began in Anaheim and was forged in Buffalo. When he joined the Boston Bruins in 2006, the Bruins had missed the playoffs, and did so once more. It took several years to build what became the current Boston Bruins, with their Stanley Cup in 2011 and reaching the finals again in 2013. Benning was a central factor, and the reason Trevor Linden, the Canucks rookie president, staked everything last spring to hire him here.
For years, as the Canucks chased the Cup under former GM Mike Gillis, the team moved draft choices at the trade deadline, something Gillis regretted by the end. This year, Benning approaches the trade deadline open to deals but "with an eye on the future, too," he said on Wednesday on Vancouver's TSN 1040 radio.
"We don't want to give up any of those assets," he said of the young players the Canucks have assembled.
Even having young prospects to talk about is a reversal of recent years. The Canucks this season have their first teenager in the lineup, Bo Horvat, since Kesler a decade ago. The organization has hope that last June's No. 6 pick, Jake Virtanen, could crack the team next fall. He was the reward of last season's awful finish, and the highest the team has picked since it got the Sedins in 1999.
Unlike last year, Vancouver won't be in contention for such a high pick – but Benning sees depth in this year's draft.
If he has something on his wish list for immediate help this winter, it's a scorer. Weak puck possession and scoring chances have led to a paucity of goals, and the Canucks aren't converting, either.
Last year's team shooting percentage at five-on-five, when games were within a goal, was bad, 7.1 per cent, ranked 24th in the league. This year, it's still bad, 7.3 per cent for 23rd in the league, and since late November, the number is an ugly 6.8 per cent, 26th in the league.
"We work every night and sometimes it seems like to me we have a hard time finishing off our chances," Benning said.
The problem, of course, is scorers are not readily available, and do not come cheap. Benning, instead, pointed to Nick Jensen, a 21-year-old Dane drafted by Gillis No. 29 in 2011 who is playing well in the American Hockey League.
Jensen is not the answer today, but in the longer-term plan staked out in the offices of Canucks management, the likes of Jensen are Vancouver's best chance to once again become a true contender.