Photo Credit: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
In his first year as the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Benning learned a crucial lesson about the importance of defensive depth in the Western Conference.
“We’ll start with eight defencemen, but we want to have 11 D capable of playing in the NHL,” Benning told Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province. “That’s something I learned this year from being in the West. The travel wears the team down a bit and it seems to take a toll on your defence.”
It’s an interesting statement, and for a variety of reasons. Let’s unpack this on the other side of the jump.
The Canucks used 10 defenseman at the NHL level this season, and even limped through a crucial two week stretch with a second pair that featured Alex Biega and Luca Sbisa. All in all, one might reasonably conclude that Vancouver’s defensive depth held together pretty well, although it helped that Eddie Lack went supernova in late February and early March, helping the club stay afloat in the absence of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev (among others).
We should probably also note that building a defense corps with eight NHL-level defenders and 11 credible NHL depth options was a key tenet of the Mike GIllis era. Those precise numbers, in fact, were articulated as a bench mark by Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman back in the Spring of 2013:
Well, I’ve said it many times that a competitive team like ours, if you want to build a team that has a chance you’ve got to have depth on the blueline. When we set out to build the team we billed our model with 8 defenseman on the NHL side, but we also sought out players who were going to be 9th, 10th, 11th guys who had the ability to play in the NHL.
So Benning’s newly learned approach, as it turns out, is consistent with something the organization has been doing for years. In recent seasons the club has occasionally managed to build an absurdly deep blue line group with players like Chris Tanev, Aaron Rome, and Ryan Stanton paying off as no-risk gambles. Other times they’ve leaned on players like Cam Barker and Marc-Andre Gragnani who weren’t quite so effective (to put it kindly).
Benning’s commitment to building a deep blue line could have far reaching ramifications for how this upcoming Canucks offseason plays out. The blue line is an obvious area of need for the club, particularly because of the way the Calgary Flames thoroughly smothered the Canucks’ breakout in the postseason.
It’s also an area of surplus. The club has nine defenseman who will require waivers next season and only eight blue-line spots on the roster. That group of nine defenders includes five right-handed players in Kevin Bieksa, Chris Tanev and a trio of restricted players: Yannick Weber, Frank Corrado and Adam Clendening.
Jamieson’s piece notes that Corrado can play the left side, as he did a fair bit while paired with San Jose Sharks draft pick Justin Sefton with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. That said, Corrado has spent 89 percent of his 5-on-5 icetime at the NHL level paired with players who generally play on the left side. I’m skeptical that the Canucks really see him as an option at LD.
In terms of projecting what comes next for the Canucks on the blue line, we know that the club will explore using their depth in goal to recapture draft picks. I think we should probably assume that something similar could be in the offing on defense.
Whether it’s a veteran on an expiring contract, like Dan Hamhuis or Kevin Bieksa, or one of the club’s four restricted defenseman (the three right-handed players, and Ryan Stanton), it would seem that the club should probably look to carve out some room, and ideally before they’re over the barrel during late-September/early-October’s waiver wire season.
Benning indicated that he’s willing to take his time and also explore his options on the trade market.
“The season doesn’t start for four months,” Benning told the Province. “If we want to add a certain type of player by trade, it’s something we’d look at. Like, say, a better transition defenceman.”
So at least we now know that management sees the club’s transition game as an issue. It was hard to imagine they didn’t, but the Luca Sbisa contract and Willie Desjardins’ admission that the club looked to keep Edler and Tanev away from the Michael Ferland/Matt Stajan matchup in the first round gave us pause…
As for free agency, Benning suggested that the Canucks could kick the tires on unrestricted defenders. Vancouver hockey fans may not want to get too excited about the prospect of adding Cody Franson though, as Benning is more likely to be dumpster diving than wooing any big names.
“If there’s a player out there who could benefit our team and be a good fit,” Benning said of being a player in free agency. “But we won’t be in the high end of the market, the $5 million or $6 million guys.”
Vancouver’s general manager has repeatedly insisted this offseason that the club hasn’t made any decisions on how they’re going to proceed yet and won’t until they convene their full team of scouts and executives following the NHL scouting combine in early June.
So it’s not surprising that most of the quotes Benning gave Jamieson this week are vague and philosophical, rather than specific. They do hint at a couple of major priorities though, namely that the club wants to upgrade their transition game from the blue line, will only roll with eight defenseman on their 23-man roster, will be lower-end bidders in free agency and will prioritize organizational defensive depth.
Taken altogether, we’re probably safe in assuming that some back-end renovations are coming.