Jim Benning was a very talented defenceman in his playing days, known for his vision and playmaking ability. In his final year in the WHL, he led the Portland Winter Hawks in scoring with 28 goals and 111 assists in 72 games, making him the third highest-scoring defenceman in WHL history.
His offensive production in the NHL never quite lived up to his massive WHL numbers, but he still carved out a solid NHL career, playing 610 games between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.
Benning’s past as a defenceman makes it all the more bewildering that he hasn’t been able to improve the Canucks’ defence as General Manager. The Canucks entered the 2018-19 season with the exact same group of defencemen as last season, a group that struggled to transition the puck up ice, provided limited offensive support to the forwards, and gave up the sixth-most goals in the NHL.
To be fair to Benning, the cupboards were bare when he joined the organization. It had been nearly a decade since the Canucks drafted a defenceman in the first round and the team had limited success with defencemen in later rounds. Benning is in his fifth year as General Manager, however, and there’s a limit to the amount of blame that can be pinned on the previous regime.
It seems telling that the two defencemen logging the biggest and toughest minutes for the Canucks were already on the team when Benning got here: Alex Edler and Chris Tanev.
Now both Edler and Tanev are injured, much like last year, when the two combined to miss 52 games. The difference this time is that both got injured at the same time. Despite both Edler and Tanev missing time, the Canucks never played a game last season without at least one of them in the lineup.
Starting Thursday night, they’ll have to do exactly that: play without Edler and Tanev. Both will miss some time with lower body injuries, though it’s unclear exactly how bad their injuries are right now. Edler was injured on a hit by Max Pacioretty, while Tanev blocked a shot, then several seconds later his leg buckled. Both tried to return to the ice for another shift after their injuries, but were unable to continue.
Who will take up their minutes?
Ben Hutton (another defencemen inherited from the previous regime) played nearly 30 minutes with Edler out and could be a candidate to take up Edler’s even-strength minutes. He had some success in a top-pairing, shutdown role last season, but that was alongside Tanev. It’s unlikely he can be as effective without a high-end defensive defenceman at his side.
Troy Stecher and Erik Gudbranson were Benning acquisitions — one a college free agent, the other a high-profile and oft-criticized trade — and they also played top-pairing minutes at times last season, but largely alongside Edler. Again, can they be as effective without the steady experience of Edler?
Then there’s Michael Del Zotto, who logged unexpectedly big minutes last season after Benning signed him as a free agent. Unfortunately, he didn’t get particularly good results in those big minutes. While he was the only player on the Canucks who played all 82 games last season, he lasted just two games before Travis Green made him a healthy scratch this time around.
Del Zotto is sure to get back in the lineup, but it seems questionable whether he’ll has as much trust from the coaching staff as he had last season.
Derrick Pouliot is another option, but he has had his best results on a sheltered third pairing. Whenever he was put in a larger role last season, Pouliot struggled.
The Canucks have called up two defencemen from the Utica Comets with Edler and Tanev unavailable: Guillaume Brisebois and Alex Biega. While the organization is high on Brisebois, his ceiling is likely a third-pairing defenceman at the NHL level, while Biega is exactly who he is: a hard-working, non-complaining 7th or 8th defenceman that can step in on a sheltered third pairing with no muss, no fuss.
Benning has yet to find top-four defencemen that could potentially inherit the top-pairing mantle from Edler and Tanev. At least, none that are currently in the lineup. The hope for the future is that Olli Juolevi and Quinn Hughes can step in and become top-pairing defencemen.
Juolevi is adapting well in his first professional season in North America, but there’s a reason why he wasn’t called up from the Comets. The Canucks are taking a slow-and-steady approach to Juolevi’s development and will continue to play top-pairing minutes in Utica.
“I think Olli has done a really good job,” said Comets head coach Trent Cull. “For a young guy, he’s played a lot of minutes for us, and he’s done some really good things. To show that he can be very much a good player for us at this level — this quickly — it is really boding well for his confidence.”
It’s understandably frustrating to see defencemen taken after Juolevi in the draft already play major roles with their teams while Juolevi plays in the AHL. Mikhail Sergachev had 40 points for Tampa Bay last season, Charlie McAvoy is on the top pairing in Boston, and Jakob Chychrun has already played 118 NHL games. But Juolevi should still be a solid NHL defenceman, even if he might not reach his ceiling as a top-pairing guy.
That puts a lot of pressure on Quinn Hughes to pan out as the number-one, puck-moving defenceman that the Canucks have desired for essentially the entire history of the franchise. Hughes has three points in three games to start his sophomore season with the University of Michigan and he won’t be playing for the Canucks unless it’s at the very end of the season.
Until Juolevi and Hughes arrive, it’s up to the rest of the defence that Benning has assembled to fill in while Edler and Tanev are out of the lineup. This provides a significant opportunity for Benning acquisitions like Gudbranson and Stecher to prove themselves and step up in their absence.