Who Will Centre the Canucks First Line After Henrik Sedin?

The Canucks have a centre depth problem, roster and pipeline alike. In an era where most teams elect to dress five or sometimes six natural centres, the Canucks will likely carry no more than four on their opening night roster.

Vancouver’s showing at the annual Young Stars Tournament in Penticton has only served to highlight that organizational deficiency. The team wasn’t expected to boast an electric group of forwards to begin with, but the late withdrawal of Dmitry Zhukenov only added to that problem. The youngsters acquitted themselves well over the weekend, but much of that was courtesy of invited players like Marc-Olivier Roy, Alexis D’Aoust and Kyle Maksimovich — players that, for now, aren’t even Canucks property. 

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While the emergence of Brock Boeser as a can’t-miss prospect helps matters, but doesn’t address the problem this club has been staring headlong for years now: the lack of a Sedin succession plan. I’m talking, of course, about Henrik Sedin and the lack of player with anywhere near his pedigree in the ranks as his heir apparent.

As a reference point, the Canucks’ prospect squad featured Cole Cassels, he of the whopping seven-point season in Utica, on their first line. Brendan Gaunce is knocking on the NHL’s door, but he’s lauded primarily for his defensive value, and it’s unclear whether his career will be played primarily at wing or centre. Beyond that, the system has intriguing options in Zhukenov, Cassels and Adam Gaudette, but even they remain relative longshots to make the NHL, much less in a meaningful role.

If Jim Benning truly wants to serve two masters and build for the future while competing for the playoffs, answering the question of who will replace Henrik Sedin is paramount. So, with that in mind, let’s unpack some of their options.

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PROMOTION FROM WITHIN 

Promoting a player from within is obviously the easiest and most attractive option for the Canucks. That presupposes that they have a player capable of growing into that role, though. I’m not sure that’s the case. The Canucks have fine prospects at centre, but none that have produced at a level consistent with what one would expect of a future top-six forward. There’s cause for optimism among Gaunce, Zhukenov and Gaudette. All made significant strides over the calendar year, but frankly, none of them are blowing the roof off with their goal scoring.

And it’s not like the Canucks are beaming with centre depth at the professional ranks either. The Markus Granlund acquisition is as baffling today as it was when it happened. Granlund was one of Calgary’s worst forwards at even strength, both by production and shot-attempt differential alike. If he can hold down a fourth line centre role with any level of competency, that alone will be a positive development. Brandon Sutter is a fine, if overpaid, NHL centre who can probably give the Canucks added value in a third line role, assuming that’s where he lands. 

That narrows it down to one name.

Help us, Bowie. You’re our only hope.

Horvat’s impressive second half to last season should satiate the concerns of Canucks’ fans, eager to find out where the secondary scoring’s coming from next season. Consistency remains an issue. The Canucks hope is that a healthy Brandon Sutter will ease the defensive burden on Horvat’s shoulders, allowing him to flourish offensively.

It’s clear Horvat has room to grow. The only question left is how much. There’s always the outside chance of a Ryan Johansen-esque jump in development, but his profile to this point suggests that’s highly unlikely. Which is especially damning given they’re lacking anyone else with even the slimmest of chances to develop into a first line player — a matter made worse by Jared McCann’s absence via trade.

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At the moment, the future of the franchise’s offence rests squarely on Horvat’s shoulders. No pressure, kid.

THE DRAFT 

Luckily for the Canucks, Henrik Sedin still has a few more years before he’ll be ready to hang up the skates, which gives the Canucks time to improve their prospect depth at centre. At the draft in Buffalo, the Canucks snagged two centres in the 7th round, Brett McKenzie of the OHL’s Brampton Battalion, and Rodrigo Abols of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

Frankly, there’s nothing I’ve seen from Abols thus far that suggests he’s an NHL-calibre player. He’s failed to stand out at the junior level against much younger (and smaller) competition. McKenzie looked good in limited ice-time against Edmonton at the first YoungStars game, using his size well to outmuscle the opposition at times, but should he ever appear in the NHL, it will be as a mucker, not a skilled forward.

At next year’s draft, targeting an offensive-minded centre should be a priority for Jim Benning, luckily, they’ll have a few different options. The first would be to luck out, win the draft lottery, and draft Brandon Wheat Kings wunderkind Nolan Patrick, but considering Vancouver’s history of awful luck and the franchise’s insistence on competing for the playoffs, that’s looking like a pipe dream. Fortunately, Patrick isn’t the only promising centre available in next year’s draft. In his piece examining the preliminary top 10 players eligible for the 2017 draft, Jeremy Davis profiled three centres in addition to Patrick that appears to possess notable offensive potential. For those of you that are too lazy to leave this page, I’ll recap what Jeremy had to say: 

Gabriel Vilardi, Windsor Spitfires, OHL:

Gabe Vilardi is a big, 6-foot-2 centerman who plays a two-way
role. He is a constant threat to score with a heavy, accurate wrist
shot, but is also very capable of making deft passes and difficult set
up plays. He also has high level hand-eye coordination, making use of it
deflecting in pucks while parked in front of the net. He skates well in
transition and changes speed deceptively on attack. He defensive
positioning is sound, and his work ethic is never questioned.

Casey Middlestadt, Eden Prairie Eagles, USHS: 

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A natural center who can also line up on the wing, Mittelstadt’s
game is predicated on skill, and lots of it. His puck skills, deking
ability, puck protection, vision, and agility are all very high end,
making him a handful in the offensive zone. He pulls defencemen out of
position with ease and makes highly impressive plays seemingly out of
nowhere. While his playmaking may be his most noticeable asset, his shot
is also strong and accurate, and difficult for goaltenders to judge, as
he often disguises his release in his stick handling motions. His
defensive game is merely average at this point, although the willingness
to backcheck is certainly there.

Mittelstadt demonstrate success at many different levels in
2015-16. Having torn apart the high school circuit, he also impressed
scouts in international play, being one of the most productive players
on Team U.S.A. as an underager.

Nico Hischier, SC Bern, NLA:

Hischier is an elite playmaker operating a little under the radar
is he Swiss National and junior leagues. He stepped a little more into
the limelight when he made the Swiss U20 team for the World Juniors
before he even turned 17, which could give him the opportunity to take
part in the WJC as many as four times.

Hischier prefers to pass the puck and will wait until he’s in a
prime scoring area before shooting, but even so, both his passing and
shooting are high-end. He moves quickly and thinks the game extremely
well, with decision making that is described as “flawless”. He’s been
dominating every level that he’s spent time at in the Swiss ranks, and
is merely average physically at this point, meaning both that his
production is based laregly on his skill set rather than overmatching
smaller players, and that he still has room to grow as he gets older.

Obviously, we have almost another year of hockey to go before we have a good idea of what the first round of next year’s draft will look like, and inevitably some players will make a name for themselves and rise the ranks as others fall. It’s also impossible to know where the Canucks will be selecting, but these are three players that could be in their wheelhouse, especially if the Canucks fail to make the playoffs next season, something that seems like a reasonable bet.

When viewed through the lens of pGPS, none of these players are even close to a sure thing, but their probabilities will almost certainly improve with another year of hockey under their belts. It’s also likely that pGPS likely undersells Mittelstadt and Hischier in particular, given that the Swiss National League and the U.S. High School program don’t have a long history of producing NHLers.

At this point, it should be obvious that any talk about the Canucks and the 2017 draft will be purely speculative, but it’s fair to say that at some point, the Canucks should be looking at drafting an offensive centre. If any of the aforementioned players are available, they should be taking a long look at them. There’s no guarantee any of these players will develop into the calibre of centre that could one day replace Henrik Sedin, but they would improve the offensive depth at the position, and take some of the pressure off of Bo Horvat.

If the Canucks do, in fact, make the playoffs, their chances of landing an impact centre will decrease exponentially with every round they win. If the Canucks aren’t picking in the top ten next year, they may have to look to the 2018 draft, or to other options.

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TRADES

To paraphrase Travis Yost, the first step to being a good GM in the NHL is to find out who the bad GMs are. The second step is to call them all the time. With that in mind, there are a few undervalued centres that play for teams with questionable front offices that may be willing to make an unwise decision in Vancouver’s favour.

Alex Galchenyuk has never really seemed to be valued properly in Montreal, for example, and Marc Bergevin seems to be more concerned about keeping his coach happy than he is about icing an optimal roster. Considering the team doesn’t seem to believe he’s a better option at centre than Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais, it’s easy to believe he could be available for the right price. There were reports that the Canucks were in talks to acquire Subban in late June, so the Canucks may have assets that Bergevin covets. I also won’t be surprised if the Habs are looking for help on the back end as early as December, considering that they just gave up their best defenceman for a rapidly deteriorating, 31-year-old Shea Weber.

Another player that might be available is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, although it’s likely Peter Chiarelli has cooled on offers for him since Taylor Hall was traded. That being said, Chiarelli does have a history of selling offensive forwards for pennies on the dollar, and the fact that he and Jim Benning worked together in Boston likely mitigates any worries about trading within the division. The Oilers also have a surplus of offensive centremen, and it’s easy to imagine Nugent-Hopkins being the odd-man out between himself, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid.

Any offer for one of these players likely begins with either Horvat, Tanev, or Juolevi, in addition to other assets, though, so the Canucks may want to go a different route.

FREE AGENCY

Free agency is best left as a last resort when it comes to roster construction, with few exceptions. By and large, free agents are old, expensive, and have to be kept around for longer than they’re expected to produce. But when the Sedins retire, the Canucks may be left with no choice but to dip into the free agent pool. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll look at the top 15 UFAs at centre for 2018, the year the Sedins’ contracts expire, and the following year.

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2018:

2017 UFAs 

2019:

2019 UFAs

*contract information courtesy of generalfanager.com

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This doesn’t leave the Canucks with a tonne of options. Most of these players are outside the age range the Canucks will be looking at, or aren’t capable of producing at the level they’ll need to remain competitive. More importantly, it’s likely that most of the big names on this list will be extended before their contracts expire. I’d have a hard time believing that the Dallas Stars will let Tyler Seguin walk, and Logan Couture isn’t going anywhere. The Avs’ internal budget could force them to let go of Matt Duchene eventually, but you know they’ll be looking to trade him before his contract expires if that’s the case. If John Tavares decides to test the free agent waters, and that’s a big if, his negotiations will begin with him looking for the maximum dollar value and term he’s allowed.

Bryan Little, Kyle Turris, and Paul Statsny could be interesting stop-gap options while the Canucks get their long term affairs in order, but all three would be band-aid solutions at best. Overall this seems like the least attractive option for Jim Benning and co., and likely the least realistic as well.

CONCLUSION:

A team simply can’t compete in the Western Conference without a great centreman. At the moment, the Canucks look to be in tight to find one that can replace Henrik Sedin, or better yet, push him into a second-line role. Free agency is expensive and unrealistic, the trade market is dry, and the Canucks won’t be in a position to draft a franchise centre unless their plans go horribly awry. Bo Horvat’s future is a promising one, but even if he’s capable, they have no one coming up the ranks to support him when their captain finally hangs up the skates.

Obviously, any predictions regarding what will happen two, three, or four years down the road are based on idle speculation. Still, the clock is ticking for 36-year-old Henrik Sedin, and that has to be a depressing realization if you’re a Canucks fan.

As of right now, it looks as though a rebuild may be coming. It just may take a few more years before it begins in earnest.

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  • detox

    “old man yells at cloud”

    vs.

    “Still, the clock is ticking for 36-year-old Henrik Sedin, and that has to be a depressing realization if you’re a Canucks fan.”

    anyway, i do appreciate the article and brainstorming on different scenarios.

    I hope JB drafts the bpa with his first round pick, winger, centre, whatever. if it’s another dman, maybe he could flip one of our existing d’s for what we need.

    draft and develop. patience.

  • TheRealPB

    A lot of the fancy stats and prospect projections for Bo had questions about his skating ability and he has worked hard and proven them wrong. There is no extra pressure on him – he would only be looking at this situation as OPPERTUNTY not shying away from the pressure. At 215 lbs of solid responsible play – just get him some wingers and hold on for the ride.