On the first of July, mistakes are always made in the NHL. Teams want a certain player and poison their entire cap structure to get a middling player just because they don’t cost any future assets to acquire.
The Vancouver Canucks are certainly no stranger to those unfortunate mistakes made on that one particular day on the hockey calendar. Big-name free agents that are a shell of what they once were are now seen as anchors and future buyout candidates just several months after pen has been put to paper.
But luckily for them, a big man from Victoria wanted to come back to his home province and play for he team he grew up watching, and they got him on a fairly team-friendly deal.
Jordie Benn has been all over the league and was simply known as “the other Benn” throughout his time in the barren depths of the minors. Spending time in the Central Hockey League after graduating from the BCHL and going undrafted, Benn worked his way through the Dallas Stars system, signing there as a free agent presumptuously because of his brother Jamie.
Bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL until he found consistency at the age of 26, sticking with the Stars. Then going to the Montreal Canadiens in a deadline day trade in 2017, he’s moved into the echelon of a regular, everyday NHL defenceman.
Signing with the Canucks on a two-year, $4-million deal was simple enough. At the age of 31 now, Benn is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he still has a lot of effectiveness left. Just last year he set his career-high in points on Montreal, while points doesn’t mean everything coming from a defenceman and it was only 22, it still shows that Benn was able to be a productive top-4 defenceman on a playoff bubble team — something that Vancouver might be next season.
But the Canucks didn’t sign the left-handed defenceman to be an offensive stalwart, it’s Benn’s defensive game that earned him the contract and what has kept him around in this league.
It’s not just some mysterious scouting report either, Benn has true defensive effects while he’s on the ice and had a significant impact on why the Canadiens were able to win as many games as the did. Ignoring the hyperbolic statement, but the fresh Canucks defenceman was able to play important minutes at even-strength and contribute to Montreal being ranked seventh in the league in expected goals against per hour.
While Benn was on the ice for the Habs this past season, they were simply a better defensive team.
Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s shot rate viz, it’s easy to see what a difference Montreal was with and without Benn. While he was playing, the Canadiens suppressed shots to seven per cent lower than league average — especially around the net, where they hardly gave up any shots.
Without Benn, Montreal was still a solid defensive team, but not at the same level. They still gave up some significant chances, enough to raise Micah’s threat level metric by five per cent.
Not only are the quality of chances lessened with the 31-year-old defenceman on the ice, but the quantity as well. Benn had an on-ice CA/60 of 53.55, while Montreal over the whole entire season and every minute accounted for, had a 55.61 CA/60. Lowering that number still holds a significant value to teams. Since in basic theory, the less the opponent is attempting shots, the less they have the puck, the less likely they are able to score goals to win the game — extremely simplified.
Considering that the whole margin of CA/60 between all 31 teams was only 14.34, lowering that by a couple ticks can be important to prevent some scoring. That number is also including the horrid 65.43 CA/60 of the 2018-19 Ottawa Senators. If that is forgotten, the range shrinks to only 9.17.
While Benn easily makes the Canucks defensive game much better, he shouldn’t be relied on to contribute much on the other side of the puck. Small point totals aside, even Benn doesn’t personally attempt shots that often — throughout his entire hockey career he has only passed the 10-goal mark once and that was with the Victoria Grizzlies in the BCHL, 11 years ago.
But what Benn has done really well this past season with Montreal is get the puck to skaters that are open to attempt a shot.
On the Habs, Benn had the highest rate of primary shot assists among defencemen. And significantly in the upper tier of defencemen across the entire league. While this could just be a result of Benn hardly shooting the puck when he has it on his stick in the offensive zone, he was still able to contribute more shot attempts than teammate Victor Mete.
If Benn is cemented into the Canucks’ group of top-four defencemen, then he will likely be playing with some highly-skilled forwards that would appreciate his ability to get them the puck in key areas of the ice just like he has done in the past.
It’s one of the small things that often go unnoticed, but if tracked, like Corey has done here, the improvement on offence overall can increase. It historically hasn’t for Benn, but if just a quick break of luck and the right goal-scoring threats are on the other end of those shot assist numbers, perhaps Benn’s assist totals can increase. With that, his overall value to the boxscore-lookers might rise and we can see some praise for smart business for getting him on such a cheap cap hit.
A lot would have to go right, but Benn could possibly, theoretically, set his career-high in points, two years in a row. It’s reaching, but the little things that lead to that production is there.
All of this at even-strength is great, but where Benn does a lot of his work is on the penalty kill.
With the Habs last year, Benn averaged 2:46 TOI shorthanded per game, second only to the 2:48 TOI of Shea Weber. They were Montreal’s primary PK partnership throughout all of last season and they did an above-average job at restricting opposing teams from scoring on their powerplays.
Using Micah’s viz again to demonstrate how effective Benn was on the penalty kill, it was clearly a major difference between having him out there and not. It could be the presence of Weber with him, but a total of 225 minutes should average out the individual impact.
Tallying up the last two seasons of Benn’s penalty kill ability, the estimated individual impact level is four percent below league average on Micah’s threat level metric. Taking away all of the teammate impact and focusing on the individual, Benn still has a positive effect on a team’s ability shorthanded.
All of this combined into one package presents a very unassuming and under-the-radar defenceman. Benn won’t necessarily have any particular burst onto the scene in Vancouver and won’t impress in any significant way. But he’ll just be there and able to hold off the opposition successfully enough, as he has done historically in this league.
At just two years and a cap hit of $2-million, he can provide some much-needed veteran value on this improved Canucks blueline. He’ll play his role and be competent at it.
Things sometimes change with a new environment –Montreal had a very structured defensive system under Claude Julien last season, but if Travis Green is up to the task of improving this team’s overall defence, they certainly acquired one defenceman that should be able to perform.
Especially with the first full season of Quinn Hughes approaching, the addition of Benn is an interesting case study on balance throughout the group of defencemen. They both are left-handed shooters, so they will likely rarely see the ice together, but a Benn-Stecher pairing is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
It’s natural to always want balance, so if a pairing involving Benn and one of the Canucks’ young offensive defencemen is a thing next season, it would be interesting to see what exactly the results are.
This signing should have an overall positive effect on the upcoming Canucks season as a whole. He has certainly shown that he is much better than any of the previous blueliners that were able to get a mountain of minutes for Vancouver last year, so for just a $4-million dollar commitment, it makes all the sense in the world.