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Projecting a top 9 forward group for the Canucks next season, and 6 UFAs who could help

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Josh Elliott-Wolfe
1 year ago
It’s no secret that the Vancouver Canucks lack depth in their forward group. It’s also not a secret that NHL teams don’t generally get very far without depth in their lineup. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Canucks will need to add pieces to their roster if they want to see real progress in the team’s development.
The Canucks are not in a position right now where they can confidently roll three lines, as even with a healthy Elias Pettersson, the team would still have a third line featuring Brandon Sutter, Zack MacEwen, or another forward that doesn’t excel in creating offence. That’s why we generally see the Canucks load up their top two lines with whatever offensive options they have available.
The forward group probably isn’t an issue the Canucks could solve this year, barring any unexpected trade. The organization also doesn’t have any players in the AHL that can step in to make any waves, and a player like Vasily Podkolzin won’t be able to make an impact until next season.
Let’s look forward to next season and take a look at what the Canucks can do to add to their forward group and explore potential options both within and outside the organization.

The current state of the top 9

As I mentioned, the Canucks don’t really have a top 9 forward group right now. There’s a pretty large offensive talent gap between the top 6 and bottom 6 forward groups. When everyone is healthy, the Canucks can run a third line that isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t feature anybody that can really drive play.
Since Pettersson’s injury, the team has been deploying JT Miller at the center position, which has seemed to add extra intensity and involvement into Miller’s game. When Pettersson is back in the lineup this could create a couple of different options:
  1. Move Miller back to the wing, reunite the Lotto Line, and hope that the Miller we’ve seen in the last few games is less to do with him playing center and more to do with him just hitting his stride.
  2. Keep both Pettersson and Miller at center. That would mean the Lotto Line is separated (at least temporarily) and would push one of Miller or Pettersson down the lineup.
While the first option is more likely, the second option is interesting. Not just this season, but in the long-term as well. It creates the opportunity for the Canucks to roll three lines and rely more on pairings of players rather than trios.
With Pettersson back, this is what a potential top 9 could look like:
Jake VirtanenElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Tanner PearsonBo HorvatNils Höglander
Zack MacEwenJT MillerAdam Gaudette
The issue here is that there is a weak link on every line, and that’s where we circle back to the current state of depth in the organization. The top line is one we’ve seen from time to time, but it’s relatively reliant on whether or not Virtanen is streaking or not, and this year it’s been more cold than hot for him. That being said, the trio of Virtanen-Pettersson-Boeser have played together for 20:55 this season and have put up a positive Corsi for percentage of 54.55% and have scored once.
The second line is obviously one that’s familiar. Pearson-Horvat-Höglander have played well together, putting up a 54.66% Corsi for in almost 200 minutes together at 5-on-5. They also outpace their opponents in goals for while on the ice at 10-7 this season. The only thing to consider is that Pearson may not be with the team much longer depending on how the trade deadline unfolds.
The third line is very up in the air. MacEwen-Miller-Gaudette have not played together, and as of now, MacEwen is having a hard time even finding himself in the lineup when everyone is healthy. We have seen Miller and Gaudette play together this year and post a negative Corsi for percentage of 45.22% in 72:03 minutes played together. As for Miller and MacEwen, they have been heavily outchanced at 30.09% in 57:45 minutes played together. Tyler Motte could also be an option on the wing in the top 9, but long-term, he’s probably a better fit on the fourth line.
The benefit to this setup is that you can keep the minutes pretty even between the lines and you would always have a legitimate scoring threat on the ice. Travis Green could also always move Miller back to the wing of Pettersson and slide Virtanen down the lineup depending on game situation.

The immediate future of the top 9

I know this phase has been polarizing lately, but the Canucks are probably two years away from being really competitive. They shouldn’t be, but the cap situation GM Jim Benning has put them in forces the team to wait until some more of the bloated contracts expire before they can really go all-in. They can possibly add to the top 9 for next season, but it’s going to take a lot of creativity if they want to greatly improve it.
This offseason will see the Sutter, Pearson, Edler, and Baertschi contracts expire, which is great! It will also see the extremely team-friendly contracts of Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko expire, which is not great. Essentially, the Canucks will be in the same cap position next year unless they are able to shed some salary, which they have shown no ability to do. There may be a bit of cap flexibilty if Pettersson and Hughes take bridge deals, which would hopefully create an opportunity to add to the forward group.

Prospects

There is the possibility of adding to the top 9 from within, which would not only be cheaper, but more beneficial in the long-term.
Vasily Podkolzin
This is the easy option. It’s also kind of a must for the Canucks if they want to compete next year. Podkolzin doesn’t have to come in and light the league on fire, but if he can translate to the NHL like Höglander has that would be huge for the team.
Kole Lind
As Stephan Roget mentioned the other day, Lind is a potential option down the middle on the third line. This would mean the the Canucks would not have to move Miller off of the Lotto Line to create the center depth necessary to roll three lines. The bigger issue is how NHL ready he is, and whether or not he can step in right away to be a legitimate scoring threat. It also doesn’t really create a real top 9 forward group unless he can completely perform above expectations.

UFA Options

The Canucks are going to have to work within a tight budget this offseason and will have to choose free agents carefully. The benefit this year is that we may see similar contracts to this past offseason: short and cheap(ish). Players like Taylor Hall will still be out of their price range, but there are a few intriguing options that could add some much needed depth. Most of the options in Stephan’s piece would help out down the middle and would create the versatility the team is searching for, but I’m going to turn my attention to the wing and play out scenarios that would keep Pettersson, Horvat, and Miller at center.
Brandon Saad
Saad is currently playing on the Colorado Avalanche and is able to hold down a middle-six spot on that potent offence, so he’d probably be just fine in Vancouver. So far this year he’s put up 14 points in 22 games and his $6 million contract is about to end after this season. He definitely won’t be due for a pay raise this offseason, but he could still be one of the more sought-after free agent forwards. His defensive metrics aren’t great, but the main reason the team would bring him in would be to increase the baseline of offence. He’s also 28 years old so still has a few good years left in him.
Mike Hoffman
This would only benefit the Canucks as a short-term fix as Hoffman will likely be looking to cash in with a longer term contract at 31 years old, but if he does opt to go for a one year deal he would be an interesting target. The issue with Hoffman is that while he does put up a lot of points upon first glance, it’s largely power play driven. This year though, only 4 of his 18 points with the Blues have come on the man advantage, so maybe he’s turning the corner at 5-on-5. The deal would have to be short for it to make sense for Vancouver as it could turn into an albatross contract as the years go by.
Zach Hyman
This one is more of a pipe dream. The Maple Leafs seem to have a pretty good understanding of how underrated Zach Hyman is not only within their team, but around the NHL as well. Hyman should be due for a hefty pay raise as the 28 year old regularly slides up and down the Leafs’ lineup and doesn’t seem to have any issues fitting into a line. The problem that Toronto may run into is fitting Hyman under the cap with only $12 million of projected space next season and a lot of holes to fill. He’s likely to be a high priority for Toronto, but if he does get to free agency the Canucks need to be all over him as his two-way ability would be a welcome addition to their lineup.
Blake Coleman
Coleman would be a great addition but it would be pretty contract-dependent. He’s the type of guy that can very easily be overpaid by an overeager GM. For the right price though, he’s a player that can slide up and down the lineup and contribute equally at both ends. There are better offensive options on this list for sure, but with 11 points in 23 games, he still wouldn’t be a bad target.
Joel Armia
Armia has spent most of the year playing middle 6 minutes in Montreal and has put up 9 points in 17 games. The interesting thing with him is that he’s only 27 years old, and isn’t due much more of a pay bump past the $2.6 million he’s making this season. The issue with him is that his defensive numbers aren’t great and his underlying offensive numbers seem to be pointing to a bit of extra luck being involved in his game this season. That being said, he would at the very least be someone to offset Virtanen if the Canucks were to find a trade partner.
Tanner Pearson
This would probably be a fall-back option for the Canucks. Ideally, Pearson would be traded by the deadline, but that doesn’t mean the team can’t bring him back in the offseason. He would definitely need to be on a lower cap hit, but he does still provide value to the lineup. I’m not sure if I would want him to continue featuring on Horvat’s line, but if Pettersson, Horvat, and Miller are all centring lines then Pearson would have to be on someone’s wing, and Horvat probably makes the most sense.

The “Dream” top 9 in 2021-22

Brandon SaadElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Vasily PodkolzinJT MillerAdam Gaudette
Zach HymanBo HorvatNils Höglander
This is most definitely a pie-in-the-sky top 9. Hyman more than likely won’t be leaving Toronto and Saad could still fetch a relatively big ticket in free agency. But this is the “Dream” top 9, so in this ideal world the Canucks somehow create the space to fit them both and still re-sign Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would likely require Seattle taking someone with a large cap hit in expansion, a potential Loui Eriksson retirement, and/or the removal of another contract on the roster. So not impossible, just less likely than the Canucks making the playoffs this season.
Think of all the possible line combos Travis Green would have though! I’ve pencilled them in the way I would like to see it on opening night, but really you can slide most players on the wings around and still have a pretty good lineup. Each line would be playing pretty even minutes, but depending on game scenario, you may see one play more often than the others.

The “Slightly Improved” top 9 in 2021-22

Brandon SaadElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Vasily PodkolzinJT MillerAdam Gaudette
Tanner PearsonBo HorvatNils Höglander
This would only be adding one external piece to the top 9, which is probably more realistic. I put Saad in there because I like his game a bit more than some of the other UFA’s, but you could really slot in any of the ones I mentioned as options for the Canucks this offseason. Again, this creates some flexibility and would provide more scoring options, but it still might be tough to fit both a UFA and Pearson under the cap for next year. There’s a lot riding on the contracts of Pettersson, Hughes, and Demko.

The “Status Quo” top 9 in 2021-22

Vasily PodkolzinElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Zack MacEwenJT MillerAdam Gaudette
Tanner PearsonBo HorvatNils Höglander
This isn’t the worst-case scenario, but it is pretty tough to see the Canucks being able to confidently roll three lines if they don’t add this offseason. If these were the players available you would probably see the coach stack the top 6 like we’ve seen this year, as if he did go to a top 9, it would put a player like Podkolzin in a position where he has to contribute at a decent level offensively in his rookie year.
In this scenario the Canucks would be able to retain Pearson but would not be able to add elsewhere in free agency. Theoretically, you could substitute someone else for Pearson if they chose another free agent over him, but that depends on price. The reason I’m putting MacEwen in the top 9 here is because he is likely a better option than someone like Roussel, and is farther in his development than most of the prospects currently with the Comets.

The “Oh No What Happened?” top 9 in 2021-22

JT MillerElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Vasily PodkolzinBo HorvatNils Höglander
Zack MacEwenKole LindAdam Gaudette
This isn’t really a top 9 as you’d be betting on mostly unproven players on the third line, and it definitely would not see as much ice time as the top two lines. This would mean that not only were the Canucks not able to add in free agency, but they weren’t able to find a way to bring Pearson back. Podkolzin may fit in well on the Horvat line, but it’s hard not to look at this top 9 as a step back for a team that was already lacking depth up front.
You’ll also notice that Virtanen isn’t in any of the top 9’s I laid out. Even if the Canucks can’t find a new home for Jake, I don’t think he should be in the lineup over MacEwen next season. As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t mind if Motte also got a shot in a more offensive-minded role at even strength, but ideally, he would be a fourth line player.
One option I haven’t mentioned is the possibility of a trade, which is always a route the team may explore. If a trade were made it would likely come at the expense of signing a free agent. If the Canucks can find a Nate Schmidt-type trade again for a forward that is being squeezed out of a stacked team then that may be their best option.
Regardless, the Canucks need to start adding depth next season before their competitive window starts to close, as we’ve already seen how difficult it is for a team to compete when there isn’t enough skill all throughout the lineup.

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