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How Ryan O’Reilly can help ascend the Vancouver Canucks to the next step

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Photo credit:© Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
Niqhil
By Niqhil
1 year ago
Another season with the Canucks outside a playoff spot for the entirety of the season. Since 2011, the Canucks have won only one best of seven series and that came in an unprecedented COVID bubble. 
With players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes ascending into prime aged superstar level players, it’s worth asking how Canucks management can support such great high end talent and finally turn this core into a winner. 
This is a team that has quite a few needs, most importantly a need for defensive utility, leadership, and centre depth. There’s one player who can tick all those boxes in free agency, and it’s Ryan O’Reilly. 
O’Reilly is 32 years old and his 2022-2023 season with St. Louis left a lot to be desired and had fans asking if the former Conn Smythe winner was a shell of his former self. But O’Reilly fit right into a Toronto team vying for the ultimate prize and even earned a spot on their lethal fist unit power play. 
Canucks management made it very clear with the Filip Hronek trade that this is not a rebuild and they want to try and win with Pettersson and Hughes. Signing Ryan O’Reilly would help the Canucks do that almost instantly. 
Positional Value
The 2022-2023 season was very interesting for Canucks centres. The team started the year with three extremely capable top six options in Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and JT Miller. 
Pettersson was on the most straight path. He was incredible throughout the season and became the first Canuck since 2011 to hit the century mark in points. Pettersson was also excellent at both ends of the rink and was snubbed of a Selke nomination. 
Horvat played his best offensive hockey as a Canuck, scoring 31 goals in 49 games and spent parts of the season behind only Connor McDavid for the lead marksman in the NHL. Horvat and the Canucks weren’t able to negotiate a new contract and ultimately, the Canucks dealt him to the Islanders.
Miller’s season was a roller coaster. Fresh off the best season of his career and with a new contract to show for it, Miller’s season began poorly, to say the least. Miller’s lack of defensive effort was the talk of the town. Many questioned his ability to play centre long term as Miller was far more effective when moved to the wing. 
After the Horvat deal, Vancouver had a massive hole at centre and the organization tried Miller there again — this time under a new coaching staff. Miller experienced a complete 180 and was competing at both ends of the rink and was yielding fantastic offensive results. 
In the aftermath, the Canucks still have a huge hole at 3C and covet a guy that can handle that position with defensive utility. This will cause some to wonder why allocating so much cap space to merely fill in a bottom 6 role is a priority, and the answer to this question can be found by simply looking at cup winners throughout this decade as a template. 
LA won two cups with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll all adding centre utility. Tampa won two cups with Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde. Pittsburgh won in 2009 with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and then won another two 2016 and 2017 with Crosby, Malkin and Bonino. Understanding this concept, the Avalanche moved Mikko Rantanen to centre in the 2022 playoffs, won the cup, and have continued to sparingly use him there since. 
The Florida Panthers, off to the finals, have phenomenal centre depth with Alex Barkov, Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell down the middle and even have Sam Reinahart, who could be used down the middle if need be. 
Looking at successful teams in the modern NHL, having an abundance of players capable of playing the most important position in hockey is a common theme. The Canucks adding O’Reilly to an already very good 1-2 punch in Elias Pettersson and JT Miller would completely change the dynamic. 
Defensive Utility 
I can already hear it. The rebuttal that the Canucks had Pettersson, Miller and Horvat down the middle and only made the playoffs one time. The difference between Horvat and O’Reilly is clear at one end of the rink, and that’s the defensive side. 
Horvat was drafted out of London as a responsible two-way centre and even drew comparisons to O’Reilly, but at the NHL level, Horvat’s defensive reputation was always greater than his actual defensive impact. 
O’Reilly on the other hand is one of the greatest two-way players of his generation and even won the Selke in 2019. Even though it isn’t 2019 anymore, O’Reilly’s defensive metrics in 2023 are still good.
Leafs centre, Ryan O’Reilly’s even strength impact per JFresh chart.
O’Reilly’s defensive presence helped Toronto’s second line centre John Tavares the most. Tavares went from playing in a strength on strength role throughout the regular season and 2022 playoffs to a more sheltered role with O’Reilly having a massive spike in his offensive zone starts after the acquisition. 
Having JT Miller go from strength on strength minutes to utilizing him more as the offensive dynamo he is, would be a similar move the Canucks can utilize to get the most out of Miller at the centre position. 
The Canucks also have a perfect linemate for Ryan O’Reilly in Ilya Mikheyev. Mikheyev was brought in as a free agent in 2022 and despite scoring at solid 23 goal rate for the team, I don’t think we was properly utilized last season. Mikheyev in Toronto started a staggering 66% of his shifts in the defensive zone, yet was still able to score at an incredible rate at even strength. 
Mikheyev’s speed and ability to play in tough deployment would fit the cerebral and aging Ryan O’Reilly like a glove in a matchup role in Vancouver. 
O’Reilly would also be a massive upgrade on a Canucks penalty kill that finished dead last in the NHL in 2023. 
Leadership 
The two other previous points we used were argued with objective information. This one is purely subjective, as it’s hard to quantify leadership. But the epitome of leadership in the hockey world is Ryan O’Reilly. 
A captain, a Selke trophy winner, a Lady Byng winner and a cup champion. For a room that’s been questioned so many times that just lost it’s captain, what else could you ask for?  
Many former Canucks such as the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler have attributed Mats Sundin, a mid-season signing in the 2009/2010 season, as a player that helped them take the next step. 
A first ballot Hall of Famer, Sundin came to the Canucks after they missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, similarly to the current Canucks team. In 2008 many questioned the leadership core of the Sedin’s after the departure of Canucks legends Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund. Mats Sundin helped stabilize the room and helped players like the Sedin’s and Kesler emerge. 
For this core, we saw how much of a seismic change happened when Jim Benning moved away from leaders like Chris Tanev, Jacob Markstrom and Alex Edler. Adding a proven winner in O’Reilly could have a similar effect on this core that adding Sundin did to the 2011 core group of guys. 
Conclusion
Adding Ryan O’Reilly to this core may be the move that gets them to the next step, but it obviously won’t be easy. O’Reilly is from Ontario, is currently Leafs property, and the Canucks have serious cap problems. Term will have to be short and money will have to be high to entice a player of his pedigree to come to Vancouver, similar to the Mats Sundin contract. 
But the Vancouver organization has stated that they’re looking to be better as soon as next season, and if they want to do that, they need to covet players of this calibre, players that check every box. 
Vancouver is a poor defensive team with the worst penalty kill in the NHL and has an abundance of money tied into the wing positions. They must be creative and think outside the box and make bold moves to ascend this core, Ryan O’Reilly is exactly that.

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