What does a retool of the Vancouver Canucks’ defence actually look like?
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
To retool, or not to retool: that is no longer the question.
Despite the slings and arrows of occasional fan outrage, the Vancouver Canucks are apparently dedicated to the idea of retooling this roster into contention instead of performing a full-on rebuild.
The method is one with some admittedly controversial history in this market, but we’ve heard plenty of that debate already. We’re here now to accept the retool, and to try to suss out what its next steps may be.
Earlier this week, we examined the timeline of the rebuild, and settled on 2025/26 as a reasonable target date for this team to have either been retooled into some form of contender or to be deemed “not successfully retooled.” By that point, Thatcher Demko will need an extension, Quinn Hughes will be a year away from UFA, and the likes of JT Miller and Andrei Kuzmenko will be onto their 30s.
We also took a good, hard look at the forward corps, and found there to be not all that much retooling required on the front-end.
Today, we’ll be looking at the back-end, where there’s far more work to be done, and where the retool will really make or break itself.
The One True Core Piece: Quinn Hughes
For most would-be contenders, the biggest challenge is getting their hands on a true 1C and a true 1D.
In Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, the Canucks have both already.
And make no mistake: Hughes is a number one defender, and quite probably a championship-calibre one, at that. This year, Hughes should finish with more assists than any previous defender has earned points in a single season. He’ll average somewhere in the top-five or six players leaguewide for ice-time, and he’ll have skated against all manner of competition in all situations. He’s posted stellar analytics, and been on the ice for 20 more even-strength goals for than against.
Hughes should and will receive Norris Trophy votes in 2022/23. He’s not part of the problem, he’s part of the solution…and a big one at that.
Hughes remains under contract at a bargain $7.85 million AAV until the summer of 2027. The goal then becomes turning the team into a consistent enough contender by that point to convince Hughes to stick around. And that begins with building up the rest of the blueline around him.
The Probable Core Piece: Filip Hronek
Look, it’s tough to call someone a “core piece” before they’ve suited up for a single game with the franchise. But Filip Hronek’s player profile, his age, and the price that the Canucks paid for him all add up to him being a major part of the plan moving forward.
There’s no doubt that Hronek is the best RHD that the franchise has had since Chris Tanev departed, and perhaps even longer than that. He’s an RFA after next season, and will demand a sizeable raise from his $4.4 million cap hit, but that should be doable given his apparent importance to the structure. The key here is that, with Hughes, Hronek gives the Canucks two defenders that are theoretically capable of playing top-pairing minutes for the next half-decade or so, at least, and that’s a fair start on a contending blueline.
The question becomes one of whether to pair Hughes and Hronek together, or to keep ‘em separated and spread out their talent.
Either way, the challenge remains the same: acquiring at least two more top-four defenders, one for either side, that can handle similar minutes to a contending quality.
As recent Canucks history has shown, that’s easier said than done.
The Problematic Wildcard: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
We recently wrote an entire article on the premise of “What the heck do the Canucks do with Oliver Ekman-Larsson,” so we won’t belabour any points here.
Any hopes of Ekman-Larsson himself playing a top-four role in the future are more-or-less dead. Suffice it to say, then, that if his full $7.26 million cap hit is still on the books come 2025, the Canucks are going to have a tough time manoeuvring the rest of their roster into contender quality. By then, Pettersson and Kuzmenko extensions will be on the books, among others, and the Canucks will already be paying Miller $8 million a season for presumably diminishing returns. They’ll also need any cap they can get to “put them other the top,” should the retool achieve its desired effect.
OEL is simply an anti-luxury that the Canucks cannot afford, not now and especially not in the future. With trading his engorged contract seemingly out of the question, the only remaining option is a buyout.
If the Canucks buyout Ekman-Larsson this summer, they’ll be on the hook for a roughly $4.8 million cap hit in the 2025/26 season, representing roughly $2.5 million in savings from OEL’s current contract. If they wait until the following summer, his 2025/26 cap hit becomes $4.5 million instead.
Neither is ideal, but either is preferable to paying full price for a 34-year-old OEL well past his expiry date. That money is much better spent on those two new top-four defenders.
Key Departures: Everyone Else
Maybe, when it comes to the blueline, we should adopt the term “remodeling” over “retool,” because their shouldn’t be too much of the existing structure left behind when the process is complete.
Don’t be all that surprised when Hughes and Hronek are the only surviving members of the defence corps come 2025. Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers should be long gone by then. Same goes for Travis Dermott and Tucker Poolman.
The likes of Kyle Burroughs, Guillaume Brisebois, Noah Juulsen, and Christian Wolanin have been fine depth, but not the kind of depth with which championships are won, nor do such players typically have long shelf-lives.
The one and only exception may be Ethan Bear, and even there we are skeptical. Bear has looked fine in the Canucks’ top-four this season, but it’s not much of a top-four. Playing that same role on a contending team in three years’ time is a big ask, and one that would require several additional steps forward from Bear.
That’s not something the Canucks can count on, so the search remains on for top-four acquisitions. Bear should probably be extended and given every chance to continue to grow into the role, but the plan should be for him to either be an expensive bottom-pairing defender by 2025/26 or to have moved on to a new team to make room for fresh recruits.
The Roster Gaps
Are they really gaps when they take up more space that the actual pieces in place?
Regardless of the terminology, the Canucks have a lot of work to do here.
They need to acquire and/or develop, before 2025/26, at least two top-four-quality defenders on either side. And not just any top-four-quality defenders, but the kind capable of playing that role on a Cup-contending roster.
The Canucks have traditionally struggled to attract such players in recent history. Prior to Hughes and Hronek, the last two D of such quality acquired by the Canucks were the aforementioned Tanev and Christian Ehrhoff before him. What we’re saying is that acquiring these defenders won’t be easy, but it still needs to be the Canucks primary focus moving forward.
Defensive depth is lower on the shopping list, but still important to consider. Here, it would be terrific if the Canucks could internally develop at least one bottom-pairing defender over the next couple of years, and ideally more than that.
Unfortunately, internal options are currently limited.
The Canucks don’t have any blueline saviours coming down the pipeline.
Jack Rathbone remains a work-in-progress. Elias Pettersson II was named by Chris Faber as the Canucks’ best blueline prospect, but is still several years out. The only defence prospect that looks poised to make an impact in the next couple of seasons is Filip Johansson, and he’s far from a sure thing.
But what the Canucks do have on hand is draft picks, and they’ve got to start using them on young defenders.
As the Canucks have proven, picking up top-four defenders through trades or free agency is excessively difficult and exceedingly expensive. A far better method is to draft and develop them in-house, but the Canucks have really struggled at this of late. That has to change.
The Canucks can count on at least one high first round pick this season, and quite possibly another next year. With no second round picks in either year, the Canucks pretty much need to draft a defender with one of those firsts, BPA be damned.
And then they have to hope against hope that said draftee doesn’t wind up a bust. In fact, in order to protect against that outcome, the Canucks should really be endeavouring to pick up multiple high-profile D prospects in the next couple of drafts.
Realistically-speaking, if they want four top-four D in place by 2025/26, at least one of them is going to have to be developed from within, and ideally two. That process needs to start now, so that said player is ready for prime-time by 2025.
The Canucks could look outside the franchise to finish staffing out its top-four defenders. But, as we’ve touched on several times already, that’s not quite so simple as it sounds.
The team did trade for Hronek, and it paid mightily for him. They almost certainly can’t afford to make a similar deal anytime soon, as they need to start using their future assets to stock up the prospect cupboard.
If the Canucks do trade for another defender, they should aim to bet on a player on the rise and attempt to acquire them at a discounted price. A discounted price is about all they’ll be able to rationally afford.
Free agency is another option, but it’s rarely a good one. There has been some smoke, for example, about Dan Milstein client Vladislav Gavrikov joining the team as a UFA this summer. Gavrikov would be a fine addition in the present day, and is a top-four-capable LHD, but he’d be hitting age 30 by the start of the 2025/26 season, and who knows if he’d still be worth his presumably-bloated UFA contract by then?
If UFA is the route the Canucks wind up going in acquiring another top-four defender, they’d do best to wait until a little closer to 2025, so as to better line up the prime years of their signee with the planned contention window.
The same could be said for any depth acquisitions.
The one major exception to this is in the case of an NCAA UFA, such as the oft-discussed Jake Livingstone. Obviously, if the Canucks can get him under contract and convert him into an NHL defender sooner rather than later, the retool takes a huge step forward. But neither of those outcomes is anywhere near a sure thing.
You had to know this wasn’t going to be easy.
On the one hand, it sounds simple: two top-four defenders in the hand, two more in the bush. But Canucks fans know well how long it took to get Hughes and Hronek in place, and how many other false attempts were made at collecting blueline talent. Adding top-four defenders was always a major part of the solution in Vancouver, and has been for a decade running, but that hasn’t correlated to it actually happening, save for the Hronek trade.
Here, drafting and development will really need to be the Canucks’ saving grace. Hit big on a defensive draft selection or two, and the situation improves dramatically.
Again, easier said than done. But theoretically doable, all the same.
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