May 23, 2014

A Look Back At Jim Benning - The Hockey Player

With the Vancouver Canucks officially introducing Jim Benning as their new general manager on Friday, much ado has been made about his very successful career as a scout and manager. 

But let's take a look back at Jim Benning's career as a hockey player - including his days spent patrolling the blue line for the Vancouver Canucks in the late 1980s.

The 1981 NHL Entry Draft featured one sure-fire superstar in Dale Hawerchuk. There was little doubt that the Cornwall Royals center would be selected first overall, and he was by the Winnipeg Jets.

However there was no general consensus as to who was the second best selection. History would prove that Ron Francis (selected 4th), Grant Fuhr (8th) and Al MacInnis (15th) were the best players aside from Hawerchuk.

At the time Ottawa 67's center Doug Smith was selected directly behind Hawechuk. However many felt that Jim Benning, who had an unbelievable season with the WHL Portland Winter Hawks, was the second best prospect that year.

One of those people was Punch Imlach, who as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs eagerly snapped him up with the 6th overall selection.

In his memoires, Imlach recalls the 1981 draft as this:

"At the amateur draft (in 1981) I'd done better than I had a right to. After Dale Hawerchuk, the kid who was automatic first pick overall by the Winnipeg Jets, the one I wanted was Jim Benning, an eighteen year old defenceman who'd played with the Portland Winter Hawks. As we were drafting sixth, I didn't think he'd still be available when our turn came, but he was and I grabbed him."

Jim's statistics that year were simply staggering. He quarterbacked the Winter Hawks offense. He scored 28 goals himself, but added a major junior record 111 assists (since bettered) while leading his team with 139 points! Some even compared his offensive qualities to his boyhood idol, the great Bobby Orr.

Jim was truly the key to the Winter Hawks. At one point he had an incredible 45 game scoring streak. Despite have a deep group of forwards with 30, 40 and 50+ goal scorers, none went on to anything more than a cup of coffee in the NHL.

Despite his incredilbe season, not everyone was as sold on Benning as Imlach was. There were concerns about his size and strength, as well as his play without the puck. But Imlach wanted him.

"He's a very smart offensive hockey player and frankly, if he develops as he should, he might be the best defenseman Toronto as ever come up with. That's say a hell of a lot."

It certainly did. But ultimately Jim, like many others, never did materialize into the kind of player the Leafs had invisioned. Why is that?

It basically boils down to the Leafs not developing him as they should have. Imlach had to resign just a couple months after the Entry Draft. He suffered a third heart attack in a short period of time and he had to step down as GM or it likely would have killed him. Had Imlach been healthy, he definitely would have handled Jim's development differently.

"I'd told them about Benning, that unless he was good enough to play regularly it would be better if he went back to junior hockey for a year", Imlach said. "A lot of other clubs did that with their young ones, called them up from time to time and they did well. But the Leafs kept Benning, and after he'd played the ten games allowed a junior, they couldn't send him back. If they (the Leafs) try to force feed these kids into the lineup just to say they're a young team, its no going to work. These kids have to have the atmosphere and the competition to develop their skills naturally. If they're in over their heads they won't get the opportunity because all they'll be doing is trying to hang on."

Jim struggled in that first year of force feeding. He was given the opportunity to run the Leafs powerplay but he clearly wasn't ready for that. On many nights he probably didn't belong in the NHL - Jim had all the skills in the world but he was just too young and not ready to play the role the Leafs wanted him to. He finished with a poor -27 defensive rating. As a NHL rookie defenseman, he had yet to learn how to play solid defense, and was burned many times by bigger stronger forwards. He didn't have the strength required in the corners and in front of the net. Jim still had a decent season offensively, scoring 31 points, including 7 goals, in 74 games as a rookie. "The first one was a thrill." Jim said.

Jim added 10 pounds of muscle before his sophmore season. He gradually improved his play and showed some good progress in year three (1983-84). He quarterbacked the power play with decent success. He scored 12 goals (6 on the power play) and 39 assists for a career high 51 points. He also had a respectable -4 on a weak Leafs team, but still at times he was an adventure in his own zone and was continually overpowered by bigger forwards.

Jim followed that season up with decent offensive totals in 1984-85 with 9 goals and 44 points, but was an awful -39 and was becoming much maligned by the Leafs media and fans.
But the fact is that Jim was the highest scoring defenseman from the 1981 draft up to that point. Jim had 148 points in his first four seasons in the NHL, the runner up Al MacInnis had 111. Some of the criticism was unfair to the 22 year old Jim.

After an injury plagued 1985-86 season, the Leafs finally gave up on the guy once projected to become the greatest blueliner in Maple Leaf history. They traded him and another failing prospect in Dan Hodgson to Vancouver in exchange for veteran defenseman Rick Lanz.

Jim played in 4 seasons for the Canucks. Jim often saw power play time in his early days on the west coast but couldn't quite come up to the standard that everyone expected of him. He was the co-leader in the plus/minus department (+9) in 1986-87. In 1987-88 he was awarded the Premier's Trophy as Vancouver's outstanding defenseman. But when names like Paul Reinhart and Robert Nordmark arrived, Jim's ice time was reduced. Despite his experience over the years making him a fairly well rounded player, his lack of size and strength didn't continued to hinder him.

By the end of his tenure with the Canucks, he was phased out of the lineup and then out of the NHL. He spent a year with the Canucks minor league team in Milwaukee before jumping overseas to finish his hockey career.

Jim never fulfilled his potential, and never even came close to being a memorable Leaf blueliner, let alone the greatest defenseman in team history. Why is this? He, like so many other junior sensations, was rushed into the NHL destined to fail and quickly was labelled as a just another junior star who failed at the NHL level. While he likely never would have reached superstar status, with proper upbringing he could have developed into a top 4 defenseman with better point production.

With all that said Jim had a fairly good career playing with some very poor teams.

1 comment:

Ashman said...

Excellent article. I love your web site. It's very well done and very well researched. Keep it up Joe!

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