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In another lifetime, Jim Benning was part of a young defensive corps that was the hope and salvation for the long-suffering fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Suffice to say they’re still suffering.
That group included Benning, the sixth overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft after recording 139 points in Portland as an 18-year-old; Gary Nylund, a prototypical size-and-skill defenceman from the Winter Hawks who went third overall in 1982; and Al Iafrate, the fourth overall pick in 1984 who played on the U.S. Olympic team as an 18-year-old.
Throw in Todd Gill and Bob McGill, who were also drafted around that time, and, collectively, those players should have formed the core of a championship-quality blue-line for the better part of a decade. But by 1986, Benning and Nylund were traded away, Iafrate would be dealt four years later and, of that group, Gill would have the most lasting impact as a Leaf.
Now, the intent here isn’t to chirp Leafs fans. That’s just a happy byproduct of the exercise. But the larger point is the development and maturation of NHL defencemen is a comprehensively inexact science that is often inconsistent with their draft position.
So let’s get that caveat out of the way as we discuss the collection of young defencemen Benning has assembled in his new life as the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, and let’s try to be muted in our assessment of that group’s potential.
We’ll just say the blue-line, with very few exceptions, has been a black hole for the Canucks throughout their 50-year existence. That also explains why the default position for this franchise has been chronic mediocrity. We don’t know what Quinn Hughes, Jack Rathbone, Jett Woo, Brogan Rafferty and Olli Juolevi will become. We just know they have a chance to become the solution to the Canucks’ eternal problem.
“That’s the unknown, right?” Benning said Wednesday. “They all develop at their own pace. The problem with defencemen is, if you rush them, they lose their confidence and they don’t become the players they should be.
“Goalies are the position you have to be the most patient with, then it’s defencemen. They have so much responsibility and the coach has to trust them. But the position has changed and I think we have players who can play the game now.”
You might say it’s about time.
Benning was speaking as the 20-year-old Hughes was being named a Calder Trophy finalist after his bravura rookie season, and a day after the Canucks signed the 21-year-old Rathbone, a point producer from Harvard who is very much in the Hughes mould.
Woo, meanwhile, is about to turn 20 and Juolevi, who hasn’t looked out of place in the Canucks’ scrimmages, just turned 22. Rafferty, 25, is in a different category, but he was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team this season after producing 45 points in 57 games.
Again, we don’t know what they’ll become but with defencemen, you only have to be right on three of them and, with Hughes, the Canucks are already playing with house money.
The onus will be on the organization to develop the others — and Benning went out of his way to commend assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner for his work with Hughes — but if two others hit, well, Canucks fans can dream, can’t they?
“The big, physical defenceman who just fired the puck off the glass has kind of fallen by the wayside,” Benning said. “With the evolution of speed in the game it’s changed the position. You have to be able to move the puck or you spend all your time in the zone.
“That’s Quinn’s game. He defends by using his head. That’s the way the game’s played now.”
It’s also interesting to note the draft capital the franchise has in each of the young blue-liners, which is another thing about the position. Elite scorers tend to come from the draft lottery. Elite defencemen can come from anywhere. Hughes is considered a steal as the seventh pick in 2018. Woo was a second-rounder that same year, Rathbone was a fourth-rounder in 2017. Rafferty was signed as a college free agent a year ago.
Troy Stecher, who’s only a year older than Rafferty, came through the same route in 2016.
That leaves Juolevi, the fifth pick in 2016 and the Canucks’ forgotten man. He’s been plagued by injuries throughout his career and he’s yet to demonstrate the game that made him such a high pick.
To date, he’s also the most visible blemish in Benning’s draft record.
“I think he’s close to being able to play in the league,” the GM said.
Benning took over the Canucks before the 2014-15 season as the best blue-line in franchise history was on its death bed. That was the last year for Kevin Bieksa. Dan Hamhuis left as a free agent in summer of 2016, signing with Dallas. Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff were long gone. Only Alex Edler remains from that group.
As for the rest of Canucks history, we don’t have the time or space to list all the draft-day misses, the disappointments, the teases. Mattias Ohlund was a great Canuck but, at his peak, he’d be a No. 2 on a championship-calibre team.
He’s also the consensus choice as the best defenceman in franchise history. Hughes might change that. Together, this young group of defencemen might change a lot of things for the Canucks.
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