What does a retool of the Vancouver Canucks’ forward group actually look like?
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
The word “retool” has become a dirty one in Vancouver.
A large swath of the local fanbase has been asking for a rebuild and being offered a half-baked retool instead for so long that the term is now practically associated with short-term thinking, long-term consequences, and ultimate failure.
It should come as no surprise that when POHO Jim Rutherford came out in the leadup to the 2023 Trade Deadline and spoke about once again “retooling” this roster, the response was not positive. And by now, we’ve heard plenty of arguments and reasoning as to why that might not be the best direction for the franchise.
But such complaints might be futile. For one, it sure looks like the retool is being attempted, whether fans approve of it or not. For another, not all retools are created equal, and the Canucks now have a very different roster and a completely different managerial squad than they did in retools past.
So, for the moment, let’s forget about all those other, non-retooly options. If a short-term, quick turnaround-style retool is what the Canucks are planning to do, let’s take some time in this multipart series to examine what that retool might actually look like, who it would involve, and, most importantly, whether it might work out in the long run.
Before we get to any players, it’s important to define our retool with, at the very least, a timeline. Former GM Jim Benning once earned the scorn of fans for suggesting that he could turn the Canucks into a contender within “two years” (this after he’d already spent six years on the job, of course.) We’d like to give the Canucks slightly longer than that, and the length of Thatcher Demko’s current contract seems like a convenient goalpost by which to measure. Demko enters the final year of his contract in the 2025/26 season. That’s three seasons beyond this current one.
If the Canucks are not contending by then, that means they probably should have dealt Demko prior. They don’t seem to be dealing Demko, so the plan must be to be competitive by at least then.
Thus, 2025/26 is the target date for this retool to pay off.
By that point, key pieces will have aged to the outermost edges of their prime years, and others will have grown directly into their prime. Demko will need a new contract, Quinn Hughes will be a year away from UFA status, and JT Miller will be well into his 30s. If a retool hasn’t had its desired effect of transforming the Canucks into something of a contender by then, we think it’s probably fair to call it a failure.
The 2025/26 campaign is the timeline.
Below, we’ll examine what the Canucks will need to do between now and then to retool as effectively as possible, beginning with the forward corps.
The Only True Core Forward: Elias Pettersson
When it comes to retooling a forward roster, one would ideally hope for more than one true core piece to be already in place.
That being said, if there’s only going to be one core forward around, a team could definitely do a lot worse than that forward being Elias Pettersson.
Assuming that the Canucks are able to extend Pettersson in the long-term after he hits RFA status again next offseason, he will be the centre around which the rest of the forward corps is retooled. Re-signing Pettersson will cost a cap hit greater than $10 million, easily, but he will also be worth it. Pettersson will hit age 27 in that 2025/26 season, right smack-dab in the middle of his prime.
In Pettersson, the Canucks have their 1C in place, which is the most important component to any forward corps. Thus, the most difficult job of a retool is already complete.
Other Probable Core Pieces: Andrei Kuzmenko and JT Miller
On the basis of skill alone, Andrei Kuzmenko and JT Miller would be considered core pieces. As it stands, we’re still going to call them pieces of the Canucks’ probable core as they continue through a retool.
Kuzmenko has been a revelation in his first NHL season, earning himself a two-year, $5.5 million AAV extension. That will bring him to UFA status as of the summer of 2025 and the age of 29, unless the Canucks can extend him prior.
With that contract uncertainty and close approach to his 30s, there’s still a bit too much ambiguity to say that the Canucks can count on Kuzmenko being a long-term part of their retool. But he very well could be, if all goes well, and there’s ample reason to believe he can be an annual fixture on Pettersson’s wing.
Miller, on the other hand, is under contract from now until the year 2030. There were heavy trade rumours surrounding him at the Trade Deadline, and there’s still a possibility that he could be dealt this offseason. That, combined with the fact that he’ll hit age 33 in the midst of the 2025/26 campaign. Miller could very well still be an effective 2C or 1W at that point, but he’ll be approaching the limits of his prime. If this retool is going to work post-Horvat, the Canucks would much prefer Miller still be plying his trade as a 2C in 2025.
Regardless of these complications, however, if a retool is the plan, then the most likely outcome is that both of these two players are a big part of it.
Likely Pieces of a Future Top-Nine: Vasily Podkolzin and Ilya Mikheyev
With Pettersson, Kuzmenko, and Miller in the fold, the Canucks arguably already have 1/3 of their contending top-nine already in place. And there could be two more in place, too, in the form of two players on the edge of the core looking in.
Vasily Podkolzin has yet to put up impressive numbers at the NHL level. But the eye-test and his abundant skillset make it apparent that he’s at least arrived as a burgeoning NHL forward, and give plenty of reason to believe he’ll be a part of the Canucks’ top-nine well into the future. Podkolzin will be 24 by the time 2025/26 begins, and onto his second contract.
Ilya Mikheyev is already under contract until the summer of 2026. He’ll be 31 at that point, but he got a late start to his NHL career, and certainly looked like a capable top-six scorer before getting injured this year. As of now, he’s part of the plan until at least that point.
The Canucks will undoubtedly shed off some of the players currently slotted into their top-nine forwards. Its as much a desire as a necessity, with cap needed to accommodate those raises given to Miller and Kuzmenko, as well as to create roster space for younger wing options.
One, if not both, of Conor Garland and Brock Boeser will be dealt in the upcoming offseason. The chances of either still being on the roster by 2025/26 seem slim. Boeser hits UFA status the summer prior, and Garland will be entering the final year of a five-year extension.
Anthony Beauvillier is a tougher one to call. He hits UFA in the summer of 2024, and there’s a good chance he’s been flipped for a profit before then. That being said, he’s also shown an enormous amount of chemistry on the top line with Pettersson and Kuzmenko, and he’s still only 25. There’s a real possibility that Beauvillier winds up extended and a part of the retool in Vancouver, but it’s a bit too early to say quite yet.
Remaining Roster Gaps
With those aforementioned pieces more-or-less in place, we can say that the Canucks have a 1C and 2C (Pettersson and Miller) ready for the retool. They’ve also got at least three wingers plugged into the top-nine (Kuzmenko, Podkolzin, Mikheyev) and maybe one more in the form of Beauvillier.
Leaving the fourth line aside for the moment, that leaves the Canucks short a 3C and two or three top-nine worthy wingers.
As far as retools go, that actually sounds mighty doable. And the Canucks might already have some solid options for those gaps developing in-house.
When it comes to adding another centre to the planned 2025/26 season of contention, options are decidedly limited. Nils Aman is currently filling in admirably there, and may continue to grow into the role. Aatu Räty, being the younger and more highly-touted prospect, probably has a better chance of sticking there in the long-term, but he’s yet to show enough at the NHL level to call that anything near a certainty.
The Canucks remain on the lookout for more centre talent, especially as Miller ages.
Winger options are much more plentiful. Vitaly Kravtsov has looked solid since joining the Canucks, and remains a bit of a wildcard. Nils Höglander’s demotion to Abbotsford has gone extremely well, and he’s worked his way back into the long-term plans.
If one or both of those two can play effectively in the top-nine moving forward, the retool becomes far more feasible.
The newly-signed Aidan McDonough is also an intriguing option here, but far too much of an unknown quantity to count on as of yet.
Other prospects, like Jonathan Lekkerimäki and Danila Klimovich, will potentially be in the mix.
Of course, the Canucks don’t just have to work with what they’ve already got.
While the bulk of the external work will be done on the blueline (more on that later this week), the Canucks will also need to bring in some outside talent to complete their forward retool. Even if every question mark works out well, there will be gaps, and chances are that not every question mark will work out well.
The Canucks should have multiple quality draft picks to spend over the next couple of drafts, starting with a high first round pick this summer. Again, the defence remains the priority, but the team should also endeavour to draft at least one high-profile centre sooner rather than later. With Miller currently slated as the 2C, the Canucks will want backup and redundancy built into the system, and a young 3C with upward potential is exactly what they need to achieve that.
The Canucks can probably, however, stick to their in-house options when it comes to the wings. If anything, the team has already expended a few too many assets to acquire wingers over the past couple of seasons. With established NHL talent and plenty of prospects in waiting, the wings are not a pressing concern. If anything, that’s something that the Canucks can supplement as they get closer and closer to contention.
If a can’t-miss wing prospect becomes available in the draft, then of course the Canucks should select them. Any other opportunity to add talent should be focused on centres and defenders.
Your 2025/26 Vancouver Canucks?
Retools don’t happen in a vacuum. But in the vacuum of just looking at the forward corps, it almost becomes possible to believe that a retool might work out.
In already securing a top-ten NHL centre, the Canucks have achieved the most difficult aspect of any forward retool. They’ve also got plenty of long-term pieces in place, or mostly in place, to supplement Pettersson throughout his prime years.
Is this a forward corps that can contend for the Stanley Cup? That’s another question entirely, and involves several quantities unknowable at this time. It will require several players to take major steps forward in the seasons to come. It will require the Canucks being able to cut ties with a couple of bloated contracts. And, perhaps most importantly and least certainly, it will require Miller to remain a quality 2C well into his 30s.
But retools have certainly been attempted with less, and the Canucks are certainly several steps past other, previous starting points for retools.
There’s reason for hope to be found at forward, it one is seeking it.
The rest of the retool, however, becomes a little trickier thereafter.
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