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Photo Credit: Matthew Henderson

Mailbag Part 2: Projection, Protection, and Ryan Johnson’s Role as Comets GM

I wish I could remember who it was, but a long time ago I heard someone say that there are two kinds of top-four defenders: elite defenders, and guys who can play with them. I think very highly of Hutton and Stecher, but would say they both fall in the latter camp.

Having said that, they both ought to be part of the team’s future. They’ve both performed well and will be in the right age range when the team is ready to compete, plus it’s not as if the team has a ton of other options. I don’t think you’d get much for either in a trade since they aren’t big names outside Vancouver.

The Canucks don’t need someone to protect those guys, the team just needs to push back when they get manhandled and the calls don’t go their way. The problem of opponents “taking liberties” has been a problem for every star player on every team in every era, including and especially when teams dressed an enforcer specifically for that reason. I hate it when guys mess with Pettersson as much as you do, but Dave Semenko wouldn’t have stopped the Kotkaniemi play or the Matheson hit. When there’s actually been a clear line that’s been crossed and the team sees it, the response has been there.

My issue remains with the league and the officials. If they can’t protect the players, than it’s hard for the guys on the ice to do anything about it.

I think I addressed this in a similar question in part one, but I’ll reiterate: I think any of Baertschi, Goldobin, or Leivo is fine there. Pettersson and Boeser are good enough to be a high-end first line with anybody as long as they can keep up, both physically and mentally. Any big player you would trade for or sign in free agency would serve the team better on another line.

Ideally, the less players you’re exposing, the better. I’m not sure they’ll have other defensemen to protect by the time expansion rolls around, but it would be preferable to keep as many protected slots open as possible just in case.

As a side note, it’s crazy how hard it has been to figure out how Hughes’ signing will affect his eligibility. I believe he has to play ten games, but I’m still not 100% certain, and neither was anyone else the last time I checked.*

*After speaking with Ryan Biech, I’ve clarified that Hughes would have to play 11 games.

This is another close cousin to a part 1 question, but it’s more straightforward. In a straight-up bet, I would take no one. With odds, I’d take Nikolay Goldobin. Tanev and Gudbranson are both possibilities, but a deal would have to materialize and I don’t think that’s happened yet.

I’ll lump these two together since they’re essentially asking the same thing. Right side defence is easily the biggest organizational need, and one that doesn’t seem like it can be fixed any time soon. To fix the problem, they’ll either need to get creative or pray for a miracle.

They aren’t completely devoid of options, though. They could target right-handed defenders at the draft this year, although they’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can step in in the near future given that the vast majority of highly-ranked defenders for 2019 shoot left.

They could also try to target a right-shot defender in a trade, which could prove to be fruitful. The Maple Leafs are reportedly open to trading Liljegren, but I’m not sure the Canucks have the pieces to get a deal done. Colorado isn’t moving Cale Makar, but Connor Timmins has struggled with concussion issues and could be a good gamble. I’m sure there are plenty of others as well.

The last option is free agency, if all else fails. The 2019 crop is shaping up to be pretty thin, but there are some interesting names that could be available in 2020. Tyson Barrie, Justin Faulk, Sami Vatanen, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jared Spurgeon are all good enough and young enough to theoretically help the Canucks turn things around provided the team is aggressive and has a clear plan over the next year and a half. Obviously, they will all come with a hefty price tag, though.

Let’s hope Jett Woo works out. That would make things a lot more manageable.

It’s early, but so far the answer would seem to be “not very”. An .884 save percentage isn’t a good mark at any level, and while there’s certainly time to improve he’s done nothing to indicate he’ll be more than a stop-gap. Even Michael Garteig, who’s since slipped into irrelevance, had a better showing in his stint with the Comets (albeit it at a more advanced age). I’m not sure where the interest in him is coming from. He looked good at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton but hasn’t really put it together as a pro.

Hughes. He hasn’t really improved on his d-1 season yet, but that’s mostly because there just isn’t much room for him to produce more. He shattered previous totals reached by just about every USNTDP alum not named Auston Matthews and he’s still clicking along at the same rate this year. Kakko is a hell of a prospect and could still unseat Hughes by the time the draft rolls around, but I wouldn’t count on it.

I have no idea. Burn down the league office? That’s what I’d do.

They’re on pace for about 80 points. That seems like a completely reasonable projection. That would be a 7-point or three-and-a-half-win improvement over last season, which is about the impact you’d expect adding Elias Pettersson to have. When you dig into how they’ve been winning lately, there are just too many red flags to think it’s sustainable, so I’ll just stick with the number they’re on pace for.

  1. Nikolay Goldobin.
  2. I doubt it.
  3. They’re not making the playoffs.

It’s a lot harder to score in a professional men’s league than it is to score against teenagers. That was also his only point of the tournament, so something tells me it’s unwise to read too much into that goal.

As far as who he is? He’s playing men’s hockey at 18, but only has one point. At the time of his selection, he had a 10.9 expected likelihood of success via the prospect Graduation Probabilities System, and two successful statistical matches in Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numinen. His upside is limited but he’s a legitimate prospect and he adds to the organization’s depth at that position, which is sorely needed.

You could be right about it being easier to move Del Zotto, but to be honest I don’t think you’re getting much for either player. Pouliot also has a bit more diversity because he can play both sides, whereas Del Zotto only plays the right. I definitely can see the case for what you’re suggesting but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Neither player has played well enough to generate a market.

In the case of the Matheson hit, it’s clear no one saw it. In the case of the Kotkaniemi play, I don’t think anyone thought it was dirty. I disagree, if we’re being honest, but I don’t really want Gudbranson manhandling an 18-year-old kid who just did something stupid anyway. My biggest beef with Gudbranson is his play between the whistles, not after. The fact that he’s not bringing that element to his game is just another reason to be skeptical about why he was acquired, re-signed, and remains on the roster.

You shouldn’t. In fact, don’t leave bed at all. Move to the TV to your bedroom and get a mini fridge.

That’s a tough one. Coaches make weird decisions in international tournaments and I honestly can’t speculate as to why. I don’t think it’s due to any fault in Hughes’ game.

My best guess as to why it’s been such a tough sell is because most NHL coaches still favour a strategy that relies on tightening things up once you have a lead rather than continuing to push. It makes sense to some degree if you have the right players, but it’s suicide if you’re leaning on guys who are stuck in their own end all night. Ultimately, your brain is conditioned to think someone is good at doing something if you see them doing it a lot. This makes sense in some areas, but not for defending, since the goal of hockey ought to be to defend as little as possible.

The game has come a long way in the past few years, to the point where I think a lot of organizations understand this. Coaches and general managers still have a tendency to place too much emphasis on The Big Mistake, the turnover or blown coverage that led to the game-winning goal, but that’s always going to be a tough habit to break. In any work environment, that’s going to happen. It’s easier to get mad when you can clearly see how it cost you.

Will they improve? Yes, but it’s unwise to assume that development will always occur in a linear fashion. Sure, some players just get better and better as time passes, but that’s not always the case. Look at Ben Hutton, who’s taken three seasons to get back to where he was as a rookie. I don’t think any of the players you mentioned will regress that dramatically, but as opponents key in on them more and lady luck inevitably turns, the numbers can and will go down for stretches. Down seasons happen to every player, so I think it’s best to temper expectations until the team is deep enough to still compete even when Pettersson or Boeser or Horvat is held off the scoresheet. As long as those three players account for pretty much all the team’s offense, the ceiling on this team is limited; not because of any flaws in their game, but simply because three players do not a competitive team make.

Kaapo Kakko going first overall isn’t impossible, just highly unlikely. Jack Hughes has had thought spot locked down for over a year and there’s nothing Kakko has really done to overtake him other than be the “other guy” and play well enough to feed into the media’s constant need for there to be a challenge for first overall. He’s really good, but he’d have to be outstanding through the next 4-5 months for him to overtake what many see as a guaranteed future #1 centre in Hughes.

My honest opinion is that it’s a tremendously complicated situation and that it’s hard to place blame squarely on one person for the way some things have turned out this season. By my estimation, if his comments yesterday were accurate, the way Palmu was handled is inexcusable. At the same time, the organization had eight rookies land in their laps this fall, and that’s a lot for any team to handle. The AHL is still a pro league, and any professional team would struggle incorporating that many rookies into the lineup without some hiccups. An NHL team simply would have sent some of them down. So, I think the big club has to take some responsibility here too for lacking foresight. If the plan was always to make rookies earn minutes slowly rather than throw them all at the wall and see who sticks, it should have been clear from the outset that they wouldn’t have room for everyone and that Petrus Palmu and maybe Jonah Gadjovich should have started their seasons elsewhere.

I’m not completely sure how I feel about the job Ryan Johnson and co. have done so far, but I do know that blaming one person solely for how the rookies have been handled is a misunderstanding of how relationships between parent and farm organizations work.

  • Killer Marmot

    As a side note, it’s crazy how hard it has been to figure out how Hughes’ signing will affect his eligibility. I believe he has to play ten games, but I’m still not 100% certain, and neither was anyone else the last time I checked.

    Amen. I was wrestling with that about a week ago, and shot my foot off in the process. According to an NHL news release:

    All first- and second-year NHL players, and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward protection limits.

    But what is an “NHL player”? In the CBA, a “player” includes anyone who has a standard player’s contract with an NHL club, even if he’s never played in the NHL. So what then is a “second year NHL player”? That’s not defined in the CBA. You would think someone who is in their second season of their initial contract. If so, the Canucks had better not sign Hughes until July 1, but who knows?

    This is going to get real important in a few months.

      • Killer Marmot

        I’m surprized because I was told it had nothing to do with how many NHL games a player has played. As an example, Demko was apparently eligible for the draft even if he never played in Vancouver this season.

        Assuming you’re right, was it a mistake to bring Demko up when they did?

  • Kanuckhotep

    The Canucks need decent prospects not only on the blue line but everywhere else, including in goal. I say this because while Demko and Di Pietro are probably the tandem of the future but you still need to fill up the pipeline at every position. Look at Utica’s injury problems in net this year which does impact the farm team and even the big club when you think about it. It’s encouraging Benning has a plethora of picks going into the June draft. They need help everywhere and would be pleased with any great kid at any position who can stick, stay and contribute.

    • DJ_44

      They also have Thiessen, whom they selected in the 7th round last season. The Canucks have stocked a pipeline, and have one of the top pools in league. Not all will make it, but they need to continue to keep it full with each draft.

  • Killer Marmot

    Pouliot also has a bit more diversity because he can play both sides, whereas Del Zotto only plays the right.

    Del Zotto only plays on the right if you’re the opponents’ goalie.

    • Beer Can Boyd

      Speculation here yesterday that the Leaves might consider Tanev for Liljegren. If that was true, Canucks should take that trade in a heartbeat. Also, a question for next week, as I’m not a tweeter. Would you trade Boeser for Seth Jones? Or a comparable true #1 defenseman?

      • Erik Lonnrot

        I have a hard time believing Toronto would go for that. If they really are that desperate for some defense this year, Benning had better take that deal and run. I wonder if they’d take Gudbranson as well to sweeten the pot.

          • There were two reasons why Liljegren fell in the draft. The popular reason was the mono but the other reason that was only evident if you read the scouting reports were serious reservations about his defensive play (e.g. lack of physicality, gets burned on high risk plays, gets caught out of position).

            Maple Leaf Hot Stove had a recent assessment: “…Ultimately, he did not look out of place at this level [AHL], but he was certainly not one of the top defencemen on the Marlies.”

            “His quickness allowed him to be a solid defender in the neutral zone, but he did not create many scoring chances, did not play on the penalty kill, and he was fairly passive overall.”

            “My main criticisms of his game are that he’s mistake-prone, fairly weak in the corners, and often struggles with zone exits. Jake Gardiner is the perfect example of a defenceman who is mistake-prone yet effective, but he’s miles ahead of where Liljegren is at offensively. I’ve watched Liljegren put on a show with the puck on his stick against his own age group, but he’s just not taking over games yet at the AHL level.”

            To me, this screams “junior player that won’t learn how to play a professional game.” We just went through this with Subban, no need to trade for this kind of headache.

      • There’s no way the Leafs do this. I remember this was a rumour at least year’s deadline and it didn’t amount to anything, and now Tanev is one year older with one year fewer left on his contract, and Liljegren is more developed. Canucks would have to send something else significant along with Tanev to make this work.

  • canuckfan

    There was payback for the hit Kotkaneimi had on Pettersson Granlund punched him in the face as they were moving down the ice and the commentators called it a butt end and should have been a penalty. Granlund knew who the guy was beside him and bopped him in the face. Granlund is not a player who usually pops players in the face but he knew who was beside him so he took the opportunity to show the kid if you try something like that again next time it will be more than a punch in the face.
    I sure hope Canucks don’t trade either Edler or Tanev. There is no one in the system that can take over from them in the system now. If they are both traded for draft picks the Canucks won’t be filling in their spots through the draft that will have an immediate impact. If they sign Edler for 3 years he will still be number one pairing for the next year in a half to two years then he will move down to the second pairing, same with Tanev. We need to upgrade our current second and third pairing units not get rid of our first without someone being able to move into the first pairing spots.
    Sure Canucks are not winning the cup in the next year, but the way they are going they will be making playoffs next season and will be upgrading through the draft this year. Trade Tanev and or Edler we don’t make playoffs next year.

  • Burnabybob

    “Right side defence is easily the biggest organizational need, and one that doesn’t seem like it can be fixed any time soon. To fix the problem, they’ll either need to get creative or pray for a miracle.”

    Drafting defensemen is a real crapshoot. When you consider how valuable they are to their teams, it’s amazing how many of the top defensemen over the past few years were taken mid-first round or later. Just a few examples:

    Karllson – 15th overall
    Keith – 54th overall
    Subban – 43rd overall
    Weber – 49th overall
    Giordano – Undrafted
    Barrie – 64th overall

    Even the Canucks have had notable success in the later rounds, drafting players like Edler, Bieksa, both in the later rounds.

    There seems to be as much luck involved as anything else in drafting d-men. So Benning should just maximize his odds by drafting as many defensemen as possible in the later rounds.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    I wonder if Dante Fabbro is on the radar as a possible future right shot D. He’s still unsigned by the Predators and in his junior season, and while both sides have expressed interest in a deal, Nashville might be looking to move his rights for immediate help. Vancouver native, 1st round pick, still probably thought of as a top 4…any downsides to it?

    I also am really confused why the team seems to loath to send prospects to Kalamazoo. I think the perception of the ECHL as a dead end league should change and change quickly, and we should send actual prospects there to get big playing time against men, rather than having them languish in the press box or on the 4th line. Gadjovich and Palmu both would have been logical fits there, with the understanding that they should expect late season callups to Utica if they perform as expected. We don’t want to miss out on a Yanni Gourde or a Micheal Ferland (just two examples of guys who played in the ECHL before being effective NHLers) let alone a Burrows, because a prospect bolted for Europe or didn’t get proper game time to develop instead of sending them down there.

    • I’d rather cross my fingers and see if Fabbro becomes a free agent after his senior year (August 2020). We’re in no rush to acquire that specific player though it would be great if he decided to come home and sign with the Canucks.

    • Puck Viking

      I was hoping they would have an injury to one of their top 4 for this reason. If one of their top guys goes down and we could dangle tanev or edler for him.

    • If I were the Canucks, I would be hesitant to send prospects to the ECHL because they would be separated from the Canucks development team. At least they are practicing with Canuck resources in Utica whereas the K-Wings are only an affiliate. I don’t think they’d have any control over how they are deployed nor would they get the same level of non-game development support.

      I think Gourde and Ferland are different situations. Gourde was a no risk free agent signing who played in the ECHL before Tampa signed him to an NHL contract. They didn’t send him to the ECHL for development, he played exclusively in the AHL/NHL after he was signed. Ferland only played 3 games in the ECHL in his final junior year (played 30 WHL games, 7 AHL games and 3 ECHL games). He was pure AHL/NHL after that in terms of Flames development.

      • Chris the Curmudgeon

        You’re reading into what I wrote more than I intended. My point was simply that good NHLers can have ECHL experience on their resume and it’s not as long of a shot as it once was.

  • I don’t think Utunen is getting a fair shake (like Gunnarsson). People look at points and games played and draw their conclusions from only two numbers. According to Liiga’s stats page, Utunen is 1 of 7 LD with stats for Tappara. He gets only 11:06 TOI, dead last on the team. Four other defenders play 18+ mins TOI, while the other 5 play 13-17 mins TOI. Utunen has played only 2 seconds of PP and 5 mins of PK this season and averages only 3.5 minutes TOI per period. On EliteProspects website, Tappara has 8 defencemen on the roster. Two players are 37 years old and five guys are 25-29 years old. Utunen is only 18 years old.

    To me, having Utunen play in a men’s league and international junior tournaments (as a captain and winning medals) means that he’s light years ahead of most prospects.

  • Holmes

    Author’s assertion that Cement would not have prevented the Petey play? Nah, don’t think that’s true. Players would not even look at Gretz sideways. Maybe mis-remembering but I recall 99 getting a lot of latitude out there. Author – can’t tell by your mug shot, but are you old enough to have witnessed those Oiler games?

    • Holly Wood

      The thing with the Gretzky Kurri combo was they were so dominant for such a long time they could carry another winger. Semenko did a great job protecting 99 even though Bill McCreary caught him approximately 1981 with a clean open ice hit, then the Late in his career Gary Suter cross checked him from behind in an ugly incident.. It’s been erroneously reported that McCreary never played again but he actually played another dozen or so games.

  • TheRealRusty

    Best way to stop the opposition taking liberties with our best players is to do the same to theirs. Retaliation by fighting will be counter productive imho. We will only be taking roughing minors and fighting majors, which will only encourage the opposition to try to draw more penalites and get us off our game. Retaliate by taking it out on their best players will put a stop to all that nonsense, as their best players will want all the extra curricular activites to stop since they are the ones that will suffer any consequences.