With the Evander Kane trade now squarely in our rear-view mirrors, Canucks fans have had time to digest missing out on bringing a high-octane and exciting hometown boy back to where he played his junior hockey. More importantly though, bowing out of the Evander Kane sweepstakes might have also meant missing on a Tyler Seguin-like situation – an opportunity to improve your team for the next five years by adding a young and dynamic player to the roster.
Evander Kane is a high-end shot generator and a first-line goal scorer at just 23, and the Canucks don’t have a prospect in their organization that’s likely to be that. Management hopes that Jake Virtanen could turn in to that player one day, but based on what history tells us about the Jake Virtanens of the world, that’s unlikely. Still, even if Vancouver missed out on a better player, the structure of the current roster and ages of the prime assets in the organization indicate that Jim Benning made the right call in refusing to part with a top prospect, and therefore passing on Kane.
So why didn’t a Kane to the Canucks trade make sense for Vancouver? And what does this mean for Vancouver’s approach to the upcoming trade deadline? We’ll get into it after the jump.
Evander Kane and Player Aging
Born in 1991, Evander Kane is currently considered “young” by NHL standards, though this isn’t entirely accurate. In his study looking at a given player’s scoring rate, ex-MIT scientist and current Carolina Hurricanes employee Eric Tulsky determined that a given player’s scoring rate per minute peaked around 22-26 years of age, while their Corsi was strongest until about the age of 27.
Given this normal expected aging curve, we can infer that Evander Kane will be more or less what he is today for the next 4-5 years, before dropping off in quality somewhat.
This means that if you acquire Evander Kane this season, you will have to enter your compete-for-the-Stanley-Cup state sometime within the next 3-5 seasons if you hope to maximize the utility you derive from Kane’s strong play. Of course, in order to do that, you will have to have the assets in your organization that will be peaking at about the same time. In other words, you have to have an elite core group of players who will mostly be between the ages of around 22-28 at some point before 2019-2020.
If you make the fairly safe assumption that most young high-quality pieces are acquired through the entry draft, picking up Kane implies that you think you have most of your future core drafted and developing already, or they will be acquired this year. With Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons, Nikita Zadorov, and Rasmus Ristolainen joining other young players like Tyler Ennis, Mark Pysyk, Marcus Foligno, and a host of other prospects currently playing in minor leagues across the world, as well as either Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid on the way, it’s safe to make the assumption that this timeline works well for the Buffalo Sabres.
With their current core and given what’s in the pipeline, the same cannot be said for the Vancouver Canucks.
Vancouver’s Five-Year Outlook
Long story short, it’s not very encouraging.
Given that they’re battling for a playoff spot in the no-longer-very-good Pacific division and that their performance by the predictive shot-based metrics has been mediocre this season, it’s safe to say that the Canucks are not realistic Stanley Cup contenders this season.
That would be fine if they had a young core group of steadily improving players that looked poised to carry them into the future.
A pair of nearing prime-aged Swedish twins for the West Coast Express to pass the torch to, for example:
Sedins used to be super-elite rate scorers. This season? Low-end second line to high-end 3rd line production per min. pic.twitter.com/7wHE6ugKzX
— Rhys Jessop (@Thats_Offside) January 29, 2015
Instead, this is a team that very much leans on a veteran core of forwards, and a relatively long-in-the-tooth group of D. Nick Bonino is the only player under 30 years of age in Vancouver’s top-6 forward group, and only Linden Vey, Zack Kassian, Bo Horvat, and Ronalds Kenins project to be near their primes by the time we can expect Evander Kane to start declining.
Even if you genuinely believe Bo Horvat will be Patrice Bergeron and that Zack Kassian will be Todd Bertuzzi, that’s not nearly enough talent to build a legitimately competitive group of forwards for the next 3-5 seasons. There needs to be more and while there are guys on the way, that more still won’t be ready until the very tail end of this next five-year period.
Furthermore, there’s really nothing of great promise coming through the pipeline on the back-end and we can reasonably expect Vancouver’s top-end D to begin to erode in their play. Heck, this process has already begun with Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis too. From late January:
Chris Tanev is really the only top-4 guy who is a reasonably good bet to be the same player as he is now by the time we expect Evander Kane starts to decline, and while Adam Clendening and Frank Corrado may grow in to quality players, they’re likely not going to be foundational pieces to a legitimate competitor-quality blueline.
Long story short, Kane is a player built for the next 5-6 seasons, but the Canucks aren’t a team built to compete within that time frame. A decade of poor drafting starting around 2000 has caught up to them and there’s no immediate succession plan to the Sedins welling up from within the organization.
Vancouver has amassed a decent group of steady talent that may grow into filling prominent roles on a contender, but a) that won’t happen in the short term, and b) Bo Horvat, Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen, and Hunter Shinkaruk need to be surrounded with more premium talent for even their timeline to prove successful.
Planning for the Future
No one would question whether Evander Kane and other young-ish prime aged players like Ryan O’Reilly would’ve definitely helped the Vancouver Canucks in the short to mid-term, but the question shouldn’t be simply “how do I get better?” Rather, Jim Benning should be asking “how do I build a group of players who will help me be the best all at the same time?”
While adding good players in their mid-20s is extremely tempting, Vancouver doesn’t have the other assets necessary to compete now, they don’t have the assets to compete for the next five seasons, and they can’t afford to give up the assets that will help them compete beyond that.
The Blackhawks (bottomed out at 28th in 2006) and Kings (finished 30th in 2008) should be proof that there is no substitute for a diligent and focused rebuild that nets you enough assets to either build yourself an elite core from within, or build yourself enough assets to trade for high-end talent. The two teams that look poised to take over the balance of power in the East – the Lightning and the Islanders – were the 5th and 6th worst teams in the entire league just 5 short years ago too.
If they want to compete for the Stanley Cup sometime in the foreseeable future, Jim Benning will have to tear down this iteration of the Canucks eventually, and since the structure of the NHL entry draft – the best way to acquire elite talent – incentivizes losing, adding players like Evander Kane (or Ryan O’Reilly) will not bring the Canucks closer to the Stanley Cup by improving the team in the mid-term. This isn’t NHL 15 where you can sell off every B-prospect and draft pick until 2026 to build a Stamkos-Crosby-Ovechkin top-line in one off-season and laugh your way to eight consecutive championships. Building a competitor requires a lot of patience and time.
The good news is that Jim Benning, moreso than any other GM in recent memory, appears laser-focused on the entry draft. From Jason Botchford’s Provies on February 19th:
“There is no excuse for us not to have a good draft year-in, year-out,” Benning said. “You can build a team through the draft you can’t do anywhere else. You can’t do it through free agency. You can’t do it through trades. The draft is paramount for us going forward. We’re going to spend our time to make sure we do a good job.”
This is extremely encouraging to hear as a guy that loves draft analysis, but it’s also absolutely paramount that the Canucks continue to improve the amateur scouting department that let them down so often since the Sedins were acquired.
Going into the trade deadline, it seems like a bad idea for the Canucks to pick up a rental player at the expense of future assets too. They’ve positioned themselves nicely to make the playoffs as it is, and as tempting as it may be, a quality veteran middle-6 forward like Sean Bergenheim in no way helps Vancouver win a Stanley Cup now or in the future. A third round pick though? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance of that becoming a 4th D, or a LW for Jared McCann.