At this point, the Vancouver Canucks have to go all in next season
Photo credit:Vancouver Canucks on Twitter
8 months ago
The Canucks’ 3-2 loss to the actively tanking Arizona Coyotes, breaking a sudden late-season five-game winning streak, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In some ways, beating a number of potential playoff clubs only to lose to a bottom dweller is the most Vancouver Canuck thing possible.
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But it also foreshadows a major crossroads that the franchise is heading directly towards. Are they good enough to be a playoff team next season? Or are they still a few years away?
The Coyotes figured out what they are a while ago. And even though they’ve won quite a few games down the stretch, the rebuilding plan hasn’t changed. And to Vancouver’s credit, their strategy hasn’t changed from earlier in the year either, but it has been pulled in a few different directions.
Once again the Canucks find themselves in an all too familiar situation. Next season, they absolutely have to go for the playoffs.
The last time the Canucks put themselves on this course, it ended with the coach and general manager being kicked out the door midway through December. And in some ways, that expectation deserves to be placed on the current front office as well.
After teasing fans with ideas of a potential retool, Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford have since doubled down on the existing team, trading out only Bo Horvat and dealing away draft picks to get back into the same salary cap hell the team has been in for years.
With so little room to improve the team, the Canucks will have to rely on a couple of specific strategies, including promoting from within their own prospect pool. Nils Höglander and Jack Rathbone will hopefully make the permanent jump to the NHL, while Aidan McDonough and Danila Klimovich could be midseason call-ups depending on how quickly they develop.
But since there isn’t much left in the pipeline as is, trading away draft picks to fill immediate needs might have to be the course of action. But showing restraint from overpayment will be key.
The recent Filip Hronek trade is a perfect example. The trade deadline is always the most expensive time to acquire roster players, but that didn’t stop the Canucks from paying two high draft picks for Hronek, who has yet to play a single game for Vancouver due to an injury suffered before the deal. Odds are, if Allvin liked the player that much, a move for Hronek could’ve waited until the offseason for a lower price and a guarantee on where the traded draft picks would sit.
That extra time could’ve provided the Canucks with a way to acquire Hronek without giving up the Islanders’ first rounder; effectively, they might’ve been able to have their cake and eat it too. But that’s why slowing down to fully consider roster decisions, especially for a team in as unique a competitive window as the Canucks have, is still so crucial.
But there are more ways to acquire players than through draft picks. The Canucks’ have an extensive glut of wingers currently, many of which could be useful trade chips to filling a need in another place, like on defence or at centre.
For example, Anthony Beauvillier has been scoring at a strong clip since arriving in Vancouver but it’s very possible that his numbers regress over time, like they had in Long Island. His value on the trade market might never be higher than this offseason, and he could be the perfect carrot to dangle in front of another team to get some much needed help on the Canucks’ blue line. A move in that direction might sound risky, but it falls right in line with the type of deals Stanley Cup contenders make to find the final piece of a championship puzzle.
But the biggest elephant in the room is the contract of former Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s massive contract.
The Canucks’ blue line has looked substantially better since an ankle injury took OEL out of the lineup, and that $7.26 million cap hit is only looking like more and more of a boat anchor. Trading him is likely out of the question, but while buying out his contract might sound like the quickest, easiest way to free up space, the cost is way too steep.
Under a buyout, Ekman-Larsson’s cap hit would be a mere $146 thousand next season, but by 2025-26, that number would balloon to $4.766 million. And for a team that believes they’re in their current competition window, that sudden boost in dead cap would cut their chances of winning with sustainability extremely short.
The Canucks pretty much have to find a way to convince Ekman-Larsson to sit on Long Term Injured Reserve for the remainder of his contract. There is precedent for players with nagging injury woes being paid out the remainder of their existing deals to watch from the sidelines, including David Clarkson, Nathan Horton and Stephane Robidas; the latter inadvertently became the namesake for ‘Robidas Island‘, a fictional place where injured players on expensive long term contracts “mysteriously appear” in (although today we know it as Tempe, Arizona).
If they can’t , a buyout seems like the only other realistic option. Doing either of these would allow them to spend to the cap ceiling without any concerns of dead cap soaking up their ability to improve in the final season before Elias Pettersson and Filip Hronek are due to receive pay raises.
If Allvin and Rutherford keep the team’s long-term cap situation in mind more, the Canucks could easily retool through good pro scouting and smart cap management to make the playoffs next year. But considering they’re also the ones who put themselves in this situation through overly expensive contracts and extensions last offseason, the Canucks really need to squash that mindset before it costs them again.
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