When the Canucks waived Sven Baertschi last Monday, the decision was met with outrage from a large portion of the fanbase. In turn, this outrage was met with confusion from the rest of the fans, as well as the local media. How could a player be simultaneously an asset to his team and unwanted by the rest of the NHL?
The truth is, a player can be both a good winger relative to his team and nothing to write home about relative to the rest of the league. That’s just what happens when you continue to run with the players that made up arguably the worst bottom-six in the league last season.
There are plenty of value-based critiques one could have about the decision, but part of what makes it especially frustrating is that, for years, the trade the Canucks made for Sven Baertschi has been held up as one of the management team’s great successes, especially of the early Benning/Linden era.
You may recall that the Canucks made a habit of trading away draft picks for players in Baertschi’s age range early in Jim Benning’s tenure. The Canucks were looking to fill the so-called “age gap” on their roster that existed between Henrik and Daniel Sedin and younger players like Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen. Benning explained the thought process behind these moves in a 2016 interview with Kevin Woodley for NHL.com:
Many wondered why a team that finished 28th in the NHL was trading picks and prospects instead of stockpiling them, especially with a general manager who was hired in large part for his draft expertise.
“I’ve had to move some draft picks in the last couple of years because I want the team to be competitive and I want our young players to grow up in a winning environment,” Benning said. “That’s been hard, moving those picks, but I think we are getting to a point now where unless it’s a really good young player, we won’t be moving any more picks.”
Trading those picks was about filling in a generation gap in the roster, with an aging core anchored by Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, who turn 36 before the season, and prospects Bo Horvat (21), Ben Hutton (23) and Jake Virtanen (19). Draft picks were traded away for Derek Dorsett, Linden Vey, Sven Baertschi and Philip Larsen, and in packages for Andrey Pedan, Emerson Etem, Brandon Prust, Sutter and Gudbranson.
“There was not a lot of turnover before I came because the team was very good, so we had a bunch of 32- to 34-year-old players and then the kids we were drafting,” Benning said. “That’s tough to win with consistently. You need that age group from 22 to 28, those are players I feel you can win with. Some of the moves we made are going to work out really nice and some other moves didn’t work out, but that’s what we had to try to do to fill in that age group.”
It is worth noting that those moves, in fact, did not work out really nice. In fact, the “generation gap” experiment turned out to be a stunning failure on almost every level.
Narrowing down which players were targeted specifically to fill that age gap is difficult, but if we apply the label to every player the Canucks acquired between the ages of 21-25 from the moment Jim Benning was hired and the Sedins’ final game before their retirement that was traded for either a draft pick or a younger prospect, we end up with a list of nine so-called “age gap” players. As a refresher, I’ve also included where each player is as of the date of publication:
|Linden Vey||Left as free agent (KHL)|
|Adam Clendening||Traded in a package to Pittsburgh for Brandon Sutter|
|Andrey Pedan||Traded along with a fourth-round pick to Pittsburgh for Derrick Pouliot|
|Sven Baertschi||Placed on waivers|
|Markus Granlund||Left as free agent (Edmonton Oilers)|
|Erik Gudbranson||Traded to Pittsburgh for Tanner Pearson|
|Emerson Etem||Claimed off waivers by Anaheim Ducks|
|Philip Larsen||Left as free agent (KHL)|
|Derrick Pouliot||Left as free agent (St. Louis Blues)|
It doesn’t take a genius to look at these moves in totality and conclude the experiment was at least a misstep, if not a full-blown catastrophe. Not only do none of these players remain on the active roster, but if not for Jim Rutherford’s love of acquiring bad defenseman, they’d have nothing to show for all the assets they expended on them.
You may wonder what the point of re-litigating years-old transactions is at this stage in the Canucks’ life cycle, but Sven Baertschi’s reassignment signals something that’s gone mostly unacknowledged over the past week: the age gap experiment, along with virtually everything else that happened on the ice from the end of the 2014-15 season to the announcement of the Sedins’ retirement, amounts to nothing less than an abject failure on all fronts. The Canucks’ Third Way mentality of trying to strike a balance between rebuilding and competing not only managed to accomplish neither, but actually ended up handicapping their efforts any time they made moves that hinted at either direction.
The only thing that held strong through those disappointing 2014-2018 years was the team’s amateur scouting department, and while there’s a debate to be had about where the Canucks’ drafting stacks up against the rest of the league over the past five years, there’s no question it’s been an area of relative strength. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to help them in the short term, especially at forward. Podkolzin has two seasons remaining on his KHL contract, Nils Hoglander likely needs an additional year in the SHL and another in the minors at very least before he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL, and once-prized prospects Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich will need to drastically improve on their rookie AHL campaigns to still be considered legitimate prospects by this time next year. The only player in the Canucks’ system with a serious chance at becoming an NHL regular this season is Zack MacEwen. The rest are all already on the roster and one, Adam Gaudette, sat in the press box on opening night.
No, for this season to be viewed as a success, the Canucks will need more than just encouraging steps forward from their young players. They’ll need to actually win. But accomplishing that goal is going to hinge just as much on the performances of the players they acquired through trades and in free agency as it will on the performances from the ones they acquired through the draft. There’s reason to be skeptical about that, given that the decision-making process that lead to acquiring most of the Canucks’ active roster aside from the “core four” is the same that resulted in the failed Age Gap Experiment.
When viewed in totality, it’a hard to look at the laundry list of picks the Canucks moved out between 2014-2018 and conclude that they’d be any worse off than they are now. In fact, given the success of the Canucks’ scouting department in recent years, there’s a case to be made that they’d be closer to turning the corner than they are now if they’d just sat on their hands for most of the past half decade. It’s appropriate, then, that the player whose emergence spelled the demise of Jim Benning’s one successful test case in the age gap experiment is Adam Gaudette, a former fifth round pick that wouldn’t even have been in the Canucks’ possession if Mike Gillis hadn’t flipped Raphael Diaz at the 2014 trade deadline in his final move as Canucks GM.
By waiving Sven Baertschi, the crown jewel of this experiment, they’ve signaled not only that he’s not in their long-term plans, but that one of the main pillars of the first four years of the Benning era has been an abject failure. To say so isn’t conjecture, it’s the only conclusion one can come to given their stated goal at the time. The aim of all of these moves was ostensibly to bridge the gap between old and young and allow the team’s youngsters to develop in a winning environment. Now, as we enter the sixth season of the Benning era, not one of those players remains on the active roster, and the Canucks have only one of the league’s worst records over that span to show for it.
With his assignment to the Utica Comets, Sven Baertschi has become the symbol of an era of Canucks hockey that has been defined by failures both on and off the ice. Luckily, that era is coming to an end. It remains to be seen if the next one will get to be defined by something else.