Finding the Balance Between Youth and a Competitive Edge

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?

Also:

Dorsett Tigers

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.

  • J.D. Burke

    First of all, can we have a “non-delusional” discussion of these players worth?

    I think Higgins has been painted as the most likely piece to be moved. I floated to a friend that a player of his resume – positive possession, defensively sound, excellent on the PK and capable of the occasional offense – could squeeze them a second rounder out of a team really needing that veteran presence in the middle six. The friend said that a second rounder wouldn’t be enough (disagree there) but rather they should be asking for a prospect who could become a middle to top six forward.

    Frankly, I think they have a lot in the pipeline that projects to just that. Not that having more hurts, but I’m of the opinion they should be banking picks from the top 3 rounds to gamble on high ceiling players.

    Similarly with Richardson. I think his defensive acumen, cup winning experience and very modest contract could make a team consider a third rounder+ for him.

    To be fair I’ve spent little time on comparable player trades. What do our readers think? All delusion? Should we be sending away vets for other teams disposable prospects, or aiming for picks and finally taking a flyer on some pure skill players who dropped a bit at the draft?

      • J.D. Burke

        So we can do what? draft a Mallet? Right now it looks like even a Gaunce or a Jensen wont give us more games/points than Higgins. Picks are overvalued and carries risks.

        And when we still occup a playoff spot? stupid move

        • J.D. Burke

          While Benning has a long way to go before we can have a solid read on him, it is safe to assume the days of drafting Mallet-ian players is over.

          This past draft was good for the Canucks and there would have been controversy no matter the selections. VirtanenNylander is a much more difficult choice then many Vancouver fans like to admit (even though I would have personally liked them to go after Nylander).

          Benning was a brand new GM in a tumultuous market that was already unhappy to begin with. He identified immediate needs and drafted safe options – a perfectly understandable approach from a man who didn’t have the luxury of time to consider the team’s current pool of prospects. I imagine this coming draft will see more individualized selections.

      • J.D. Burke

        @J.D.

        While I can’t disagree (hence why it would be a squeeze), I can’t help but think about the trade made to start this year for Vey. Was Garrison worth a second round pick? Evidently. Was Vey worth a second round pick? According to NHL GM Benning.

        Now of the 3, which is most likely worth a second round pick? Objectively I would rate
        Garrison
        Higgins
        Vey

        To a team competing for the playoffs, a team rebuilding or a team looking to change their dynamics that order is likely very different. I admit I think the Canucks undersold on Garrison and overpaid on Vey. But they had an idea of what they wanted, and paid the second rounder for it. While I still understand that my initial appraisal may be high, I don’t think you should underestimate a team with a specific need and the means to acquire it.

  • Fred-65

    I should clarify – we have enough in the pipeline that could project to bottom six to middle – I do not think Higgins could net us a prospect with hints of the first line, as my friend was suggesting.

    Also because I already wrote too much:

    While I do think Higgins is not a candidate second line scoring winger, I think the system he has typically played in Vancouver has tempered his numbers. While he has a decent shot, he’s not a sniper who drifts to the slot. He’s good at pushing play and grinding but not necessarily at setting up plays. He’s quite good at tipping pucks.

    He’s quite the toolsy player, but he rarely ever skates with forwards who elevate the entire line. I’ve noticed this more and more – Vancouver’s second line still suffers from an identity crisis. Be it Kesler’s lone wolf volume shooter ways, Bonino deciding whether to retrieve the puck or go to the slot or Vey trying to muscle his way among men, the second line has not had a proper pivot that really calms and controls the play. It always looks so disorganized.

    This extends to the second PP, where Higgins has seen extensive time with very little to show. I think it’s both on coaching and the personal. The Sedins will Sedin, the bottom six has been generating energy while the second line seems to just exist.

  • Fred-65

    I don’t think Higgins was ever really a top 6 guy. He was, and is, a very good third liner. A very good #7 forward on the depth chart.

    I think it’d be a good idea to move him and other vets. They can move call-up a prospect and ease them into the NHL (like they’re doing with Horvat) or bring up a Utica vet (Jeffrey, O’Reilly) to try and remain competitive.

    Higgins alone may not fetch a 2nd round pick so it might be worth it to package him and get a better return. Lots of teams would want him and Hansen for the bottom 6 in order to solidify their chances at the Cup. Richardson is another guy that is very valuable on D and on the PK.

    • J.D. Burke

      Hansen strikes me as the kind player you want to keep around. Seems to be an excellent person to have in the locker room and he’s always playing 100% – the environment you want to develop prospects in.

      I would like them to move Higgins so Jensen can get a quality look in a top 6 role. He’s of the age where he needs to be knocking on the door to be an NHL regular and having him actually grow to become a middle six goal scoring winger would be huge for this team, considering we’ve already glossed over his “generation” of draftees and are now looking towards Virtanen and co…

  • J.D. Burke

    As usual, the CA bloggers miss the plot.

    How else are delusional fantasy trades going to be consummated if the Canucks don’t play all of the 3rd liners that are going to be traded for Evander Kane…

  • Ruprecht

    I think we’re seeing the plan unfold before our eyes. We need to get younger, and that’s happening slowly. The fact that we seem to be easing the youngsters into their respective roles within the line-ups of Utica and Vancouver suggests to me that they have learned from some of the errors of the past. That you can’t just plug a prospect into the the professional ranks with high expectations, then assume he’s going to succeed. It’s mostly baby steps where you let them assume a little at a time.

    I honestly think Kassian would have been further ahead with this regime’s philosophy on prospects. There wouldn’t have been all the hype and assumptions attached to his role until it was earned.

    I like what they are doing with Kenins. Give him a taste of success then take him out and let him watch a little while he’s on a high note. While he’s got some confidence in his abilities he learns a little about the structure of our game from the pressbox. That way he’s learning the system from an area of strength, not trying to figure out what went wrong. It lets a guy like him mature with confidence which is essential.

    Sure it would be nice to know everything all at once, but there’s merit in watching prospects learning the pro game within their means. Not being force fed minutes. Young first liners for the most part are developed and don’t just fall into the role.

    For these reasons, I don’t see anything drastic happening at the trade deadline. Age for youth perhaps, maybe trying to peddle another NTC and salary. To gain flexibility and another open roster spot or two, for prospects to compete for next season.

  • J.D. Burke

    My only question is… how much do the veterans contribute to the development of prospects?

    It’s not a rhetorical question. Players don’t develop in a vacuum, after all. How much is too much, and how much is too little?

    • J.D. Burke

      Westcoaster I think your response meshes quite well with a solid post by Ruprecht. There must exist an environment of a legitimate NHL team to impression upon the younger players. You’ve got to know what a healthy locker room with some semblance of success is like before you can strive to be a part of one.

      But as NM00 so jadedly describes, that’s not exactly a worry with this team. Burrows, Bieksa and the Sedins are here to stay, if not by “veteran merit” then by contract alone.

      That said, there is most certainly reason to believe that there would be interest in some of the defensive, forward depth the Canucks have. Of course it won’t net you Kane (and hyperbolizing it only keeps it a relevant narrative) but it would be foolish to not explore what they can offer your future.

      • J.D. Burke

        They may not land you Kane, But they can be stripped for parts(picks) and those can be bundled to acquire kane. The problem is that WPG seems to think he is worth what you would fetch for a player who is not a problem in the locker room and with off-ice behavior, as well as not looking at the drop in value where he won’t play this season. They seem to be wanting to trade him as a top-3-ready-after-trade player.

  • J.D. Burke

    For the rubes trying to determine Higgins’ trade value…

    If you were an opposing GM, would you want Higgins at $2.5 million considering the uncertainty with the salary cap?

    If Higgins was a UFA, he may very well experience the same squeeze that someone like Raymond (who was much younger) experienced a couple of years ago when he settled for $1 million…

    The same is probably true with Hansen.

    The same may very well be true with Kassian considering nobody picked up Paarjavi on waivers…

    It would definitely be true with Burrows as only one team was delusional enough to give him $4.5 million/year.

    It’s not surprising that the Canucks are situated in the axis of mediocrity.

    All of the best players aside from Tanev are over 28 and, therefore, making free market value or above…

  • Fred-65

    I’d like to see what some of the prospects can do sure. In the case of Horvat he’s been placed in what amounts to a perfect combination …. Dorsett and Hansen… 4th line low expectations and the opportunity to shine with a couple of qulaity veteran line mates. But put Jensen with Bonino and Higgins….an upper or a downer ???

    Vey is interesting because he is a skilled possesion player, still young, first year NHL’er and frankly that’s a commodity thats fairly rare in Vcr. I can only see good things for this guy.

    Jensen is starting to seperate himself in the AHL from other prospects on other teams in the AHL, unfortunately he’s heading in the wrong direction. Gaunce is fundamentally what u see is what you get a 3-4th line player.

    Virtanin might shine but his stats have gone down.

    The only other player that brings skill as his first ingredient is Shinkaruk and right now he’s 50-50 if he succeeds.

    Defense, Corrado was it !

    Looks like there’s some strength in goal but hey there’s a glut of #2 goalies

    I’d love to see some youth but who would that be

  • Fred-65

    The Royals’ unlikely run in last year’s playoffs changed the mindset of a lot of MLB baseball brass.

    Is it likely the Canucks get bounced if the play Chicago or Anaheim in the first round? Yes.

    But as Jim Carey – facing improbable odds of getting laid – once said, “So you mean I’ve got a chance?!”

    If the Canucks make it to the post season, they can win it.

    I say give the Sedins and the rest of the veterans a chance.

  • Fred-65

    An analysis I’ve wanted to bring up again for a while:

    http://www.coppernblue.com/2011/4/4/2082829/nhl-draft-pick-value-first-round

    Recall that, historically, a second-round draft pick has only produced a top-six quality forward about 10% of the time. Swapping veterans for Lotto Max tickets at this point doesn’t necessarily feel like a long-term solution. Of course, if they’re on expiring contracts, I’m otherwise in favor of extracting some final value from departing players. Vey, Richardson, Dorsett and Matthias are in their final years, for example, but I imagine most of them may end up re-signed.

    Also worth a cynical note: I concur with an earlier poster that I think we can have a reasonable debate on the Canucks first-round selections this year (I wanted Nylander and Ho-Sang). That said, I think the org’s deeper selections in the draft were trash. Now, considering those deep selections are what we’re probably talking about trading for here, I think it’s worth seriously considering what we think the front office is going to end up taking if we end up with some surplus sub-first round picks. 😛

  • Ruprecht

    @ Roshirai

    Interesting article. Purely statistical study and there are exceptions but it is very difficult to beat the average over the long term.
    It sounds like a better strategy would be to package some vets for decent picks (2 older players for a 1st) but maybe even better would be to go after prospects who are that much more developed. I’m thinking of Cole Cassels who went in the 3rd round and a year later is a top producer in the OHL. It remains a long shot that he’ll achieve top player status but he will likely play in the NHL.
    We see Jim Benning picking up players like Linden Vey and Adam Clendening, both 23, who fit this profile. So, perhaps this is the Kool-Aid that JB is drinking.

  • Ruprecht

    GMJB was in on the Evander Kane talks until last night according to TSN reliable sources. Trading solid veterans and a Utica prospect to Winnipeg for Kane and one other player would have been a win win hockey trade. Buffalo did well I think to get hime. That Benning was in on this seriously
    proves the point the others are making . The Canucks are committed to getting younger .