When Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford appeared on The DFO Rundown with Frank Seravalli and Jason Gregor on Monday, he offered a lot about the franchise’s direction heading into an all-important offseason. With Bruce Boudreau officially back on board as head coach and the dust of the season settled, the Canucks’ front office can begin to properly chart a new course for the team’s future.
But any plans Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin have for both the short and long term come back to the same issue: cap space.
And Rutherford is well aware of it.
“The first step is going to be, you know, is there anything we can do here to free up some cap space to be part of the offseason game that everybody gets into?” Rutherford said. “There’s teams that are gonna have to get rid of players just to be cap compliant, and we would like to be in a position where at least in that conversation with those teams, that we can make a deal.”
The balance Rutherford is looking to strike won’t be easy. With a strong core group of young talent like Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko, the Canucks need to find a way to clear the books without actively making the team worse around them.
“We’re a non-playoff team, so we don’t want to take too much away from what we already have here,” Rutherford said. “We would like to get younger, get guys maybe 26 years old or younger, so that we can bring that team together within the next couple of years.”
Rutherford also feels Vancouver requires more “sandpaper” in the lineup; the type of heavier players that teams like Tampa Bay and St. Louis have successfully utilized during recent Stanley Cup runs. But he doesn’t believe that should come at the cost of scoring depth.
“We have to put together a team for next year where we have more balance and more depth. More balance throughout our forwards, throughout our defensive pairings, so the minutes can be shared a little bit better and give these guys a better chance to perform at almost 100% every game.”
Rutherford pointed to the team’s weak prospect depth as an issue that he and Allvin will be making a priority. Specifically, he mentioned the lack of young right-shot defencemen and centres within the system or in junior that could replenish their NHL depth down the line.
That also requires the Canucks to keep the young pieces that are already here, like restricted free agent Brock Boeser. Boeser’s qualifying offer of $7.5 million might throw a small wrench into negotiations, but Rutherford doesn’t see it as a major issue towards getting a contract signed.
“It’s not like we’re squeezed that we can’t fit this $7.5 million in on a one-year deal,” Rutherford said. “From our point of view, he’s still team control following that, so we’re we’re pretty open to anything at this point.”
“It would make sense with him being as young as he is at 25 to have a deal with a little bit of term on it, but maybe not that big long-term deal. If he did a two, three-year deal, he’s still pretty young to get his long-term deal. But we’ll get into that at some point in time.”
How the Canucks approach negotiations with Boeser and his agent Ben Hankinson will largely depend on where they see him fitting in the lineup and, more specifically, who with. When discussing Elias Pettersson’s struggles over the previous two seasons, Rutherford mentioned a lack of consistent linemates and the importance of having set pairings to develop chemistry. But he was also quick to praise the face of the franchise.
“The way he played in the second half is what he is. He’s a terrific player, he’s a star player in this league. And what you have to look at this year is he missed training camp, he had an injury that he had to deal with for at least the first half of the season. And to his credit, he got his game on track in the second half,” Rutherford said.
“If we can get a consistent couple of players to play with him, whether he’s on the wing or at centre, it’s going to make it a lot better for him and that’s what we’re trying to work towards.”
Pettersson wasn’t the only player to see a jump in performance during the second half of the year. Under Bruce Boudreau, the Canucks shot up the rankings from near the basement to just five points shy of a playoff spot come April.
When Rutherford was asked if there was a certain point where he could see a better than expected team in front of him, he gave the incumbent coach his fair share of the credit. But he was also dismissive of any idea of an undervalued lineup past the goaltending department.
“We are very fortunate we have a franchise goalie. I mean, Demko is a terrific goalie,” Rutherford said. “He wins a lot of games for us, and you need that goalie to be a contending team.”
“I want to see us get to a point where we don’t have to lean on him as much and in as many games to win those games. So that gets more to the point of getting a little more structure in our game, and getting that structure where it makes it easier for the players to play game in and game out. And Bruce is capable of doing that.”
The decisions on players and personnel that Rutherford, Allvin, and the rest of the Canucks’ new front office are going to make in the coming months will likely ebb and flow based on the market and available talent in front of them. But since Rutherford took the helm half a year ago, there’s now a clear plan and high expectations in place, something Vancouver hasn’t had in a very long time.
“Once the Stanley Cup’s awarded there’ll be a lot more movement and a lot more interest in what teams are trying to do. We’re presently in the middle of getting [amateur and pro scouting]’s opinion on what they think of players and where they think we can get better.” Rutherford said.
“We have a pretty good handle on what we’d like to do.”
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