The Canucks are just a few steps away from icing an adequate NHL defence as soon as next season
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
Way back at the outset of the 2022–23 season, Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford earned some derision for his statement that the Vancouver Canucks had “a defence that is certainly adequate if it’s healthy.”
It wasn’t even one of those statements that required the benefit of hindsight in order to make light of. Everyone could see at the time that the claim was not and was not going to be true. And three-quarters of a season later, the blueline has, indeed, proven to be the opposite of healthy and adequate.
But that doesn’t mean that the situation hasn’t changed in the interim. It has. In fact, one could argue that it’s vastly improved and that the Canucks are now just a few key steps away from achieving that promised adequacy.
They’re getting there.
The near-deadline acquisition of Filip Hronek from the Detroit Red Wings is obviously the primary game-changer at play. In Hronek and Quinn Hughes, the Canucks now have two defenders of top-pairing quality that they can either pair together or, more likely, keep separated as the anchors to two different top-four pairings.
That alone moves the Canucks’ needle significantly closer to blueline adequacy. From here on out, just a handful of steps stand between the Canucks and a defence corps they can feel genuinely confident about.
Step 1: Trade Tyler Myers, with retention if necessary
The Canucks don’t even have a complete blueline on the books for 2023–24, nor do they have a particularly good one, and yet their defence is already among the most costly in the league. That has to change somehow, and the simplest opportunity available to make an addition by subtraction is via Tyler Myers.
Next season, the $6 million Myers would still be the Canucks’ top-earning RHD, but his quality of play would rightly have him slotted behind the incoming Hronek and the returning Ethan Bear on the depth chart. Trading him would open up both a roster space and valuable cap needed to improve the team elsewhere.
The team will almost certainly wait until Myers’ $5 million summer signing bonus is paid, and then attempt to flip him at full cap to another team on the strength of his $1 million in remaining salary. If that fails, a little retention on the final year of his contract probably gets it done. The key is to ditch Myers without bringing back much, if anything, in the way of returning salary.
Step 2: Either buy out Oliver Ekman-Larsson or accept him as an expensive bottom-pairing defender
Of course, Myers is not the single-most overpriced defender on the Vancouver blueline. That dubious honour falls to Oliver Ekman-Larsson and his (already retained) $7.26 million AAV. But whereas Myers’ contract ends next summer, Ekman-Larsson’s extends all the way until the year 2027. In other words, while Myers’ contract should be moveable during the upcoming offseason, OEL’s will not be. In fact, it might just be the most unmoveable contract in the entire league.
This leaves the Canucks with two basic choices. They can buy him out this summer, incurring descending cap savings for the next four seasons and then four more years of $2 million in dead cap thereafter.
Or, they can bite the bullet and accept having Ekman-Larsson around as an outrageously expensive bottom-pairing defender.
The key, in either case, is to stop pretending that Ekman-Larsson can be relied upon as a top-four D. One of the worst things the team could do would be to spend all of this draft capital on Hronek just to bring him to Vancouver and saddle him with OEL as a partner.
Bought out or not, OEL stays on the books as an expensive regret, and the team is forced to paper over that mistake one way or another.
Step 3: Extend Ethan Bear
But enough bad news. If there was one major step that the Canucks took toward solidifying their blueline this season, aside from the Hronek acquisition, it was trading for Bear…and that trade came at a much more reasonable price.
Acquired alongside Lane Pederson for just a fifth-round pick, Bear almost immediately stepped into the Canucks’ top four and, at the age of 25, looks like he could be a long-term fit there. Bear showed instant chemistry with Hughes, which could give the Canucks one-half of their next season’s top-four, all wrapped up and ready to go.
Of course, Bear is a pending RFA who will need to be qualified and extended, but that doesn’t seem like it will be too onerous. Vancouver did rescue Bear from healthy scratch obscurity in Carolina, and he doesn’t have the sort of offensive numbers that might help him break the bank.
We predict that Bear will sign for something in the range of four years and an AAV of $4 million or less. We’ll also say that they’ll get good value on such a contract, especially if Bear remains on a pairing with Hughes for the foreseeable future.
Then, the challenge becomes finding someone for Hronek to pair with.
Then, the challenge becomes finding someone for Hronek to pair with.
Step 4: Sign or trade for a quality veteran LHD
The Canucks have spent their last few offseasons attempting to acquire various defenders of genuine NHL quality, and the results have been mixed at best.
Fortunately, the summer of 2024 seems to promise a particularly strong market of available defenders. And thankfully, with Hronek and Bear presumably locked in, the Canucks will be more on the lookout for a veteran LHD than a RHD, and that’s always a far more attainable commodity.
The UFA market offers up at least three intriguing LHD candidates in Carson Soucy, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Ryan Graves. Each of them is aged 28 or younger, and each would cost nothing more than a contract to acquire as unrestricted free agents. The team could determine which made the most sense as a partner for Hronek and then zero in on a target, but any of the three looks like a potential fit to us. Ideally, this player has size, defensive awareness, and at least a modicum of puck-moving ability.
Should the free agent frenzy prove too volatile, the Canucks could always explore a trade for a veteran LHD like Marcus Pettersson or Travis Sanheim instead. The key is to find someone capable of working well with Hronek, as opposed to someone he will have to carry.
Do this, and the Canucks will have two pairings capable of playing close to 25 minutes a night. The rest should all fall into place neatly after that.
Step 5: Sign Jake Livingstone or draft a top-flight RHD prospect — or both
A right side consisting of Hronek and Bear is capable and young enough to stand as at least a medium-term solution. But that doesn’t mean that the Canucks, still bereft of quality prospects at any position, shouldn’t keep at least one eye to the long-term future, too.
The Canucks really need to get their hands on some young defenders capable of stepping into the lineup as soon as possible, especially on their right side. In an ideal world, this includes the signing of NCAA free agent Jake Livingstone, a 23-year-old BC born prospect said to be capable of playing NHL minutes right away.
If Livingstone signs elsewhere, the Canucks could switch gears to trying to pick up a young defender in a summer trade, or via one of their selections in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. The main aim here is to ensure that any current fixes made to the blueline are not strictly of the temporary variety, and that some sort of sustainable structure of incoming talent is formed. LHD prospects are obviously welcome, too, they’re just not in quite as short supply as the RHDs.
Step 6: Sign stop-gaps as necessary, flip at future Trade Deadlines
And that’s it. Beyond those five steps, the Canucks should not attempt to overdo the fixing of their blueline. In fact, they should specifically focus only on stop-gap solutions beyond this point, and that’s for a couple of reasons.
For one, the Canucks’ don’t need to get tangled up in any more long-term contracts than they already are. If they’re going to sign another veteran UFA this summer, they’ve really got to limit themselves thereafter.
For two, players signed to stop-gap contracts can subsequently be flipped for future assets at the Trade Deadline. It’s a tactic that the Canucks should have been employing all along, and there’s no reason not to start now.
Maybe this involves bringing Luke Schenn back as a free agent, should someone like Livingstone not be available or not be ready. Maybe it involves signing a cheap, short-term replacement for OEL’s minutes in the event of a buyout. Either way, the contracts need to be short, cheap, and flippable.
Step 7: Re-sign Kyle Burroughs, Christian Wolanin, Jack Rathbone, etc. to compete for 7/8 spots
The rest of the blueline is, arguably, already in place. If there’s one thing the Canucks’ blueline isn’t short on, it’s talent around the fringes.
With the Hughes-Bear and UFA-Hronek pairings in place, and with whatever bottom-pairing configuration that makes sense, the Canucks have plenty of players available to potentially fill out slots 7 and 8 on the blue line.
Keeping Kyle Burroughs around seems likely, and Christian Wolanin has definitely earned a longer look. Jack Rathbone will be given every chance to make the team again. Let these three, and any other worthy depth signings, duke it out at training camp for one of two extra jobs.
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