Jim Benning promised Canucks fans an aggressive offseason, and boy, did we ever get one. Over the span of 48 hours, he bought out Braden Holtby, traded exiled Nate Schmidt to Winnipeg, and signed over a dozen players in free agency. And that doesn’t even include pulling off one of the most complicated trades in the past few seasons and bringing in fan favourite Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
All of these moves have made the Canucks a much better team heading into next season, and Benning should be commended for that. This was his vision, after all: a club that should be able to make the playoffs, which, in turn, will probably provide him with extra job security. However, all of these transactions were made with one flawed goal in mind: to make the postseason in 2022.
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It doesn’t guarantee long-term success, which is what the team should be striving for. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that many of these moves will inhibit the Canucks from becoming a perennial powerhouse, and the club will instead be left in limbo as a good — but not great — team.
The blueprint to constructing a potential contender was clear: wait until the bad deals expire next summer, and push some of your chips in then. Had Benning stuck to that plan, the Canucks could’ve still traded Schmidt this offseason so that the Tyler Myers contract would be the only bad deal left on the books. Vancouver would’ve then been able to use its cap space to find depth players to support its dynamic core while also retaining their draft picks so that the club could have a continuous flow of young talent who might be able to contribute on their entry-level contracts.
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Instead, Benning decided to get aggressive a year early and has now locked the Canucks into being a good team, but one without a clear path to improve. He replaced the Schmidt contract with a worse one in OEL and had to continue giving away valuable draft picks to make it happen. If you haven’t been keeping count, the Canucks only made two selections in the first three rounds of the 2020 and 2021 drafts combined, and they don’t have a second-round pick next year, either.
At this juncture, it seems like the Canucks essentially have a two-year window to compete with this core given that both J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat will become UFAs in 2023. Nils Höglander’s ELC expires then as well, and I haven’t even mentioned Brock Boeser’s $7.5 million qualifying offer next summer. If we look even further to 2024, it’s possible that one, or both of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, will need new contracts by then, given that all signs point to them pursuing bridge deals at the moment.
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Right now, it seems unlikely that the team can retain them all, at least not with Myers and OEL’s contracts still on the books. But trading one of those defencemen will require Vancouver to attach picks and leaves the club devoid of young talent, which is exactly the position they’re in right now.
If you haven’t yet noticed, draft picks are one of the keys to building a great team. Every club that has made deep postseason runs recently has paid their stars accordingly, but they’ve also all been supported by players who are still on their ELCs. The most prominent example of that this year was Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield for Montreal. Last year, it was Miro Heiskanen for Dallas, Mathew Barzal for New York, and all three of Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak for Tampa Bay.
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By trading for OEL and signing all those free agents, Benning has ensured that the Canucks don’t have the cap space or picks needed to continue improving the team in the coming years. If he had simply waited a year, the Canucks would’ve been able to draft a blue-chip prospect at 9th overall who could potentially contribute to a contending team on his ELC while also having the flexibility to use their cap space in a more methodical way.
But as it currently stands, the Canucks have neither of those things, and fans will simply have to be content with a team that simply isn’t good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup.