Now that the Canucks have locked up Erik Gudbranson, their most valuable asset from a deadline perspective (concerning what he could have netted in return), their ability to accrue pieces for their ostensible rebuild at the deadline has been compromised.
I mean, you can’t blame them. Everyone knows rebuilding teams that are at least three to four years away from contention need 26 (or was it 25?) year old “physical” defensive defencemen more than they need silly things like draft picks. (Yes, go straight to the comment section to tell me how wrong I am and that you don’t appreciate my snark.)
With Gudbranson off the table, the question becomes: what do the Canucks have that could net them something at the trade deadline, when good teams are looking to make upgrades before embarking on playoff pushes and subsequent runs?
Pending unrestricted free agent forward Thomas Vanek immediately comes to mind, but on Tuesday, Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet 650 that he’s still open to dealing a defenceman (which he considers an area of strength) in exchange for a forward — specifically one with size and a measure of toughness.
As an aside, I’d take umbrage with two premises here: that the Canucks should be acquiring plug-and-play players rather than picks or prospects, and that the defence is a position of strength. But neither of those are the topics I plan on discussing here.
The assumption of many is that the expendable defenceman Benning is referring to is Ben Hutton. He seems to be the natural option. Hutton’s in the age range where potential suitors will assume they can garner some untapped upside, not signed to an outrageous contract, and he’s already on TSN’s trade bait list (which in itself probably indicates that there’s been some league interest). But most of all, he’s been a healthy scratch in 10 of the last 26 games, including the last three in a row, and most recently his focus has been subject to pointed criticism from the coach. It certainly appears that the organization might deem him expendable, or at the very least are highly dissatisfied with his performance so far.
Well, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I don’t agree with the notion that Hutton should be available. I’ve gone to bat for him before, and I’ll continue to do so. There’s no doubt that Hutton has been subject to glaring mistakes and lapses in judgement, and yet he continues to be on the right side of shot and scoring chance differentials. Maybe there’s a case to be made that he could become even more valuable if he buckled down and cleaned up those mental errors, but I have serious doubts that shattering his confidence by continuously scratching him and calling him out in the media is the right way to go about that.
Anyway, on to my actual point: one defenceman that the Canucks should be shopping is Michael Del Zotto. Before you decry this as a witch hunt, this isn’t about me not liking Del Zotto, or thinking that he’s an outright bad player. I’m certainly of the opinion that he’s not as valuable as Travis Green seems to think he is, but I’m also of the opinion that he’s a very serviceable defenceman who can excel in the right role, with some reasonable minutes, sheltered deployment and perhaps second unit power play time (Del Zotto actually leads Canucks defencemen in 5-on-4 points per hour, believe it or not).
So why get rid of him then? It’s alarmingly simple: he’s 27-years old. That’s three years older than Hutton, not to mention that he’s played 350 additional games in the league. If you read Ryan Biech’s post the other day, then you already know that Del Zotto is exiting the stage that should be considered the prime of his career, and is approaching the age where we’d expect a drop off in value.
Frankly, I’m surprised that Del Zotto’s name isn’t mentioned as a trade option more often. He’s signed to a reasonable deal that pays him $3-million this year and next, without any no-trade protection. When the Canucks signed him on July 1st, the talk of the town was that even with a two-year deal, he’d be moveable at the trade deadline, and it seems that people have since forgotten that that was initially on the table.
Because of the extra year, he wouldn’t be considered a pure rental, but the scuttlebutt these days is that teams are a little more wary of giving up decent assets for quarter-season rentals and might not mind players with a little extra term. At last year’s deadline, the Canucks managed to find a taker on Jannik Hansen despite him being signed through the following year at a reasonable rate (I mean, that backfired on San Jose, and the Canucks made out like bandits, but I digress).
Then there’s the Canucks defensive depth. Above I took issue with Benning’s assertion that defence is an area of strength, but there’s a substantial difference between trading away a 27-year-old who already certainly is a bottom-four defenceman, and a 24-year-old who very well could be (and in my opinion, already is) a top-four defenceman. While trading away Gudbranson would have been the move I would have made; I can at least admit that it would open up a hole on the right-hand side. There’s no such worry on the left: you move out a bottom four left-handed defenceman, there are a number of options available to move up and take his place, such as:
- Ben Hutton, who already should be playing, and more than Del Zotto to boot, if you ask the folks around here;
- Philip Holm, who’s had a strong year in the minors but hasn’t been able to get into a game in the NHL (though that will change tonight); and
- Patrick Wiercioch, who was signed to be a seventh or eighth defencemen but hasn’t played a single NHL game this year, and has had just as good an AHL season as Holm.
That doesn’t even get into options for next season, like Olli Juolevi, who the Canucks likely hope can make the team out of camp; Evan McEneny, who won’t be available this year due to season-ending surgery, but really should get a sniff next season when he becomes waiver eligible; or Guillaume Brisebois, who the Canucks seem inordinately high on. They could move Del Zotto out in the summer to make room for these last few players, sure, but teams are sometimes more willing to give up more when they get to use players for two possible playoff runs instead of one.
The name of the game for a team in the Canucks’ life cycle is asset accumulation. If Benning truly wants to help his team get younger and add picks for the upcoming drafts (which are both things he has frequently claimed to want), then shopping Del Zotto seems like a tap in. Yes, not just waiting for calls, but actively looking for takers. Last year’s trade deadline was a resounding success, and if Benning wants some more of that sweet, sweet praise (as opposed to the anger and vitriol that followed the 2016 deadline), he’d be wise to start looking for takers on some more of his assets. Michael Del Zotto should absolutely be available.