Canucks Story Lines to Watch for in 2013

From the trade of beloved rookie Cody Hodgson, to the team’s unceremonious first round exit at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, to the mystifying, frustrating NHL lockout – 2012 was a tough year for the Canucks and their fans. If you want to relive a bleak twelve months, Harrison Mooney broke it down exhaustively over at Pass it to Bulis on Tuesday morning.

Rather than looking back at the wasteland that was the Canucks’ 2012, we figured we’d look ahead to what promises to be a very intriguing 2013. I’ve singled out five primary story lines that I anticipate we’ll be following closely in the new year, and you can read all about it on the other side of the jump.

Will NHL Hockey be Played? (Yes)

Without NHL hockey to write about this past fall, this blog has gone relatively quiet over the past few months. I apologize to our regular, loyal readers for that, but realistically I’m not a guy with any experience in labour negotiations, or legaleese, and I didn’t feel like I could add much context to the annoying tit-for-tat of lockout negotiations on a daily basis.

My opinion is the same now, as it was in September and October (although the lockout has persisted slightly longer than I’d anticipated): the NHL has never been prepared to scrap the entire season, but they were clearly willing to shutdown the league for a few months in order to squeeze the players and obtain a larger slice of the revenue pie.

It’s the NBA model – you trust that the product is rivetting enough to draw fans back in by the playoffs, and hope that the show is fun enough to make everyone forget about the acrimony of a shortened campaign.

Overall I find Ryan Lambert’s recent analysis compelling in that, it seems to me that the league has done poorly to maximize their advantages (namely, the fact that they own a monopoly on professional hockey in North America) in negotiations. Meanwhile NHLPA boss Donald Fehr has done very well in my view to limit the pound of flesh extracted by league owners. 

With the positive movement over the past few days, I really think we’ve reached the point where a deal is close at hand. Who knows wether or not the two sides agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement or play the season with a Memorandum of Understanding; but who really cares. Hockey season is nigh, and for all of the bitterness the latest lockout has engendered: I’m excited about it. 

The Luongo Trade

For month we’ve known that Roberto Luongo, unquestionably the best goaltender in Vancouver Canucks history, would be traded.

I’d assumed that he’d be moved at the draft, but Mike Gillis didn’t get an offer he liked this past June in Pittsburgh and he stuck to his guns all summer. Gillis is like a Vancouver homeowner who is convinced that he doesn’t need to lower the price of his house (which has been on the market for lo, these past four months), because forget the market – all it really takes is one buyer who likes the asset enough to meet his price.

Whether or not Gillis’ strategy on this front is vindicated by the return the Canucks reap for Luongo’s services, a resolution to Luongo’s status is clearly nigh. Even if the Canucks do the unthinkable and hold onto Luongo for another (shortened) season, with the salary cap poised to decrease by about 14% by the 2013-14 season, the team’s current situation in goal (Schneider and Luongo will combine to eat up 9.33 million in cap-space through 2015) will become completely untenable at some point during this calender year.

When the Luongo trade saga finally reaches its belated conclusion at some point this year, expect a lot of hand-wringing in the Vancouver sports media market. The return will be criticized at length (and at this blog too, if it includes Tyler Bozak), and I’d expect a good deal of finger pointing among the faithful as well. Some will bemoan the fairweather fans who "ran the best goaltender in franchise history out of town", while ignoring the evidence that Cory Schneider might just be the younger, better, cheaper option who legitimately usurped the starters mantle. Still others will presumably turn on Cory Schneider in short order…

Either way, this transaction is going to be an omnipresent story this year, and I assure you we’ll watch and discuss and break it all down obsessively.

The Window to Win

Despite Mike Gillis’ repeated assurances to the contrary, it’s probable that the Canucks as they’re currently constituted are nearing the expiration date on their "championship window."

I tend to think that the "window" concern is somewhat over-rated; after all, the Canucks managed to get way younger this offseason by choosing Jason Garrison over Sami Salo, and Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo. In terms of average age, the Canucks  are now in the bottom half of the league according to NHLNumbers. Still, it’s fair to say that the club’s "elite" pieces are aging.

The Sedins turned 32 this past September, and while I don’t see any signs of declining effectiveness in their performance, Cam Charron has convincingly disagreed with that analysis and could very well be right. Also, beyond the Sedins there’s still Alex Burrows (31) who is on the wrong side of thirty, as is Kevin Bieksa (also 31). While Ryan Kesler is only 28, he’s coming off of multiple surgeries this past summer, and his injury history is quickly reaching a length that would rival one of Tolstoy’s classic novels.

Compounding the team’s "window" issue, is the complete lack of bluechip talent in the prospect pipeline and the improvement of divisional rivals like Minnesota (lol), Colorado and Edmonton. Getting past 29 other NHL clubs is difficult enough, but going forward the Canucks will also be competing against a much more unforgiving opponent in father time.

Is this the year the Canucks begin to show their age? Can Vancouver’s club score enough to keep up with the upstart youngins in Edmonton – who have completly lit up the AHL these past few months – this season and next? Will they be able to hang with the nasty collection of two-way bangers Greg Sherman has assembled in Denver? These are the big questions going forward, and while I tend to think that the news of the Canucks’ demise as Northwest Division heavyweights has been over-stated, expect the words "decline" and "window" to be on the tip of every critic’s tongue every time the Canucks stumble in 2013.

Gilman’s Biggest Test

Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis and capologist Laurence Gilman were masters of manipulating the NHL’s previous collective bargaining agreement. During their tenure, they’ve consistently maximized the club’s ability to derive value from their roster within the confines of the salary cap. They’ve managed this neat trick despite average to subpar drafting, largely because their contract work has been consistently stellar. 

With the cap likely to drop from 70 million this season, to a shade over 60 million in 2013-14 however, Gilman and Gillis will face their biggest test yet this upcoming summer. The diminishing salary cap could cost the team Alex Edler, unless the club manages to clear an awful lot of cap-space in a Luongo trade or do something drastic like utilizing an amnesty provision and buying out Keith Ballard’s contract.

In all, the club will have six roster players hitting unrestricted free-agency next summer (Malhotra, Raymond, Higgins, Lapierre, Edler, Alberts) and a seventh who will be a restricted free-agent (Chris Tanev) due for a raise. They’ll also have 55.4 million in salary tied up in 12 players. Even if the Canucks manage to shed a liberal amount (say three million) in committed salary in an eventual Luongo trade, the club is looking at about 8 million dollars to sign third and fourth liners, a top-4 right-side defenseman, two depth defenseman and a back up goaltender during th summer of 2013. That’s a tall order, even if a diminishing cap does stem the inflationary pressure on free-agent salaries.

I expect we’ll spill truck loads of digital ink evaluating the way the Canucks navigate a new CBA in 2013, and it will undoubtedly shape the team’s fortunes going forward. If you’re a nerd, it should be pretty exciting.

Wither Abbotsford

In the summer of 2011, the Canucks signed a two-year affiliation agreement with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. That agreement will expire at the end of this season, and the Canucks – and a whole host of other NHL organizations – will be in the market for a new affiliate. 

The whispers out of Chicago and Vancouver suggest that neither the Wolves nor the Canucks would be eager to renew their affiliation, and anyway Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin has designs on owning an NHL franchise in the near future. Frankly, if I had to wager on it, I’d say that the Canucks will probably end up finding a new affiliate for the 2013-14 NHL season.

So could the Aquilini Group that owns the Canucks look to expand their brand and try to acquire the sweetheart loser arena management deal that the city of Abbotsford signed with the Flames three years ago?

Every so often, this issue flares up and I’ve generally thought it was all smoke and no fire. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense. No one attends AHL games in Abbotsford. Even when the team is winning and the NHL is locked out the Abbotsford Heat can’t draw more than 4000 fans per game.

Meanwhile the city of Abbotsford, who guaranteed the Calgary Flames organization that they’d offset any losses, paid the Flames nearly three million in tax-payer funds last year (and will probably face a similar payment again this year). Over the course of the deal, the shortfalls have increased which has made the arena deal and by extension the Heat even less popular locally.

Over the past few years a pattern has emerged: the only time the Heat draw fans is when the Wolves (or formerly the Moose) are in town. So presumably an Abbotsford based AHL affiliate would make a lot more economic sense if the team was affiliated with the Canucks as opposed to the Flames.

The Canucks would win in such a scenario too because they’d be able to market their young stars to a local audience, they’d be able to earn a nice chunk of money selling the team’s regional broadcast rights, and they’d have an AHL affiliate in their own backyard. Injury call ups wouldn’t have to book a flight, they’d just have to brave the commute over the Port Mann.

Of course, the Flames remain a major stumbling block. They’re locked into an agreement with Abbotsford for another six seasons after this one, and while Abbotsford bleeds money in the deal, the agreement has been a fantastic one for the Flames. The city covers any losses the Heat sustain and it’s a short flight from Vancouver to Calgary, which has been exceptionally convenient for the Flames as they’ve been hit hard by the injury bug over the past couple of seasons. If the Aquilini group wants to induce the Flames to part ways with the Heat, the price will be steep.

With the Canucks agreement with the Wolves expiring, I suspect we’ll hear a lot of scuttlebutt in 2013 about the Aquilini’s and Abbotsford. It just makes too much sense, even though hammering out an agreement with the Flames won’t be easy (to put it mildly). Without doubt, this will be fascinating story to watch unfold in 2013.

  • “Injury call ups wouldn’t have to book a flight, they’d just have to brave the commute over the Arthur Laing.”

    I believe you mean the Port Mann. Ironically, the commute across the Arthur Laing is what they would have to brave if they had booked a flight.

  • Mantastic

    I think given the cap drop in 2013, the Canucks will have to dig deep into their prospect pool to fill the void. Nicklas Jensen, given his play in the SEL, will likely make the team in a top 9 capacity, a big bonus of which is that he’ll still have 3 full years of ELC to burn. Jordan Schroeder shouldn’t be in the AHL after this season, he’ll be up for contract renewal, but given his lack of NHL experience, it’ll likely be a cheap 2 year contract to prove his worth, and he may or may not be able to solidify a third line center job. Zack Kassian should also be able to make it into the top 9, as I don’t think slugging it out on the 4th is at all helpful for his development, and his playmaking skills good be a big boom to a shoot-first duo of Kesler and Booth.

    Defense is the harder part of the puzzle, the Canucks technically do have the assets to fill in the gaps on paper. But whether or not their top 3 D prospects are up for the task is another story. I think Chris Tanev should be able to do fine in the top 4 IF Alex Edler isn’t re-signed. Kevin Connauton can probably also find himself a job on the bottom pairing and powerplay if Ballard is gone, and if we lose both Ballard and Edler, Corrado might be fast-tracked to the main roster sooner rather than later.

  • Mantastic

    the wolves don’t even sell out abbottsford when they do show up to town. the only heat games that have been sell outs this season have only been for the Barons.

    • Mantastic

      How am I wrong with this statement? i made the statement because it shows there really isn’t much interest in abby pro-minor hockey, if only 1 team can sell out the arena, even if it would never happen on a non-lockout year

      spikes in attendance for certain teams doesn’t mean there will be more consistent attendance record for said team if they played every home game. abbottsford is hardly a great area to drive to, just watch hockey, even when they have a good team playing there.

      even if the canucks affiliate were the heat, they would still be turning in a lose. 3 million is a big hole to dig out of.

  • Mantastic

    @ Mantastic,

    You need to see the forest through the trees on that point.

    By this I mean, it’s pretty much irrelevant if the Barons were the only sell out so far this season. This is because the draw of the Barons is simply due to the fact that the Edmonton prospect pool is so young that a lot of their NHL roster is on that team, and they project to be elite NHLers at that. Once the lockout ends and all the Baron’s top players return to the Edmonton lineup, the Baron’s draw playing the heat will be really limited again. Instead of looking at lockout scenarios, look at active NHL scenarios. In these scenarios, the Canucks’ affiliate has consistently been the top draw, and even if they’re not sell outs, they’re significantly better attendance records then the heat’s average.

  • Mantastic

    @ Mantastic

    I never intended to do any research on this, but as it seems like you’re still wearing some blinders of some sort I decided to move away from my “gut” feeling and look at the numbers. First of all, the average attendance to Heat games has been dropping annually and as noted by Drance, a major reason to this is that the people of Abbotsford are particularily fed up with the “deal” in place being a money drain and are put off because of it.

    Despite that trend, the heat’s average attendance this year is up nearly 40%, which is the 5th best increase league wide during the lockout. Presumably these are mostly Canucks fans driving the attendance up, although some Calgary and Edmonton fans may have made the trip for some specific games, most notably, the Barons’ games could have seen a handful of Edmontonians make the trip to see their young stars play just as Canucks fans do spike in attendance when their affiliates come to town.

    Here is a quote from a fan at that Heat/Barons game:

    “You’re going through withdrawal, right?” explained Earl Petkau, who flew in from Edmonton to watch the Oilers’ AHL affiliate. “All the young guns are here (in Abbotsford), so it was a perfect opportunity.”

    So, DURING A LOCKOUT, all three nearby hockey bases (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton) swell the arena for this set of games you are going on about, fine, but when those kids are back with the Oilers do you really think that the Barons will have any kind of draw at all? No, they haven’t in the past when Edmontonians have Oiler Hockey to Watch, and they won’t in the future. So you picked the most irrelevant example that does not make any sustainable point at all, nor connect with what Drance’s article is trying to elucidate to his readers.

    Most simply put, what the article is enlightening, is that attendance records for the Canucks’ affiliate teams are there Lockout or NOT.

    For instance I cut from a 2010 article:

    The attendance average was at 3115, just before the first Manitoba Moose Game,
    on November 26, despite the 5341 attendance figure on opening night, October 15.

    Attendance at the four Manitoba Moose games ranged between 5500-6154.

    This is an on average 85% attendance boost during these four games above and beyond their annual average. This is even far better then the draw they’re achieving during the lockout this year!

    By my cursory look at non lockout stats, and if this trend were to hold, it looks as though by becoming the Canucks’ affiliate that the heat’s attendance would go from their pre lockout 29th of 30 teams, to 9th. For comparison sake, during the lockout they have had the 5th greatest attendance spike of all teams in the AHL and have moved from their pre lockout 29th to 16th.

    And that is the whole point that Drance is making… Not that Hockey starved Albertans came to see their affiliates duke it out in Abbotsford, but that the Canucks’ affiliates have had a long history of drawing fans to Abbotsford, lockout or not, and that to save Abbotsford from the ridiculous deal that they took to house the Flames’ affiliate and to return attendance and profitability to the team, that a deal would need to be made with the Canucks.

    I don’t care if you’re an Edmonton fan or not. I don’t know why you chose the Barons’ game as your example, only that it is a faulty one. I suspect that you’re probably just arguing for the sake of argument and that you have no real point to make here, but, if you want to say something, then at least back it up with some thought and logic.

    Thanks for responding though, and respond again if you have something productive to say on the subject and are not just trying to stir the pot.

    Cheers mate, and happy New Year!

  • Mantastic

    @ Mantastic

    First of all, where you are most wrong in that statement is that there are not a lot of sellouts in the AHL, so it’s not about sellouts, it’s about average attendance. Furthermore, when the Canucks affiliate comes to town they average in the top third of the league, which is a good starting point.

    2nd, Drance covers why there is a “lack of interest” for the heat as the flames affiliate. But, you can not say that this is any kind of blanket statement that would even come close to holding true if the Heat were the Canucks affiliate as you seem to believe.

    Besides the facts I wrote last time, which speaks for itself, it seems you only want to deal in the realm of speculative conjecture. If that is your thing then, for starters, you could point out what Drance wrote, that:

    they’d be able to market their young stars to a local audience, they’d be able to earn a nice chunk of money selling the team’s regional broadcast rights,

    To build onto that we could say that they’d be able to build a brand which would be very appealing to Canucks fans with the ability to follow their young up-and-comers. Also, it would no longer be just the canucks affiliate versus the flames affiliate every time the Canucks affiliate came to town. If the Canucks affiliate were permanently in Abbotsford then the Canucks fans could see their Canucks affiliate play 29 different flavours of competition! So, your idea that their attendance would not be consistently better with the Canuck’s affiliate as the home team, to me, is quite moot. The argument could easily be made that being able to see a great variety of opponents would increase attendance even more, create a solid following and push them well above the ninth spot in attendance that only playing the flames affiliate averages out at! I mean, face the facts here, the flames are not the opponents they used to be and maybe many Canucks fans might want to go and watch their Canucks affiliate play the Chicago affiliate, the Detroit affiliate, the Boston affiliate, or perhaps even the Edmonton affiliate in the Barons since you love them so much!

    Many others teams might be appealing as well for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the trade winds are blowing and a Canucks fan might want to get a look at their prospects playing against a team’s prospects who are being brought up in trade talks. Get a first hand comparison of the prospects of trade talk playing head to head.

    The Aquilinis would be able to market this from so many angles. When you look at how the Canucks business has flourished under the Aquilini ownership, you could easily make the argument that they understand the business of Hockey quite well (better then you or I) and I for one would put my money on their success in building a brand and marketing it if they were to take over the Heat and utilize the movement of young stars and prospects between the Canucks and their affiliate to strengthen the brand going both ways.

    In some ways an affiliate club has a symbiosis with the big club. For instance, the argument could be made that many people in Winnipeg have a soft spot for the Canucks simply because they watched players like Bieksa, Kesler and Burrows come of age into NHLers while they were playing with the Moose, and who have since become key pieces of the Canucks lineup. As the next generation of players continue to develop and grow this brand can be developed and Vancouverites could very easily get hooked on the idea of watching their stars of tomorrow, perhaps Jensen or Gaunce, as they come through the system.

    Simply put, right now the market to push the Canucks prospects as something to come out and watch as the visiting team is weak, yet they do alright anyways. But, as the home team the symbiosis and the marketing of it shoots to entirely new levels.

    I get the impression that more then anything you just like to be a Debbie downer, to focus on negatives and not fully think things through. But, whether you deal in the cold hard facts of what has been when the Canucks affiliate comes to town, or even if you want to dabble into the realm of the speculative of how the Canucks affiliate as the heat could be marketed, both point to a positive picture, whereby a solid brand could be exploited and grown to create a really good future for the heat in such a relationship and nothing that you have written has any leg to stand on to make me think otherwise.

    • Mantastic

      how am i wrong that the barons are the only ones to sell out any heat games this season when it’s true?

      i stopped reading after that, since obviously you’re just fabricating stuff at this point.

  • Mantastic

    @ Mantastic

    You did not just say that the Barons were the only sellout. You went on to use sellouts as a measure of success. That is where you are wrong. You can’t take three steps back now my friend a stand on your only true fact that you put forth while ignoring the conjecture that you created based on that fact. If we were to follow your concept to be the be all and end all conclusion of success in the AHL then they might as well shut the AHL down because their are only a handfull of teams that sellout their games regularly and this alone is not the only measure of any teams success as a team or organization.

    I might also add that the relationship between NHL clubs and their AHL affiliates varies greatly. Some NHL teams hire a lot of the staff and augment the expenses of the AHL team so that they can have a more hands on approach to the development of their prospects. Other teams take a laissez faire approach.

    Then all the concepts of brand and marketing that I went into in the last reply play a big part as well.

    None of these factors are “fabrications” and all are instrumental to the success of an AHL franchise.

    It’s complicated to determine what makes a successful AHL franchise, but what you did my friend was a blatant over simplification.

    I get why you said that you stopped reading. It’s because you wanted to completely over simplify the relationship that exists as to the revenue streams and how a AHL club sustains itself. You wanted to make some irrelevant sensational point about a Barons’ sell out and pretend like it was the lynch pin to the entire success of an organization. You don’t want to hear about all the other variables and pretending to “stop reading” is the easiest way to circumvent the reality that you were wrong. That sellouts are but one piece of the pie.

    But, before you even wrote your initial point, I’m pretty sure you already knew all this. I was even surprised that you responded to my initial response with all your self righteousness given the superficial nature of your argument.

    Anyway, it’s a good thing that you are just trolling hockey articles. I couldn’t even imagine if you were actually trying to run an AHL team with your “fixation on one factor” business model for success.

    Have a great 2013!