Over the next month, we at NHLnumbers are going to be taking a look at where each team in the league currently stands based on what we learned from them last season, and where they realistically can and should go this summer with the resources and cap space they have.
The Vancouver Canucks and their fan base just endured one of the worst, most drawn out and fruitless seasons in recent memory. That’s no small order given that the Canucks are just two seasons removed from the John Tortorella era, in all its infamy. They set out to make the playoffs and failed. Miserably. They wound up finishing third last in the entire league and are now further in their halfway-rebuild to show for it.
Of course, one could hardly blame the Canucks or they’re management team entirely. There was no accounting for the injuries to Brandon Sutter, Dan Hamhuis, Henrik Sedin, etc. that riddled the Canucks lineup at the most critical parts of their season. I don’t think anyone expected Radim Vrbata to fall so far off from last season. The Canucks didn’t help themselves last off-season, but it’s not like they were loaned any by lady luck, either.
Now the Canucks have to decide which course to plot as they enter what has the potential to be one of the most formative periods in the history of the franchise. Do they remain defiant in the face of defeat and aim for a second post-season berth in three seasons? Or does pragmatism reign supreme in favour of a teardown rebuild? Like most Canucks fans I favour the latter of those two options. It’s not my pockets that are getting picked by the lost playoff revenue, though.
No matter how the Canucks approach this off-season, they are going to be one of the league’s most interesting teams to follow. They haven’t many openings within their lineup, but plenty of needs to address all the same. Something tells me there’s going to be a fair amount of roster turnover in the lower mainland.
Finding individual accomplishments and bright spots within the Canucks lineup can prove an exhausting exercise. There just aren’t many to be found. Assuming you can find one, it likely has its own set of warts that almost offset the positives.
Bo Horvat’s development took leaps and bounds in his second season, but almost exclusively in the opposition’s end. Though the second-year centre flashed otherwise unseen offensive potential in the form of a 40 point season, his two-way impact was one of the worst on the entire team. Matt Bartkowski proved to be one of the single best transitional defenders in the league by his ability to exit his own zone, and even enter the opposition’s, but was one of the worst Canucks defenders through any other underlying metric.
Even the Sedin twins, who looked every bit the first line players they showed themselves to be in the season prior, couldn’t maintain their pace to the season’s conclusion.
One area where the Canucks were exceptionally good was in net. Ryan Miller had a renaissance campaign behind the Canucks depleted and often listless defence. Miller’s apprentice, Jacob Markstrom, fared nearly as well, forcing his way from backup to 1B in the Canucks newly minted tandem in net.
— Nick Mercadante (@NMercad) May 12, 2016
The Canucks could field a team next season if they were just to re-sign their restricted free agents this off-season. Even accounting for the departure of Radim Vrbata, and potential departure of Dan Hamhuis, the Canucks have plenty of warm bodies ready to play next October.
Something tells me the Canucks won’t be so silent. Not this off-season. Alexandre Burrows and Chris Higgins are likely to receive their walking papers in the form of a buyout. I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if they explored the trade market for Jannik Hansen and Ryan Miller. Maybe Jared McCann finds his name floated about in the rumour mill. The Canucks have cap space and lots of it. That puts them in an excellent position to take advantage of the teams that don’t.
The silver bullet in the Canucks chamber when exploiting teams against the upper limits of the salary cap will be their volume of prospects, either NHL ready or nearly on the cusp. It’s a situation they’ll have to explore regardless. Just assuming the Canucks don’t add any defencemen in free agency, they’re going to have seven defencemen that require waivers. Let’s be realistic. Whether the Canucks are rebuilding or contending for the playoffs, they can’t enter next season with the blue line I’ve posted above. They’re adding a piece or two.
It’s difficult to find any one area of need for a team so bad as the Vancouver Canucks were in the 2015-16 season. They couldn’t score goals. They sure as hell couldn’t prevent them. And they looked wholly terrible in the process, no matter the lens you were viewing them through. If the Canucks aim to play meaningful hockey into April and beyond, they will need to be aggressive to get there.
That starts with addressing their blue line. The Canucks surrendered the second most scoring chances per sixty minutes of any team in the league. You can’t contend surrendering scoring chances at that rate. Though the Canucks spent much of the season without any combination of Alex Edler, Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis, there’s no denying there were apparent holes in their team defence even when they were in the lineup.
For most, that means re-signing Hamhuis. All the better if the Canucks can secure his services in the short term, at a hometown discount. Then what? At that point, the Canucks are at eight defenceman that will require waivers to be sent down at the beginning of next season. And they’re still no further along in their goal to contend.
Perhaps they pursue a player like Alex Goligoski. He’s on the younger side of the free agent spectrum and offers much of what the Canucks missed from their blue line last season — strong transitional play and the ability to quarterback a power play. Similarly, a player like Keith Yandle might be appealing for many of the same reasons.
They’re going to need to add some skill and size to their lineup, too. If for no other reason than to insulate some of their younger players. Whether the Canucks go big, aiming to lure players like Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo and Loui Eriksson, or perhaps fly under the radar with less heralded and consequently cheaper players, remains to be seen.
Keep an eye on Andrew Ladd. The Canucks were rumoured to have interested in acquiring the Maple Ridge, British Columbia native in advance of the February 29th. Yes, seriously, they had interest in trading for him. Ladd could prove to be the darkhorse of all the big name free agents to land in Vancouver.
The Canucks are getting younger, faster and arguably better since all of the players these traits apply to are ascending into their prime physical years. They’re going to add a top-five talent through the draft and have the financial capital to add some serious talent through free agency. They could also prove an active member on the trade market. The world is their oyster.
One can’t help but wonder if that will all be enough, though. Are these incremental improvements along the margins good enough when interdivisional competitors are adding top-three talents in the draft like clockwork? I’m looking at you, Alberta. What about the teams that are still contending? Can they catch up to them? I remain skeptical.
At some point, the Canucks are going to have to throw in the towel. Unfortunately for their rebuild rabid fanbase, that might not be this off-season. They’ve everything in place to not go gentle into that good night and I expect them to act accordingly.
Previously in this series: