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Jim Benning says depth is on the way, but Canucks fans have heard this before

Limited depth to deal with injuries has hurt the Canucks over last three seasons.
Jonathan Dahlen with Timra IK

Just two Canucks have played in every single game this season: Henrik Sedin and Michael Del Zotto. Almost every other Canuck has dealt with some sort of significant injury.

The Canucks’ top line— Sven Baertschi, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser — have combined to miss 57 games and that will climb to 67 games with Baertschi and Boeser done for the season. Their best defenceman, Chris Tanev, will have missed 40 games by the end of the season. Alex Edler, Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson, Markus Granlund, and Erik Gudbranson have all missed significant time, not to mention Derek Dorsett had his career ended prematurely with a spinal injury.

Those injuries add up. One way to literally add them up is to use CHIP — Cap Hit of Injured Players — and compare the Canucks to other teams around the league. Instead of just adding up man games lost to injury, CHIP uses the cap hit of those injured players to attempt to capture the importance of those lost man games. Theoretically, the higher the cap hit, the more important you are to your team. It’s not perfect, but it’s a helpful tool.

This season, the Canucks have the third highest CHIP in the league. If the Canucks think they’ve been hit harder by injuries than other teams, they’re probably right.

Those injury troubles partially explain some of the Canucks’ struggles this season, but they don’t excuse them. Right behind the Canucks in CHIP this season are the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets, two of the top teams in the Western Conference. The team leading the way in CHIP is Anaheim, who are still in playoff position in spite of how poorly they played against the Canucks on Tuesday.

Here’s the thing: this is nothing new for the Canucks. In fact, in both of the previous two seasons they’ve finished the year with the third highest CHIP in the league.

You could hypothesize any number of reasons for the Canucks’ injury woes — bad luck, the tough travel schedule, a failing of the Canucks’ medical team, a tendency to give big contracts to injury-prone players — but there’s no way to know the real reason, if only one reason exists. What we can say with some certainty is that injuries should not come as a surprise to the Canucks anymore.

And yet, every year, the story remains the same from Jim Benning.

This week, Benning said, “We haven’t been able to withstand the injuries with our depth this season.”

At the end of last season, Benning said, “It’s tough because we had so many injuries and we didn't have a lot of depth.”

After the 2015-16 season, Benning said, “We haven’t had the depth underneath to kinda sustain those injuries…We didn’t have the depth and that’s on me.”

To be fair to Benning, any team that is going through a rebuild is going to struggle when injuries come along. Benning and Linden aren’t wrong when they point to the lack of prospect depth in the organization when they were initially hired, even if they point the finger at the past far too often. The previous regime focused primarily on the present rather than the future, taking the team within one game of the Stanley Cup, but sacrificing prospects and picks to do so.

While some might argue with the efficacy of Benning’s approach, he has helped the Canucks build arguably the most exciting prospect pool in franchise history. It’s not surprising, then, that Benning is counting on his next wave of prospects to solve his depth problem.

“We haven’t been able to withstand the injuries with our depth this season,” said Benning. “Next year we’re going to have six, seven young players who are going to be in Utica. For the first time we’ll have that depth which can help us, and they’re also good prospects.”

If this sounds familiar, it should.

“We could have potentially 8-10 future NHL players playing in Utica this season,” he said in early September before this season. Later, at the Canucks’ media day, he added, “I think this year, when we do have injuries, we’re going to be calling up real players that we want to develop into long-term players. We’re at that point now.”

That depth just wasn’t there like he thought it would be. Players like Nikolay Goldobin and Reid Boucher got called up, but the Canucks also ended up trading for Nic Dowd and playing Michael Chaput.

It was a similar story the season before. Heading into the 2016-17 season, Benning said, “We'll send people down who are ready for the NHL. We'll run into injuries, but we'll call up players who can help us win.”

Just before the 2015-16 season, Benning said, “I think our team is better heading into this season than it was last year. We have depth, speed and we're more physical.”

The story remains the same: heading into each of the last three seasons, Benning claimed the Canucks had enough depth, then at the end of the season bemoaned the lack of depth to deal with injuries.

Will next season be any different? There is reason for some hope.

Benning claims that six or seven young players will join the Utica Comets. We can take a look at the Canucks’ prospect pool and make some educated guesses on who those players might be.

Here are the candidates:

Prospect Position Age
Elias Pettersson C/RW 19
Adam Gaudette C 21
Jonathan Dahlen LW 20
Kole Lind RW 19
Jonah Gadjovich LW 19
Petrus Palmu RW/LW 20
Olli Juolevi D 19
Matt Brassard D 19
Brett McKenzie C 21

The two at the bottom, Matt Brassard and Brett McKenzie, are wild cards. Neither is signed by the Canucks and there’s no guarantee that either join the Comets. Brassard can return to junior for his over-age year, which seems like his most likely path, while McKenzie, at 21, needs to turn pro. I could see McKenzie getting an AHL contract rather than an NHL offer.

That leaves, appropriately, seven prospects.

At centre, the Canucks have Adam Gaudette, who is making his Canucks debut Thursday night, and Elias Pettersson. At left wing, there’s Jonathan Dahlen and Jonah Gadjovich, and on the right, Kole Lind and Petrus Palmu. Finally, there’s Olli Juolevi on defence.

Is that influx of young talent enough to offset the Canucks’ future injury woes?

Perhaps, but there’s a pretty significant gap that likely jumps out at you as much as it jumps out at me: defence. Juolevi is the only Canucks prospect likely to make the jump to the professional ranks and he’s one of the few defencemen in the Canucks system that has the potential to be an impact player.

The Canucks might be high on Guillaume Brisebois, Ashton Sautner hasn’t looked out of place in his two NHL games, and Jalen Chatfield seems like he might have some bottom-pairing potential, but is that enough to count as legitimate depth?

There’s also the question of how many of those players will end up in Utica. Lind and Gadjovich are both eligible to return to junior. Pettersson and Gaudette might jump straight to the NHL, particularly if the Canucks are quiet in free agency and leave roster spots open. Even Palmu still has a year left on his contract with TPS in the Finnish Liiga, though the Canucks could negotiate with TPS to terminate the final year.

How confident are you that the Canucks will have enough depth next season to deal with injuries?