There’s a heated debate brewing in the Canuck-o-sphere, and for once it’s not about a goaltending controversy.
And although it’s related to the “Trade JT Miller versus Don’t Trade JT Miller” deliberation happening right now on all forms of social media, it’s not really about that, either.
The real debate eating away at the core of the Vancouver Canucks fandom right now is whether the current edition of the team should continue to chase the playoffs, or give up now and start selling off valuable pieces in the hopes of contending sometime down the road.
But what if the Canucks didn’t have to choose?
What if they could have their cake and eat it, too?
What if we, in the guise of Morpheus, told you that you could down both the red and blue pills, and that everything would still end up perfectly fine?
What if the Canucks could sell up to and at the 2022 Trade Deadline, and still make a solid push for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
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It’s true — and, even better, it’s probably happening.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting anything truly ground-breaking here. Even before Patrik Allvin and Émilie Castonguay were officially hired, POHO Jim Rutherford was already signalling that he planned to sell off veterans in exchange for future assets and cap space.
The remarkable turnaround the Canucks have experienced under coach Bruce Boudreau hasn’t changed Rutherford’s tune at all, either. He’s adamant that the team is at a point in their cycle toward contention in which it still makes more sense to trade older players for draft picks, prospects, and cushions of cap space, instead of the other way around.
As hard as that may be to hear for some fans, Rutherford is right, and there’s no reason to believe that anyone else in management disagrees with him.
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But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Vancouver fans need to give up on their playoff dreams quite yet.
Any hope of the Canucks making the postseason remains a longshot. As of this writing, they’re still effectively seventh in the Pacific Division and in possession of the fourth-worst point-percentage in the entire Western Conference. They’re at least a handful points out of a playoff spot, a number that could grow given the various games held in various hands, and, despite the Boudreau Bounce, they’re still the exact same roster that dug that hole in the standings in the first place.
The Canucks are going to play about 20 more games between now and the Trade Deadline. Unless they win a ridiculous percentage of them, their playoff picture is still going to be mighty murky when March 21 comes around. And if there’s still a very good chance that the Canucks could miss out, they just can’t afford to add anyone of significance to the roster — nor can they afford to pass up the potential bounty of becoming deadline sellers.
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The Trade Deadline is often the very best time to cash in on value for players who aren’t in the long-term franchise vision, and that’s especially true of the Canucks and their specific situation. Recent history has shown that teams will pay up big for players with a year or more term left on their contract, essentially renting them out for two playoff runs.
That should mean an absolutely massive return if the Canucks trade JT Miller, and a straight-up astronomical return if they also retain on his contract.
The Trade Deadline is also the perfect time to convince a contender that a certain experienced veteran with term — whether that be Tanner Pearson or Travis Hamonic or Jason Dickinson or Luke Schenn or even Tucker Poolman — is the piece they need to put them over the top.
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Of course, it’s also prime season for more traditional rentals like Tyler Motte, Jaroslav Halak, Alex Chiasson, and the like.
If Rutherford and Co. really want to restock the cupboards with picks and prospects, they’ll have the opportunity to do so between now and the deadline, and they’re almost certainly going to make the most of it. They won’t trade every single player we’ve listed so far, but they’ll listen to offers on all of them, and maybe even a few bigger names, too.
The benefits of this are obvious. The first and foremost goal is to ensure a constant injection of young players on entry-level contracts from here on out, leading up to a hopeful Cup contention window in a few years’ time. That’s straightforward enough.
Another benefit is cap space for every season beyond 2021/22. Trading the likes of Miller clears up his $5.25 million hit now, but also his presumed $9 million+ hit for a whole bunch of seasons after 2023.
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Getting contracts like Pearson and Hamonic off the books makes room for younger talent like Brock Boeser to be extended this summer, and Bo Horvat next summer, and Elias Pettersson the summer after that.
Best of all, enough space cleared now leaves the team wide open to future offseason additions, when the cupboards are full again and playoff contention is more certain.
A tertiary and related benefit to all this is also the space created on the roster for those aforementioned prospects and draft picks, along with some of those already in the system, to start playing meaningful minutes and contributing. We all want to see Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin play more. They will post-deadline!
This all pays off in both bringing the Canucks closer to a genuine contention window, and ensuring that they can stay in that window for a little while once they get there. It’s the best long-term play, period. We’ve seen the alternative over the past eight years, and it sucked. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
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But becoming a 2022 Trade Deadline seller does not mean that the Canucks need to give up on the 2021/22 season entirely, or on the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That Pacific Division we mentioned earlier? It’s a mess. The Edmonton Oilers were imploding before they added Evander Kane to the dressing room. The San Jose Sharks are almost entirely composed of past-their-prime veterans. The Los Angeles Kings are even younger than the Canucks and wildly inconsistent. The Anaheim Ducks seem to be playing way above their heads. The Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights both look like legit playoff squads, but that third slot is wide open.
As they’re currently constructed, the Canucks have a better-than-decent chance of rising to third in the Pacific. Trade away a few key veterans — especially Miller, their current best player — and those odds definitely drop. But do they drop significantly enough to really matter?
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There are players who will stay on the roster — Pettersson, specifically — who would really need to step up in the absence of others, but it’s entirely possible that he does. Through giving expanded roles to the likes of Podkolzin, Höglander, and Jack Rathbone, and by leaning harder on core pieces like Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat, Quinn Hughes, and Conor Garland, it’s definitely feasible for the Canucks to collectively come close to making up for the loss of Miller and Friends, even if only for a single gutsy stretch run.
The queasiness of the Pacific Division makes all things possible. The performance of the other teams in the division has as much to do with the Canucks’ fate as the Canucks’ own performance, and by downgrading the roster, you’re really just swapping out one longshot for an even longer shot.
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And if it doesn’t work? If the cake won’t be both had and eaten? If the Canucks sell at the Trade Deadline and then fail to make a run at the playoffs?
It doesn’t really matter, does it?
What’s a postseason spot really going to do for them this year? The days of “make it to the playoffs and anything can happen” are over. Expecting the Canucks to get through Calgary and/or Vegas is already asking for A LOT, and then they’d be faced with either the Colorado Avalanche or someone who beat the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks just aren’t there yet, and that’s okay. It’s all part of the plan.
A playoff run can be a learning experience, sure. But so can a run at the playoffs. So can having to come together as a roster after key pieces were traded at the deadline, requiring everyone else to step it up. Heck, even another plunge to the bottom of the standings probably has some interesting lessons to yield (and that option comes with a nifty draft pick, too).
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It really comes down to the long-term goal of this management team, and this franchise as a whole. If it’s just to make the playoffs every year and get that sweet postseason revenue, the path forward is clear. Don’t sell now, don’t sell in the offseason, try your best to keep the players you have, and let them go walk when you can’t. We’ve seen that film before.
But Jim Rutherford is a person who has won three Stanley Cups, and you have to think that the only real long-term goal of he and the management team he has built is to win another with the Canucks.
That path starts this year with some of those forewarned “big decisions,” but it certainly doesn’t end this year. Putting all your chips in on a championship in any one season is always a risky decision, and that’s especially the case when you’re a bubble contender at best, like the Canucks currently are. The present moment calls for stacking up as many chips as possible.
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The cashing out comes later.