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How weird a year has it been?
Under normal circumstances, Jim Benning would be jeered for not making enough significant NHL trade deadline moves.
However, in advance of Monday’s trade deadline, the Vancouver Canucks general manager was cheered in some circles for putting his heart before his head in the new normal. He initially championed the notion of a roster status quo amid the emotional and physical crush of the coronavirus that affected 25 people in the organization and shut the club down for a dozen days.
That’s a nice narrative, but the cruel reality is that business is still business.
Benning started the day by trading restricted free agent centre Adam Gaudette to the Chicago Blackhawks for centre Matthew Highmore, 25, who has 10 career NHL points (4-6). The undrafted 5-foot-11, 188 pound Highmore has two assists in 24 games this season and has another year left on his deal at US$725,000.
Benning then moved unrestricted free-agent defenceman Jordie Benn to Winnipeg for a 2021 sixth-round draft pick. Benn, 33, will add a smart, stay-at-home and physical depth element for the Jets, who have aspirations of a long and gruelling postseason run in the high-octane North Division. Winnipeg had eyed higher-end blueliners, but the costs were sky high, compared to Benn’s expiring US$2 million cap hit.
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The general manager then ended the day by acquiring big right-shot depth defenceman Madison Bowey, 25, from the Blackhawks. The Canucks also get a 2021 fifth-round pick from Chicago, in exchange for their fourth-rounder in 2021. Bowey has another year left on his deal at US$725,000.
Benn, a left shot, played the right side here with Quinn Hughes and the left side with Tyler Myers and adjusted his game accordingly. That didn’t go unnoticed around the league. He had the best plus-minus among team blueliners (+5), rarely turned pucks over and managed nine points (1-8) in 14:40 of average ice time.
“We’ve got some UFA defencemen (Alex Edler, Travis Hamonic) who may or may not sign with us and this gives us protection because Bowey can kill penalties and is a good enough skater to be effective,” said Benning. “It gives us flexibility and Olli Juolevi is going to get a good chance to play the rest of the year.”
Highmore has appeared in 97 career AHL games with the Rockford IceHogs, amassing 64 points (31-33) and 44 penalty minutes. His 24 goals in 2017-18 set a team record for most goals by a rookie and ranked first among all Rockford skaters, while his 43 points were second. In his final QMJHL season, he had 34 goals and 89 points.
A native of Halifax, Highmore was originally signed by the Blackhawks as a free agent on March 2, 2017 and has yet to gain scoring traction in the NHL. He will travel to Vancouver and follow the league’s seven-day COVID-19 quarantine protocol.
“It’s a whirlwind — I found out during morning skate,” Highmore told TSN. “Super excited to be part of the Canucks’ organization. I hadn’t heard it (trade rumours) but there’s always a chance and it could be anybody, just stay on your toes. “I think, growing up in Canada, you kind of idolize all the Canadian teams. It’s certainly a great market. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Gaudette transaction creates a riddle in the middle because the Canucks weren’t sold on him in that position, or his future here, and moved the former Hobey Baker Award winner to right wing because the club was bleeding too many goals. UFA Brandon Sutter shifted back to centre and because he wasn’t dealt Monday — despite some continuous buzz — he could help shore up the middle next season with a contract extension.
Gaudette, 24, was on a one-year, US$950,000 show-us contract extension and had seven points (4-3) in 33 games. The gregarious, fun-loving forward was a minus-13. He was also in COVID-19 protocol and came off the list Sunday.
After being scratched for three-consecutive games in February, a move to wing showed some early returns. Gaudette’s only multiple-point game came March 1 with two assists, but consistency wavered. He had a 15-game goal drought and a career-worst 6.8 per cent shooting accuracy.
“A lot went into the decision,” said Benning. “He wanted to play higher in the lineup, and for us, it was about his two-way game and we wanted him to keep improving on that. It was the right time for him to get a fresh start. To be quite honest, we expected him to take another step this year and we really didn’t feel like he did that.
“He has a good release and can score from the outside, but we feel Highmore plays a more complete two-way game and gives us speed. And if given an opportunity, he can score, too.”
Gaudette was still considered a work in progress — even though he had 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games last season — and after putting up 30 goals in his final season at Northeastern University, the hope was that he could develop into a consistent 20-goal scorer at this level. He hasn’t.
Gaudette’s name popped up in trade rumours dating back to the 2020 deadline, but there wasn’t a lot of interest in the 2015 fifth-round pick.