It didn’t take long, but Vancouver had once again found itself engaged in talks about their own troubled power-forward in the hours leading up to Saturday night’s contest with the Penguins. It was speculated that Zack Kassian would return to the Canucks lineup, most likely at the expense of Chris Higgins. There had been rumblings throughout the day that Higgins might be suffering from some sort of mystery ailment. With that in mind, the decision made perfect sense on many levels.
Whatever ailment Higgins was rumoured to have, it clearly wasn’t that serious. By puck-drop, Higgins was a fixture of the third-line, on Linden Vey’s flank, opposite Kassian. Should he have been, though? I’m beginning to wonder if this club’s short term dreams of a return to the post-season are beginning to hamper their long term aspirations of getting younger and competing for the Stanley Cup again.
The Canucks made the easy decision, but I’m not necessarily sure it was the right one. Is Vancouver passing up on valued time to develop younger alternatives?
Lets find out on the other side of the jump.
At the crux of this debate, we have to come to terms with the fact that the Canucks won’t contend for a Stanley Cup this year, next year and presumably the two years after that one if everything remains constant. Their first line is comprised of three pieces that age 33 or older, and when the Canucks had the opportunity to put the pieces in place for a contingency plan, with back-to-back top-ten selections in the draft, they opted for proximity and defensive acumen rather than sure-fire top-of-the-lineup talent. The first line is depreciating and there is nothing in our system that I feel comfortable with as a long term replacement.
Knowing this, the Canucks sole concern should, realistically, be developing players that can help this club four-to-five years down the road – finding gems in a prospect pool ripe with bottom-nine talent, developing prospects beyond their projections, and so on. A rare feat, but not entirely impossible.
In a year that most would generously describe as postponing the inevitable, this is a reasonable goal. I can live with a young Canucks team that doesn’t make the playoffs. I can even live with one that does and is unceremoniously destroyed by a Western Conference powerhouse. If there are young players gaining invaluable experience throughout the process, I can live with it. If the sole purpose of this aspiration is to generate short-term revenue, all the while just treading water on the backs of octogenarians, I am at a loss.
Which, of course, brings us to the lineup decisions that have been made these last few weeks. It’s become commonplace at this point to watch Zack Kassian toil away in the press box, while “hard workers” like Chris Higgins receive top-four minutes. Now it’s 23-year old Ronalds Kenins’ turn to take a seat.
While the defensive acumen of Higgins may seem a valued commodity in this stretch run, as a 31-year old it’s not going to get any better. Further to that point, his offensive contributions have atrophied to near replacement level over the last few months. The Canucks need to come to terms with reality here and accept that Higgins is a third-liner at this stage in his career. That’s not going to change for the better. If anything, his performance of late has made the “third” part of the equation quite tenuous.
All this is a long and winded way of saying the Canucks should be getting their young assets more ice-time, when possible. If this ice-time should be at anyone’s expense, right now I’m having a hard time finding a better option than Higgins. Is Derek Dorsett worth consideration as well? Probably. Lets come to grips with reality for a second though, because we all know his spot is about as secure as any in the lineup. Desjardins loves him sole role and is Dorsett not the consummate role player?
In players like Kenins, Kassian and Linden Vey (who has been healthy scratched on multiple occasions, although none of late) the Canucks have the ability to develop talent that could potentially have a future with them. For better or worse, everyone knows what Vancouver has in players like Higgins, Dorsett, Brad Richardson and Jannik Hansen; all of these players being in their late 20’s or older. We don’t have a clue as to what kind of untapped potential lies in Kenins. Vey hasn’t even reached the 100-game mark of his young career. We know full well that Kassian can produce well and drive play from a bottom-six role, all the while being young enough to entice with top-six hands and hockey-IQ. Not one of these players will even be thirty by the time we can reasonably expect Vancouver to be a contending team again.
At an average age of 27.68, Vancouver is the 10th oldest team in the league. The Canucks will enter this off-season with three UFAs from their bottom-six. The cap is expected to settle at roughly $73-million, but could fall lower if the Canadian dollar doesn’t recover. If not for the sake of getting younger, perhaps it’s in the Canucks best interest to develop younger bottom-six players to free up money to spend elsewhere.
With the trade deadline less than a month away, we’ll find out the Canucks priorities sooner than later. We can only hope they have them in the right order.