The Canucks’ blueline is a serious area of concern, but with next to no cap space left, how can Jim Benning achieve his goal of adding more NHL-calibre bodies while making it more competitive?
1. Realizing there’s a problem
The other day, Thomas Drance touched on Jim Benning’s desire to add more flexibility to the Canucks’ D corps by having as many as 11 (ELEVEN!) NHL-ready guys under contract who could be deployed when and if the need arises.
This is, of course, just smart management. The more NHL-level players you have on the payroll, the less likely you are to be pressed into using guys who are not NHL-level on your big club’s roster when emergencies arise. And in hockey, such emergencies seem to arise regularly.
So if you’re a Canucks fan, it seems as though it’s a good thing that Benning has figured out that this is an area of concern. Alex Edler is still pretty damn good, but having Kevin Bieksa in the top-four — after his capabilities seemingly dropped off a cliff in much the same way Homer Simpson did (twice) — is worrisome to say the least.
To frame the issue another way: the Canucks have a little less than one-third of their payroll devoted to five defensemen, and one of them is Luca Sbisa.
So yes, procuring as much cover as possible for those guys (and god help the Canucks if Edler or Tanev picks up a significant injury) seems rather wise. If “losing to the Flames” is what scared management straight, then maybe it was worth it. Probably not, but maybe.
2. Finding a solution
If knowing you have a problem is Step 1 in what is likely going to be a long process to get the Canucks’ blue line — and really, the entire team — a little younger — and really, a lot younger — then Step 2 is obviously finding a way to address that problem. The question is whether “signing bottom-of-the-roster NHLers” is a reasonable near-term solution.
I think on some level you can go have a look at what the Calgary Flames did this past season, more out of necessity than anything else, to deal with this issue. Last year the Canucks used 10 different defensemen, which is certainly more than an ideal number, and also exposed the organizational weakness in question. Meanwhile, Calgary used 11 — though to be fair, three of them only got into one game, and another got just six — and they weathered the storm better in a lot of ways, including the prolonged absence of Mark Giordano, who would have been a Norris frontrunner had he stayed healthy.
How did they do it? By doing what Benning intends to do: Signing a bunch of bottom-of-the-roster defensemen over the summer. They went out and got Deryk Engelland in July (the less said about that contract from Calgary’s point of view, the better), but then also brought in Corey Potter in September and Raphael Diaz soon after the season started. Potter and Diaz are bottom-pairing defensemen in the NHL and below average bottom-pairing defenseman at that, but they were cheap — each got just $700,000 against the cap on one-year deals — and they addressed an issue. Calgary also went out and picked up serviceable cover in the form of David Schlemko from the waiver wire around the time Giordano got hurt.
This is what you do in these situations, especially because Diaz went to Calgary on a camp tryout and got a deal out of a solid performance, and Potter was brought in on a two-way deal.
I have a lot of bad stuff to say about the Flames and how they’re run, but this is a solid approach to take when the blue line is a problem you can’t solve any time soon.
3. Developing long-term plans
Of course, the Flames had to do this because they have no real defensive prospects coming along any time soon. The closest to being NHL-ready is Tyler Wotherspoon, and they trusted him enough to give him just one game with the big club last year after he played 14 the year prior (which is also underscored by the search for cheap veterans with NHL experience so they could play those guys instead of Wotherspoon specifically). Maybe they think Patrick Sieloff might be ready in a few years, and they went out and got UFA college player Kenney Morrison to stock the cupboard just a little more, but beyond that there’s not a lot to get excited about.
And the same, unfortunately for Benning, goes for Vancouver. Adam Clendening and Frank Corrado already have NHL experience but they clearly aren’t going to be trusted as more than fill-ins for a while to come here. I’ve seen plenty of Ben Hutton in recent years and he’s good at what he does, but whether he can do it against NHLers any time soon is far less certain. Jordan Subban just signed, Patrick McNally won’t be in the bigs in the near future, and so on.
Just not a lot to go on there. And look, it’s hard to find and develop defensemen reliably, let alone quickly. These are guys who you want pressed into service as a last resort, and they’re mostly in their early 20s.
4. Possible targets
So let’s say the Canucks re-sign Yannick Weber and Ryan Stanton as RFAs, which they will. That gives them seven NHL D by my count. Plus Clendening and Corrado is nine. All of those players are waiver eligible though, which complicated things, but ignoring that for a moment, we can assume that the Canucks will likely sign or acquire two defensemen somewhere this summer.
In terms of unrestricted free agent bottom-pairing defensemen who are likely to come relatively cheap, the good news is that there is always going to be plenty of them.
Hell, both Diaz and Potter are available. But so too is, like, Carlo Colaiacovo (somehow a 55 percent possession player with Philly in 33 games this year?), Matt Hunwick, Adam Pardy, etc. These are guys who will probably cost you very little and, if you use them right, won’t hurt you even if you have to use them regularly.
And if you want to think outside the box, a guy like David Warsofsky from the Bruins organization — a Rule-VI UFA — who was very good in Providence but never got much of a crack with the big club (10 games over the past two seasons and fewer than 17 minutes a night) might fit the bill. He’s 24 and undersized, but he puts up decent point totals from the blue line and can move the puck well, and Benning would be familiar with him from his Boston days. He’s not big, but he’d fit in well with Benning’s pattern of gambling on successful AHLers in their early-to-mid-20s.
Benning could also test the trade market or keep an eye on the waiver wire here too. The point is that bottom-of-the-lineup guys are easy to find, cheap to acquire, and probably contribute if you’re smart about weeding out obvious risks.
5. Being realistic
Now, with all that having been said, the fact is that the Canucks blue line isn’t likely to dazzle next year. And maybe they don’t really need it to. When healthy, the Vancouver D is workable but with obvious flaws. And unfortunately these are flaws that do not get solved overnight without spending money, which Benning cannot do.
So you wait and see what develops in the next few years, and probably stick with this tactic of monitoring the UFA and trade markets for cheap short-term options. One thing you cannot do is hope your kids develop quicker than they reasonably ought to. So Benning — who, let’s be honest — has made a lot of questionable moves, is actually doing something judicious here.
In all likelihood, this probably won’t result in more wins for his team, but it probably won’t cost them wins either, and when you’re trying to rebuild on the fly, that’s probably all you can reasonably hope for.