Photo Credit: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
The Vancouver Canucks’ loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night inadvertently offered an sneak peek into the future of the franchise.
The weary road warriors iced a lineup that did not include Radim Vrbata, Brandon Prust or Yannick Weber—all unrestricted free agents (UFAs) at the end of this season. Will it be in Jim Benning’s best interest to dangle his future UFAs as trade bait in an attempt to build up his future prospect pool? Let’s take a look.
Last season, Benning elected to stand pat at the trade deadline with two key forwards headed towards free agency. Brad Richardson was sidelined with an ankle injury at the deadline so he would have been tough to move, but Shawn Matthias was coming off the best month of his season, scoring seven of his 18 goals in February.
At the time, it looked like Benning was making a prudent move in keeping Matthias for the Canucks’ potential playoff run. But Matthias was banged up and a non-factor against Calgary, collecting just two points in six games and finishing the series with a minus-3 rating.
In hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a big loss for the Canucks to have moved Matthias for a draft pick at the deadline rather than getting nothing in return when he signed with Toronto on July 6.
Benning won’t get a do-over on Matthias, but his experience last year may influence his thinking when it comes time to make decisions on this year’s crop of pending unrestricted free agents.
Right now, the Canucks’ outlook is gloomy after their 1-4-2 road trip. But there’s plenty of hockey yet to be played and for the moment and Vancouver’s still in the mix for a playoff spot in the weak Pacific Division. If the team can conjure up enough puck luck to string together some wins, Benning’s bound to be tempted to hang on to his assets. For the long-term good of the team, he should make every effort to trade the UFAs that he isn’t planning to re-sign—playoffs or not.
When Radim Vrbata missed Wednesday’s game-day skate before the Canucks faced the Jets, more than one Canucks follower floated the idea that a trade could be imminent.
— HOCKEY DAD (@hockey_nation) November 18, 2015
#Canucks isn’t pulling a skater from morning skate with no sign or declaration of injury a common precursor to a trade?
Talkin’ Vrbata here
— Mark Fenger (@MarkFenger) November 18, 2015
Jason Botchford of The Province reported later on Wednesday that Vrbata is sidelined with a minor groin tweak and is listed as day-to-day. In his place, Alex Grenier collected four shots on goal against the Jets and looked dangerous during 8:52 of ice time in his first NHL game.
Vrbata’s in the second and final year of a contract with a $5 million cap hit but has been having a terribly unlucky season. The 34-year-old converted on a solid 11.1 percent of his team-leading 267 shots to also lead the Canucks with 31 goals in 2014-15. This year, he had been leading the Canucks with 74 shots before Wednesday’s game, but had scored just three times, giving him an ice-cold 4.1 shooting percentage.
It feels like Vrbata should snap out of his scoring funk at any moment, but given his frustrating results during the first six games of the road trip (0-2-2, minus-5), it wasn’t a big loss for him to sit out against Winnipeg. With so many young players now in the mix, it’s not a stretch to imagine taking him out of the top six permanently.
Vrbata has a modified no-trade clause in his contract, so he’ll have some control over where he goes if the Canucks decide they want to deal him. With the challenges that he has faced so far this season, at this point, it seems possible that he might even be enthusiastic about the thought of moving on.
Offensive depth is always in demand as the postseason draws near. Though Vrbata hasn’t scored well in the playoffs (he’s 8+10=18 in 42 career playoff games), which doesn’t help, he could be useful to a team that’s looking for a boost to its top six or power play. Scoring woes aside, it seems likely that Vrbata will be Benning’s most valuable trade chip.
With the first quarter of the season in the books, it’s still not clear exactly how Brandon Prust meshes with the Canucks or whether he’ll fit into their future plans. Prust has been sidelined since October 27 with an ankle injury, but he’s expected to get back into the lineup this weekend.
Known as a gritty hard worker and exceptional team player, Prust is not as skilled as many of his teammates, but he had picked up five points in nine games before his injury—and the Canucks were 4-2-3 in those same nine games. They’ve gone 3-5-3 since Prust went down.
It’s still too early to say definitively that the Canucks are a better team with Prust in the lineup, but it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the team’s fortunes shift when he returns to action.
Prust will have trade value at the deadline. His gritty tenacity, strong penalty killing and solid two-way play would make him a useful player for a team that’s looking to make a playoff push.
Since his summer trade, Prust has been a consummate team player in Vancouver despite the publicity surrounding his long-distance relationship and his strong community ties in Montreal. If the Canucks get back on track when Prust gets back in the lineup, you have to wonder if Benning could be more likely to try to sign him to a contract extension than to try to deal him at the deadline.
Yannick Weber played just once in the Canucks’ first seven games this season, but a streak of 12 straight appearances ended against the Jets on Wednesday. During those games, Weber collected no goals, three assists, fired 23 shots on net and was a minus-7.
Weber finished the 2014-15 season with 11 goals, the same number as sharpshooters like Kris Letang, Mark Giordano and John Klingberg. The Canucks were thought to have gotten good value when they signed him to a new one-year deal at $1.5 million but so far this season, Weber has struggled—defensively, offensively and where he’s supposed to earn his keep, on the power play.
The Canucks’ lack of blue-line depth may force Jim Benning to keep Weber around for awhile. If the opportunity arises to trade Weber for a draft pick when the deadline draws near, there should be no hesitation to pull the trigger.
Unlike the three players listed above, Dan Hamhuis did play on Wednesday in Winnipeg.
Hamhuis is also in the last year of his deal and could be a lucrative trade chip if Benning decides to move him. The steady 32-year-old is wrapping up the six-year contract that he signed with Mike Gillis’ Canucks during the summer of 2010. He’s been a useful mainstay on the Vancouver blue line throughout that time, often a credible first-pairing blue liner.
For a long time, I believed that Hamhuis would retire a Canuck. He’s a B.C. native and a devoted family man, with plenty of roots in the community and a strong emphasis on his overall quality of life. Then again, I also believed Kevin Bieksa when he said he would go “down with the ship.”
Circumstances do change and after Bieksa’s offseason trade, it’s no longer impossible for me to imagine Hamhuis agreeing to move on if he’s allowed to have input on the terms of his trade.
The Canucks are trying to get younger, but the team’s prospect pool is most shallow on the blue line. Hamhuis could be re-signed as a mentor figure, but we haven’t heard one word about a possible contract extension since the season started.
Whether or not he’s dealt at the trade deadline, Tt me, it feels like the organization is planning to move forward without Hamhuis.
I don’t think Hamhuis is ready to hang up his skates. If he’s not in the Canucks’ future plans, he’d be best-served to move to a Cup contender before the trade deadline, ideally with a contract extension in place or soon to follow. Otherwise, he’ll be taking his chances next summer in a free-agent market that’s no longer a guaranteed gold mine in today’s tricky hockey economy.
Of course, Benning will need to believe that the value he gets by trading Hamhuis exceeds the value he’d generate by staying. If the Canucks are anywhere near a playoff spot when the deadline draws near, it would be tough to say goodbye to one of the team’s most consistent defenders.
Hamhuis’ departure would leave an immediate, gaping hole on the blue line, especially if the team is dealing with any injuries. Unless they’re well out of playoff contention, the Canucks would have to receive a quality draft pick in order to make a Hamhuis deal worth their while.