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What to make of early NHL Trade Deadline chatter surrounding the Vancouver Canucks
1 month ago
The calendar has flipped over to January, which means that we’re now into the “2024” half of the 2023/24 season.
It also means that we’re just two months away from the March 8, 2024 NHL Trade Deadline.
As such, it’s really no surprise that the new year has brought with it an abundance of chatter about said deadline in the market surrounding the Vancouver Canucks. Deadline talk has long been prominent in Vancouver, but this time around there are some significant differences at play, and they’re worth taking a closer look at.
First and foremost, this will be the first Trade Deadline since 2015 at which there isn’t even a possibility of the Canucks being sellers. At this point, it’s almost statistically impossible for the Canucks to fall out of a playoff position over the next 60ish days.
This season, the Canucks are headed to the postseason, and they’ll be conducting themselves at the deadline accordingly.
But not selling is one thing, and buying is another thing altogether.
Are the Vancouver Canucks now confident enough in themselves to become a deadline buyer after eight deadlines in a row as a potential seller?
The chatter would seem to indicate that’s very likely.
Seriously, it’s like midnight struck on 2024 and speculation about the Canucks buying at the deadline started popping off like fireworks. And speaking of fireworks, there’s a little too much smoke here to be no fire, especially with this front office having telegraphed previous moves, like the Nikita Zadorov acquisition, through the media well ahead of time.
So it would seem that the odds are heavily in favour of the Canucks gearing up to be buyers over the next couple of months. But what does that mean, really? Here are some of the most important implications to consider at this early stage in the preparatory process.
1) Cash In, Cash Out
The Vancouver Canucks have no functional cap space, and that’s the first thing that has to be discussed when it comes to the possibility of them being buyers at the Trade Deadline.
Upon Carson Soucy’s return to the lineup, the Canucks will have approximately $400K in available cap room, which isn’t even enough for an injury call-up, much less any sort of trade acquisition.
And because even that minimal amount of space is a result of LTIR relief, the Canucks are not accumulating any cap space, and won’t have any extra room built up by the deadline.
There is the possibility that more cap space be opened up by the deadline in the form of additional long-term injuries, but that’s not exactly a good thing, nor something that can be counted on. The Canucks are a good team, but they’re not the Tampa Bay Lightning…they can’t afford to stash high-salaried players on the injured reserve until Game 1 of the playoffs.
All of which adds up to any Canucks transaction within this 2023/24 season needing to be a cash in, cash out sort of proposition. The Canucks will not be able to add any additional salary to their roster without first subtracting some.
2) A Roster with No Bad Pieces
Subtracting salary from this roster, however, is easier said than done, and not for the reasons typically cited over the past couple of years.
Typically, the issue has been that the Canucks’ bad contracts were so bad as to be unmoveable. Loui Eriksson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, we remember the names.
Fast-forward to today, where the issue has become a total lack of bad contracts.
Because, really, who are the Canucks going to want to ditch from this roster in the name of making a deadline addition?
Anthony Beauvillier was the easy answer, but his salary was gobbled right up by the incoming Nikita Zadorov.
Conor Garland used to be a popular consideration, but there’s no way the Canucks are breaking up that Joshua-Blueger-Garland line now.
And then there’s Tyler Myers, who was once the obvious choice. He still might be an option, as he’s still probably not worth that full $6 million salary, but every game that passes in which Myers looks good alongside Zadorov, the possibility of his leaving town decreases. At the very least, we can confidently assert that Myers will not be moved unless another, clearly superior RHD is incoming.
Really, that just leaves us with Andrei Kuzmenko and his $5.5 million cap hit as the only truly realistic option for the “cash out” side of a “cash in, cash out” deal. And even he isn’t one that will be easy to let go of, not with this being a sell-low situation and his remaining high potential.
There are no simple decisions here.
3) Areas for Potential Improvement
Thankfully, for as delicate a balance as the Canucks are going to have to walk cap-wise, the strength and balance of their roster makes the decision of what sort of players to target a relatively straightforward proposition.
Depending on whether or not one of Soucy or Ian Cole succeeds in a right-side role, the Canucks could probably use another RHD of top-four quality in the mix.
And depending on the continued performance of Kuzmenko, the Canucks could also probably use another top-six scoring winger.
And that’s pretty much it. The goaltending is locked in. The blueline hasn’t been this deep in years. The bottom-six is contributing.
The needs exist, but they are narrow.
4) The Need for a Big Swing
All that said, those narrow needs that the Canucks have are the kind that probably need to be addressed with a big swing or two, as opposed to in-park singles.
The Canucks don’t need a fill-in winger in their top-six. They’ve got plenty of options there in the form of Nils Höglander, or Sam Lafferty, or Pius Suter, or even Phil di Giuseppe.
If they’re going to acquire a top-six winger, it’s got to be someone who is clearly a better option than all the players listed above, or else it’s not really worth their time.
The same goes for any defender acquired. A RHD doesn’t have to be as good as Filip Hronek to make a difference, but they’d better be better than Myers, and better than Soucy or Cole would be playing on their off-side, or else what’s the point?
For once, the Canucks don’t really seem to have depth issues. Their approach to the deadline should be on taking a big swing at someone that truly upgrades their team.
The small moves have already been made, and they’ve been highly successful.
4) A Buyers’ Market?
Here’s some good news.
It’s the final year of the flat cap era. Financial constraints have never been tighter around the league. There are plenty of contenders in the NHL, but with a full half of the league within a million or less of the cap ceiling, precious few of them have any cap space to work with.
Which, of course, includes the Canucks, as we already outlined.
But if the Canucks can manage to carve out some wiggle room for themselves, they should be able to take advantage of what is shaping up to be a buyer’s market, with suppressed prices and ample options to choose from.
It’s a good Trade Deadline to go shopping at, in other words.
5) Next Year’s Cap Constraints
Just one year ago, the idea of the Canucks taking on a rental at the deadline was laughable. But perhaps not anymore.
The Canucks don’t just have to worry about the salary cap in 2023/24, but also in 2024/25, too, and presumably for several seasons thereafter.
Most of the cap that is expected to open up for the Canucks this offseason has already been spoken for in the form of in-house raises. As little space as there is available right now, there may be even less in the near-future.
Thus, it might wind up making sense for the Canucks to chase a short-term, rental-type acquisition at the 2024 Trade Deadline rather than seeking out a long-term fix.
That said, the Canucks might also feel as though their contention window is just opening, and might just have to find a way to take the long-view despite upcoming cap constraints.
It’s all going to require a very delicate balance of goals and probabilities…and it’s all going to play out over the next 60 days or so.
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