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Photo Credit: Matthew Henderson

Mailbag Part 2: Playoff Predictions, Union Reps, and the Best Place for the Canucks to Finish Next Season

I would normally advise teams to shy away from signing free agents to expensive long-term deals, with two major exceptions. The first is if the player is an elite talent. Elite players rarely make it to market, and if you have the opportunity to get one without giving up anything but cap space you have to take it. The second exception would be if the player is young enough that you’re still paying for some of this best years.

Among this years crop of free agents, that means the big fish is Artemi Panarin. He’s a special talent, basically a lock to play on your first line, and a max contract will take him to the age of just 33. Unless he forgets how to play hockey or decides to stop giving a shit, there are very few downsides to giving him whatever kind of money he’s asking for. Jeff Skinner falls into this category as well, although he’s a bit riskier because he’s been less consistent offensively over the course of his career.

You could make a similar case for Matt Duchene, who’s still young at 27, and Erik Karlsson, who’s 28 but is the also probably the best defenseman of his generation. Whether or not those players make sense for the Canucks, whose best days are still probably two or three years away, when both players will be nearing or over 30, is debatable, but the talent level means you have to think about it.

I think that maybe you’re giving the front office a bit too much credit. That would be some 3D chess-manoeuvring from executives that struggle to play checkers at times. Having said that, it would make sense. Using Horvat as the centrepiece of a trade to get Jack Hughes is the most logical assumption if you think that trading for that pick is possible. I suppose it’s not out of the question that it may have something to do with the delay in making Horvat the captain.

I think you have to hope that he’s willing to either take a massive pay cut to get a third year or that he’s willing to take a high AAV to keep it down to two years. I’d be very surprised if he accepts a deal worth less than 4 million AAV, but maybe you can convince him to do two years at 5. He has all the leverage now. Anyone hoping for him to sign a sweetheart deal should be prepared to be disappointed.

My read on the letter is what it’s been for the past few years when these letters go out, which is that fundamentally, he’s a real estate guy, but he thinks he can be a hockey guy, but isn’t really knowledgeable enough to pull it off. He speaks mostly in platitudes and repeats talking points that have been out in the media for months before those letters go out. I’m sure they’re mostly dictated by a publicist or a PR rep and he just signs off on them.

As far as the second part of the question goes, I don’t know if that’s the case and don’t particularly care. If the goal during the first few years of the Benning regime was to remain competitive while building for the future, they screwed it up the moment they took Jake Virtanen, who’s taken 5 years to develop into a 15-goal player, over Nikolaj Ehlers, a virtual plug-and-play winger who’s had three back-to-back 20+ goal seasons. I’m not going to relitigate the past five years, but the problem wasn’t just their goal, it was that they executed it poorly, too. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know if that means they should get a Mulligan on four of the last five seasons.

If the Canucks go on a sustainable run into the second round or better next season I will be as happy as anyone else. I want the team to do well and that desire overrides my admitted distaste for the teambuilding strategy the front office has utilized over the past 5 seasons. If, however, they go on a PDO bender and make a run deep into the playoffs while boasting terrible underlying numbers like the 2015 Calgary Flames or the 2017 Ottawa Senators, it will probably be more difficult to enjoy. Those teams both imploded. We all know what’s happened in Ottawa and even the powerhouse Flames had to undergo somewhat of a mini-rebuild before they could be what they are now. A deep run with their current roster and underlying numbers would probably set them back two years.

Yes. I’d be very surprised if any of those players make the opening roster. Rafferty might get a couple of games if his season in Utica goes well and the team is hit with injuries, but that’s about it.

If any team has to add to that deal it’s the Canucks. I’m not entirely sure who comes out on top in a Makar-Hughes trade, but it’s probably the Canucks. If they offer you another first in addition to Makar you do it in a heartbeat.

It’s probably still Olli Juolevi based on pedigree alone, but Jett Woo and Tyler Madden both have good cases. With Hughes now in the NHL, the prospect pool isn’t looking so hot.

I think the biggest focus should be on the defense. If Travis Green shuffles enough deck chairs in the middle six, he can probably squeeze a couple extra wins out of this team. That’s not really the case on defense. With Hughes now in the picture, they have three defenders who can confidently say belong in an NHL top-six, with the caveat that Edler could start a steep decline any day now. Ben Hutton flashes promise but is inconsistent and inching closer and closer to “he is what he is” territory, Chris Tanev is basically dying, and the Canucks number 6/7 slot is a revolving door of underachievers and also-rans. Without much coming down the pipeline, it needs to be significantly overhauled in the near future.

I’m leaning towards Matthew Boldy in that range but obviously it depends on who slides down the rankings.

Here it is, in all it’s glory:

The final results shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, but you can’t get there without a few surprises along the way, so I did my best to make a couple of educated guesses about where upsets might occur. The Carolina Hurricanes bumping off the defending champs in 7 games is the most obvious surprise, but I think there’s a case to be made it could happen. The Hurricanes are the NHL’s second-best team by shot metrics and have the potential to be a real nuisance in a 7-game series, especially against a Capitals team whose underlying numbers suggest they’re far from invincible. The West was more difficult for me. There are a lot of really great teams, so most of the series came down to goaltending. The San Jose Sharks might be the best team in the league but their goaltending has a good chance to be their undoing almost immediately. A lot of pundits have the Flames going to the final, but they have questions in net, too, so I have the Golden Knights ousting them in round 2. In the end, I picked the team with the best combination of talent, depth, and goaltending to come out of the West, which for me is still the Jets.

And obviously, I have the Lightning winning the Cup because they have the best roster. That doesn’t always matter but it would be foolish to bet against them.

It’s probably Calgary. Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund are both great players and every other team doesn’t really have that kind of talent distribution between the Rep and the Alternate Rep. Minnesota gives them a run for their money because the rep is a goalie (Devan Dubnyk), and they tend to have a higher impact on WAR due to the fact that they play full games. Their alternate rep is Ryan Suter, though, and WAR models tend to view him, rightly or wrongly, as just okay, so the Flames edge out the Wild.

I wouldn’t move the second overall pick to trade up and get Jack Hughes unless the deal was particularly favourable for the Canucks. If all it takes is an extra pick or two or a roster player that isn’t going to factor into the team’s future, then fine. Otherwise I’ll happily take Kakko as a consolation prize. Hughes is the better prospect, but not by so much that adding assets in addition to Kakko to get him would be worth it.

I think I would pick them finishing at the lowest possible place in the standings without one of the core four players taking a major step back or suffering a serious injury. They’re still very far away from being an elite team, and the quicker the ownership and front office realizes that the better off the team will be. I would say the best place for them to finish would be 31st, but realistically that can’t happen if Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, and Hughes all play at the level they’re capable of, so I’ll say the best place for them to finish would be 25th, just below where they finished this year. That would force Francesco Aquilini to acknowledge that they need more talent on defense and in the middle-six without requiring a major step back from any of the core building block players.

  • “[Aquilini] speaks mostly in platitudes and repeats talking points that have been out in the media for months before those letters go out.”

    With all due respect: this makes him an excellent hockey guy. And that might be part of the problem…

    • Here’s a quote from THN ref NJ.

      “I’m glad we stuck with what we’re doing,” Shero said. “And I think we’re set up well moving forward.”
      It will take some time, but the Devils will be back among the NHL’s contenders within a couple of seasons. That’s the way these things work. It starts at the top with solid ownership and competent management and the Devils have both. Not only is Ray Shero lucky, but he’s also very, very good at what he does.

    • THN article

      “I’m glad we stuck with what we’re doing,” Shero said. “And I think we’re set up well moving forward.”
      It will take some time, but the Devils will be back among the NHL’s contenders within a couple of seasons. That’s the way these things work. It starts at the top with solid ownership and competent management and the Devils have both. Not only is Ray Shero lucky, but he’s also very, very good at what he does.

  • I firmly disagree with your statement that Edler has “all the leverage”. That would only be true if the guy sitting across the table from him and his agent is a complete bafoon with little to no experience in contract negotiations. The guy LOVES this city so much that this fact alone should be used against him in any negotiations.

    Oh wait, the guy across the table is a bafoon when it comes to everything outside amateur scouting. Nevermind.

    Cheers btw for another solid mailbag. Can’t wait to not read all the Benning apologists’ anger towards you for yet another heavily slanted supposedly anti-Benning article. 😂

    • In the last 14 months, Benning has added Leivo, Pearson, Motte, Beagle, Roussel, and Schenn without giving up any significant assets to get them. I don’t know what a “bafoon” is, but the Canucks need more of them.

      • He’s added a two decent wingers, a decent depth winger, a replacement-level winger, an aging fourth-line centre, a decent winger, and a #7 defenceman. He gave up quite a bit all things considered for one of those wingers, but not much for the rest.

        However, such players do not a Stanley Cup Contender make.

          • Soon as I hit post I thought maybe you meant Spooner for Gagner. If that’s the case , then you may have a point, but I don’t see either in the league in October

        • In the last year Benning also added Gaudette, Petterson, Demko, and Hughes, and such players will a Stanley Cup Contender make.

          A team needs both star players and solid depth players. See Oilers, Edmonton for what happens when they don’t.

  • Ehlers eh? You mean the guy who absolutely disappeared in the playoffs? The only two players they missed out on were Pasternak and Larkin. Not interested in gutless regular season players who do nothing playoff time like Ehlers and Nylander. Not to mention paying these heartless players 5-8 mill a season. Wow three twenty goal seasons in a row playing on a stacked team with a D core that can move the puck. Virtanen may not have the best hockey IQ but on a team with almost no beef or speed I can see why Benning took him. He’s top five speed in the league and can hit like a freight train. If he ever gets some consistency and confidence offensively he could be a beast.

    • Neither Ehlers or Nylander have had big playoff series yet. On the other hand their points per game in the playoffs are both double that which Virtanen has in the regular season.

      The authors point wasnt that Ehlers and/or Nylander are better players than Virtanen – that was settled long ago – it’s that if Bennings mandate was to be competitive ‘now’, and he knew Virtanen was going to take longer to develop…..I’m sure you can figure out the rest. At least he’s not ‘gutless’ though right – I’m sure you put a lot of thought into your comment and have spent a lot of time watching those two ‘gutless’ players.

      Also thinking that Pastrnak and Larkin (who has one playoff goal BTW) were the only two better options than Virtanen is another amazing insight – a redraft would put him in the second round.

      • it’s that if Bennings mandate was to be competitive ‘now’, and he knew Virtanen was going to take longer to develop…..I’m sure you can figure out the rest.

        Benning did not draft with “competitive now” in mind. He knows draft picks take time to develop an patience is required. They have stated in the first two years, they want to remain competitive while building for the future. It was successful in the first year, but then was unsustainable. Management has not deviated from the draft (or sign available undrafted players) and develop. Their prospect pool, and their young players (<23-24) on their NHL roster support this.

        • Oh sorry – I’ve been led to believe on this forum that ownership forced Benning to ‘retool on the fly’ against Benning’s will. I assumed part of that was to select players that could help the team immediately like Nylander or Ehlers. This is super confusing.

          • In an alternate universe (without a meddling owner) no one knows what direction he would’ve taken.

            With that said, there’s no way that Benning was going to undermine ownership’s “retool on the fly” plan, even if he disagreed (unless he wanted to be fired).

      • Well it’s not hard to surmise that a 6’1″ 210 plus pounder with edge, who can skate, could be a momentum changer in a seven game series. Or would you prefer a perimeter regular season performer with no bite to his game?

  • how many billionaires write their own letters? unless aqualini had drank a bottle of his wine, i’m pretty sure his letter was vetted and polished by a pro.

  • It’s not fixed. a struggling Metro New York area team gets 1st overall 2 out of 3 years in the Devils. Two old six teams, NYR and CHI get the other two top three picks. Yeah, it’s fair and equitable I suppose. One can only perceive how much faith fans of scumbag Canadian clubs have in the draft lottery. I mean what do Canadians know about hockey?

    • Yeah, cause Bettman’s master plan was to have the greatest player since Crosby end up in Edmonton. Matthews end up in a Canadian market and Dahlin end up in one of the worst markets in America for TV ratings.

      Fixed indeed.

      • For me I ran to the “It’s fixed” quickly after the results, but that was the emotional side of the equation, mostly based on the lack of luck the Canucks have had in lotteries since the very beginning. If it wasn’t for bad luck the Canucks would have no luck at all. But at an intellectual level and not just cherry picking the Canucks lack of luck at lotteries the points about McDavid, Matthews, and Dahlin pretty much indicate it is not fixed/rigged.

  • It sounds like next year’s draft is better than this year’s, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Canucks finish again where they did this year. (Which they probably will, with no obvious help on the way) There are a number of good forwards in the 2020 draft, including Lafreniere and Byfield, but also RHD like Barron and Drysdale. At some point, the Canucks need a break in the draft lottery. They really are just utterly luckless in that department.

  • Is that justice? Jersey picks Herschier, trades for Hall and now Jack Hughes.

    The Rangers have never picked in the top three in 50 years.

    The Hawks; Time to replace Kane and the rebuild is well underway.

  • Pettersson, Hughes, Boeser and potentially Horvat have the potential to be dominant if not elite players. Wouldn’t a better goal for next year be for the team to take a step forward and for them to get collectively better while the complementary players like Gaudette, Leivo, Virtanen, Demko and Juolevi also take significant steps forward? Rebuild isn’t just about adding draft picks, it’s actually developing young players into a cohesive team. I think finishing in the bottom of the league again next year would be a terrible step backwards.

    • Not only that, but when you win the lottery over and over, you end up handcuffing your salary cap with 2 or 3 players and filling in rest from the bargain bin and having to shove those two players out into the media spotlight to answer why, again, they cant finish even close to the playoffs.

      I’d rather have a team full of better than average players than one with one or two generational ones (dollar for dollar). Point is, winning the lottery isn’t the only way back to the top, and I’m tired of tanking. I feel like I have been patient, and still am to some degree, but I think the rebuild has passed its nadir and want to see us build up from here.

  • It’s time to get rid of the lottery. The NHL is far too concerned with a team throwing a game near the end of the season in order to receive a higher pick that we end up with this ongoing farce. Teams that finish near the bottom should have access to the next group of players based on their recent performance.

  • When it comes to letters from the owner or public comments from Benning people tend to analyse every word initiating great debates on what it means for the future of the Canucks. The truth of the matter is that most of the comments are designed to make the team look better, which is to be expected.They are sales jobs. Bennings recent comment about teams winning the Stanley Cup with 28-35 year olds (or something like that) was an off hand remark and analysed to death. Maybe we should be less concerned about what they say and more concerned about what they do.

    • Benning’s comment may shed some light on what he’s going to do, since in the past he’s (over)valued veteran players at the expense of youth and draft picks. That’s a problem for a rebuilding team and has inarguably set the Canucks’ rebuild back.

      • The question was directed at timelines for teams as they develop their young players. Or are you of the opinion that Beagle and Rousell were brought as part of a “win now” philosphy?

        I would suggest the prime age of the core for cup winners is 24-32, with some younger and some older. Between 2013 and 2018 this has been the case.

      • What? You mean you wouldn’t have given a 33 year old, 4th line centre a 4 year, 12 million $ deal? When you could have had Brad Richardson (same age, but 19 goals vs 3 for Beagle) on a 2 year deal for 1.25 mil per season? Benning really needs to stay away from the free agents this off season. Unless its Karlsson or Panerin.