Since Jim Benning became general manager of the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, he has presided over seven drafts and selected 48 players. Amongst those are current NHL stars Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, and Elias Pettersson. That’s quite the success rate for a team that has struggled in the past at the draft table.
Related: Who’s Never Picked #1 in the Draft
So in honour of yet another one of his draft picks making an impact at the NHL level, I thought it would be a good time to start a series of articles looking back at all the drafts he’s been a part of. In each piece, I will take a look at each of the players Benning selected, talk about their time with the team, if any, and now that we have the benefit of hindsight in our arsenal, point out any missed opportunities. First up is the 2014 Entry Draft hosted by the Philadelphia Flyers where the Canucks made seven picks in the seven rounds that year.
Early Rounds (1-3)
Round 1, 6th Overall – Jake Virtanen, RW (Calgary Hitmen, WHL)
With his first-ever pick as general manager of the Canucks, Benning selected hometown right-winger Jake Virtanen from the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. In the 2013-14 season, Virtanen put up 45 goals and 71 points in 71 games, finishing sixth in the WHL in goals. He played one more season with the Hitmen before turning pro and played his first season in the NHL during the 2015-16 campaign.
Even though Virtanen posted seven goals and 13 points in 55 games in his rookie campaign, he did not stay there the following season. He had to pay his dues at the American Hockey League (AHL) level until the 2017-18 season where he put up 10 goals and 20 points in 75 games. Since then, he’s had to endure lots of tough love from NHL/AHL head coach Travis Green and take heat for his conditioning and lack of consistency in his game.
All of that seems to have paid off, however, as Virtanen has steadily improved every season he’s been in the NHL going from 10 goals in 2017-18 to a career-high 18 this season. If not for the “pause”, he probably would have become a 20-goal scorer for the first time in his career. He also has added more playmaking to his game too with another career-high of 18 assists.
Expected to take another step forward during the 2020-21 season, Virtanen took a step back with a mediocre five goals in 38 games. His consistency issues reared their ugly head again too, as he struggled to gain a foothold anywhere in the lineup. To make matters worse, he also was accused of sexual assault and is currently battling a civil lawsuit. Suffice it to say, he probably has played his last game in a Canucks uniform.
Missed Opportunity: Nikolaj Ehlers – Drafted 11th overall by the Winnipeg Jets
With all the issues Virtanen has had since coming into the league, the Canucks probably would have been better off choosing Ehlers. From the minute he stepped into the bright lights, he showed elite speed, creativity, and a knack for scoring goals. He has played 416 NHL games already and has posted five straight 20-goal seasons as well. At 25-years-old, he has only just begun to scratch the surface of his abilities.
Round 1, 24th Overall – Jared McCann, C (Soo Greyhounds, OHL)
With the first-round pick he acquired in the Ryan Kesler trade just days before, Benning selected Jared McCann from the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL. McCann totaled 27 goals and 62 points in his draft year and played one more season there scoring 34 goals and 81 points before turning pro with the Canucks in 2014-15. He joined Virtanen as the second 19-year-old to make the roster that season.
McCann ended up playing the entire 2014-15 campaign with the Canucks, scoring nine goals and 18 points in 69 games. He enticed fans with his speed and elite shot, often outplaying his first-round counterpart. His time in Vancouver was short-lived, however, as he was dealt in the offseason to the Florida Panthers for hulking defenceman Erik Gudbranson.
McCann played parts of three seasons in the Sunshine State totaling 18 goals and 35 points in 143 games before he was dealt again during the 2018-19 season to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a package involving Nick Bjugstad. It was there that he seemed to come alive offensively, scoring 11 goals in 32 games to close out the campaign. The 2019-20 season was much of the same, as he totaled 14 goals and 35 points in 66 games before the pandemic-induced pause.
Since coming over from the Panthers, McCann has established himself as a solid top-nine forward capable of stepping into the top six at a moment’s notice. At times filling in for superstar Evgeni Malkin on the second line, he continued to produce during the 2020-21 season recording another 14 goals and 32 points in 43 games. In 353 NHL games, he has 66 goals and 155 points.
Missed Opportunity: David Pastrnak – Drafted 25th overall by the Boston Bruins
This was probably one of the biggest misses in NHL history for many teams, as Pastrnak has developed into one of the biggest scoring threats in the entire league. He has scored 20 or more goals in five straight seasons and was poised to have his first 50-goal campaign before the premature end of the 2019-20 season happened. He also has four 30-goal seasons under his belt. In hindsight, he probably should have been drafted in the top three instead of the bottom of the opening round, as he’s outscored his entire draft class so far.
Round 2, 36th Overall – Thatcher Demko, G (Boston College, NCAA)
With his first pick in the second round, Benning chose goaltender Thatcher Demko from Boston College of the NCAA. He was the second goaltender off the board after the Calgary Flames chose Mason McDonald with the 34th overall pick. Demko ended up playing two more seasons in the NCAA before turning pro in 2016-17 with the Comets of the AHL.
Demko played two seasons there before suffering a concussion during Canucks’ training camp in 2018-19. It was an unfortunate setback as he was going to battle Anders Nilsson for the backup job that season after a breakout year in 2017-18 with the Comets where he registered 25 wins along with a 2.44 goals-against average (GAA) and a .922 save percentage (SV%). Fortunately, he was able to recover and get into 16 games in the AHL and nine games in the NHL after Benning dealt Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators.
Demko started the 2019-20 season as Jacob Markstrom‘s backup and has developed his game quite nicely despite his average numbers (3.06 GAA and .905 SV%). He was forced into the starting job after Markstrom suffered a season-ending injury and was just starting to turn a corner before the end of the 2019-20 season.
Markstrom eventually returned to the crease for the 2020 Playoffs, but Demko wasn’t on the sidelines for long as he took over towards the end of the second round against the Vegas Golden Knights. Once again in control of the crease, he finished the playoffs with a sparkling 0.64 GAA and .985 SV% and nearly carried his team to the third round versus the Dallas Stars.
That performance convinced the Canucks to leave Markstrom behind and move forward with the 25-year-old Demko for the 2020-21 season. Splitting time with veteran Braden Holtby, he started a career-high 35 games and finished with a modest 2.85 GAA and .915 SV% to go along with one shutout. He is definitely the present and future of Canucks goaltending as he recently signed a five-year contract to stay on the West Coast.
Missed Opportunity: None. The Canucks drafted the best goaltender in the draft, and he’s now an NHL starter. He could also become an elite goaltender in his prime as well. Brandon Montour, Ryan Donato, and Christian Dvorak, who were drafted 55th, 56th, and 58th respectively, all have carved out respectable careers so far, but an elite goaltender does not come around every day. So, basically, no missed opportunities here.
Round 3, 66th Overall – Nikita Tryamkin, D (Yekaterinburg Automobilist, KHL)
The Canucks drafted 6-foot-7 behemoth, Nikita Tryamkin in the third round from Yekaterinburg Automobilist of the KHL. It was an intriguing pick as he was a big, but mobile defenceman in the mold of Zdeno Chara. He scored one goal and seven points in 45 games in his draft year before spending another two seasons overseas. He turned pro with the Canucks during the 2017-18 season where he put up one goal and two points in 16 games. The following season he played 66 games, totaling two goals and nine points.
During the 2018 offseason, Benning attempted to re-sign him, but Tryamkin ultimately decided to return to the KHL. He has played there ever since although the Canucks have retained his restricted free agent (RFA) rights.
Missed Opportunity: Brayden Point – Drafted 79th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning
Looking back now, Point probably should have been a first-round pick as he’s become one of the NHL’s top two-way threats. He can play all three forward positions, is great on faceoffs, and is a point producer as well. His 139 goals rank him fifth amongst his draft class in scoring, and he’s already had four seasons with 20 or more goals. He also has proven to be a prolific playoff performer, tallying 28 goals in the past two playoff runs where his team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Talk about a steal at 79th overall.
Late Rounds (4-7)
Round 4 – No Pick
The Canucks did not have a pick in the fourth round, as it was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Jeremy Walsh and Zac Dalpe. That trade did not amount to much as both of them are not playing in the NHL right now. If they would have held onto it, there were some serviceable players to be had in this round, as the missed opportunity will tell you.
Missed Opportunity: Viktor Arvidsson – Drafted 112th overall by the Nashville Predators
Arvidsson joins Point as two of the biggest steals of this draft class. Not only did he develop into a top-line threat with the Predators but he also already has 127 goals in the NHL, which includes two 30-goal campaigns. He was on pace for another 20 goals before the 2019-20 pause effectively ended his season. He could have probably had another 20 during the 2020-21 season too had the campaign not been shortened to 56 games. At 28-years-old, he is firmly entrenched in his prime, and at the time, the Canucks could definitely have used that sort of goal-scoring potential in their lineup.
Round 5, 126th Overall – Gustav Forsling, D (Linkoping, Swedish Juniors)
The second defender the Canucks chose during this draft was Gustav Forsling from Linkoping of the Swedish Junior League. He scored six goals and 18 points in 44 games during his draft year before getting promoted to the Swedish Hockey League where he spent the following two seasons totaling nine goals and 27 points in 86 games. During that time, he dazzled fans in the 2015 World Junior Championship where he scored three goals and eight points in seven games. That prompted many to start believing that he could become the Canucks’ next great Swedish defenceman.
However, before Forsling could potentially realize that expectation, he was traded shortly after the tournament to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenceman Adam Clendening. He turned pro in 2015-16 and bounced around the NHL and AHL for three seasons totaling eight goals and 27 points in 122 games. Then in 2019, he was dealt again, this time to the Hurricanes, for Aleksi Sarrela and Calvin de Haan. After a season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers, he signed with the Florida Panthers and played a regular role on their blueline finishing with a career-high five goals and 17 points in 43 games.
Missed Opportunity: Oskar Lindblom – Drafted 138th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers
By this time in the draft, any NHL players you obtain is gravy. But the Canucks missed out on a good one in Lindblom. His ceiling may only be that of a second-line winger, but he’s already flirted with 20 goals and was on pace for another 15-20 goals in 2019-20. At 24-years-old, he has 38 goals and 71 points in 184 games. That’s pretty good production for a fifth-round pick.
Round 6, 156th Overall – Kyle Pettit, C (Erie Otters, OHL)
With their second-to-last pick, the Canucks drafted Kyle Pettit from the Erie Otters of the OHL. In his draft year, he scored five goals and 10 points in 53 games. Following that, he played another three seasons there, with his best coming in 2016-17 where he put up 26 goals and 54 points in 66 games.
After his final season with the Otters, Pettit went to college at the University of Western Ontario, where he played three seasons before the pandemic canceled the 2020-21 campaign. He no longer is a Canucks prospect, but he’s getting a great education studying social sciences. The 2019-20 season saw him score five goals and 12 points in 27 games.
Missed Opportunity: Kevin Labanc – Drafted 171st overall by the San Jose Sharks
Anyone that gets selected in the sixth round and makes it to the NHL would be considered a steal. Labanc definitely falls into that category as he’s developed into a very serviceable top-six forward with the Sharks. In the past four seasons, he’s totaled 62 goals and 177 points with a career-high 56 points in 2018-19. Those are totals worthy of a second or even a late first-round pick, so the Sharks got really lucky to have selected him here.
Round 7, 186th Overall – Mackenze Stewart, D (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL)
With their final pick in the 2014 draft, the Canucks selected rugged defenceman Mackenze Stewart from the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL. Not known for his offence, he only scored five goals and nine points in his draft year. He played one more season in the WHL before turning pro with the Comets of the AHL at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. He bounced around between the AHL and ECHL that season before being assigned to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans. He finished his campaign there with five goals and 11 points in 36 games.
Since then, he’s been a bit of a rover, traveling between the AHL with the Comets and Grand Rapids Griffins, and the ECHL with the Alaska Aces, the Toledo Walleye, and the Kalamazoo Wings. Right now he is not playing pro hockey anywhere as he has not suited up for a game since the 2018-19 season.
Missed Opportunity: Ondrej Kase – Drafted 205th overall by the Anaheim Ducks
The seventh-round is full of what-ifs, as many of them never even get a sniff of the NHL. So when you are actually able to get one that makes it, it’s the best feeling in the world. The Canucks could have felt that way if one of their scouts saw Kase and forced Benning’s hand.
As a late-round pick, he already has a 20-goal season and still has the potential to be a solid top-nine winger in the NHL. He has since been traded to the Bruins, so we will see how his career unfolds. Unfortunately, since his breakout campaign, he only has recorded 18 goals in 88 games. Regardless, he still has beaten the odds by just having 43 goals and 97 points in 207 NHL games.
Final Grade: B
All-in-all, Benning and the Canucks had a relatively successful draft in 2014. Despite some huge misses in Pastrnak and Ehlers and some ill-advised trades after the draft was completed, five of their seven picks have made it to the NHL. Tryamkin may not be there right now, but he definitely looked like an NHL defenceman when he was over in North America. Looking back, Benning had a relatively good start to his tenure as general manager of the Canucks.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.