This season's best free agent might end up being Vancouver's Judd Brackett

The Canucks' director of amateur scouting is on an expiring contract and according to multiple sources around the league, tension with GM Jim Benning may end in an exit. Vancouver's loss would be a major win for whichever NHL team snapped up the top hockey mind.
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Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

There are some pretty big names heading towards free agency at the end of the 2019-20 season, but from Alex Pietrangelo to Taylor Hall, the best won't come cheap. But what if I told you a team could acquire names like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes without getting wrecked by the salary cap?

In a roundabout way, that's what a team would be getting if Vancouver Canucks director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett parts ways with his current club. While matters of scouting rarely become big stories in the NHL, Vancouver fans and media have been buzzing about Brackett's potential departure from the Canucks. His contract expires this summer and negotiations with GM Jim Benning on an extension haven't resulted in a new pact.

So what's the deal? From talking to scouts and execs from around the league, there has always been tension between Benning and Brackett, with the scouting department separated into old-guard and new-school factions.

"You can sense there are cliques in that group; power struggles," said one NHL team scout. "The fact they've drafted so well, considering that, is impressive."

Brackett got his start in the USHL, where he helped build a champion Indiana Ice team. In 2008-09, he became a part-time scout with the Canucks, using his USHL knowledge to eventually vouch for Boeser, whom the Canucks took 23rd overall in 2015. Vancouver got another USHL gem later on in that draft when they snagged Adam Gaudette in the fifth round. The next season, Brackett was named Vancouver's director of amateur scouting by Trevor Linden. It was a meteoric rise for the talent hawk, but it didn't necessarily sit well with some of the veterans in the scouting game.

"When he got the opportunity in Vancouver, guys who didn't know him were like 'who is this guy?' " said the scout. "Usually there's a path - you're a full-time guy in your area, then a crossover guy (a scout who covers more than one league - say, OHL and QMJHL) - but he skipped to the front of the line. But the proof is in the pudding. Ever since they turned the keys over to Judd, their drafting has improved exponentially."

And this is where it gets interesting. Because Benning himself has an extensive scouting background, not to mention his own trusted lieutenants within the Canucks scouting department (such as assistant GM John Weisbrod). And he is the boss, at the end of the day.

"The vision," said one NHL GM, "has to come from the manager."

Which is, to say, that teams play a certain style and the GM has to supply his coach with the type of players the coach can mould into a winning roster. Do you want fast? Do you want physical? Do you want hockey sense? The GM must be on the same page as his scouting director to make it happen.

Brackett was ostensibly in charge of the draft, but it doesn't sound like he always had the easiest time convincing his boss to make certain choices. Thankfully for Canucks fans, Brackett has prevailed more often than not - particularly at the 2017 draft when a skinny Swede was available early.

"My understanding," said the scout, "is that Pettersson was never a guy Benning wanted."

This was echoed by other sources and keep in mind, Pettersson wasn't universally ranked as high as the No. 5 slot the Canucks picked him at. Casey Mittelstadt was still on the board at the time, as was WHL star Cody Glass. Vancouver easily could have gone a different way and no one would have batted an eye. Instead, the Canucks landed a foundational center.

From the sounds of it, both Benning and Brackett were sold on Hughes in 2018, so there was no controversy there. But in 2019, a fissure in the department reared up again over the first-rounder. Brackett lobbied (and won) on rambunctious Russian right winger Vasili Podkolzin, but other names were championed by others on staff (I could not confirm which players were the alternatives and while at least one name is out there, I don't think it's appropriate to speculate).

On top of the Canucks' first-round victories of late, Brackett has also presided over some great value picks, including several with USHL links - 2019 seventh-rounder Aidan McDonough had a monster freshman season at Northeastern University, while Huskies teammate and 2018 third-rounder Tyler Madden was the school's leading scorer as a sophomore. Madden's rights were traded to Los Angeles in the Tyler Toffoli deal and he'll turn pro with the Kings organization next season.

GMs see Brackett as a hard-working guy, while other scouts see a guy who sees the game well and thinks on another level from many of his peers. I have also been told he is not the type of guy who leaks things to the press, so false stories - like the one circulating about him being sidelined by Benning on the second day of last year's draft - don't always get corrected.

If he stays in Vancouver, the Canucks have a tremendous asset who will continue to build an already-impressive young core. If he leaves, he probably won't be on the market very long.

"Seattle would make too much sense," said the scout. "I read that Ron Francis wants experience and Judd has that. He's capable of working with a lot of personalities and backgrounds, incorporating different tools and analytics."

He might not defend like Pietrangelo or score like Hall, but Brackett has shown he can find similar talents through his scouting acumen. And the best part? His services don't count against the salary cap.

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