© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
29th in the league in goals for, 24th in goals against, and 29th in points, the Vancouver Canucks just plain sucked in 2016-2017. Let’s take a closer look at their roster, their salary cap situation, and the offseason that lies ahead to get a better idea how this team can correct course not so much in the short term, but in the long term. After all, with a largely veteran core and a team that isn’t anywhere remotely close to contending for a Stanley Cup, there might not be a single team in the NHL that more desperately needs a full-scale rebuild.
Let’s break this thing down into three categories: forwards, defensemen, and goalies. But first, to get us acclimated, here’s a rough depth chart of the 2016-2017 Canucks through the lens of the catch-all statistic Game Score:
Up front, the Canucks have some serviceable pieces, but not enough in the way of elite talent to make the group any good, and not enough in the way of depth to overcome the lack of elite talent. On a basic level, the team only had three forwards surpass 35 points — the Sedin twins and Bo Horvat. Obviously, that’s a major problem given the Sedins turn 37 just ahead of next season. And it doesn’t help that Loui Eriksson, signed to a six-year deal and turning 32 this July, had just 24 points on the year. Looking down the lineup, players like Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, and Brandon Sutter are useful, but no more than third-liners, save for perhaps Baertschi as he continues to develop. And after that, with little else of offensive consequence, the Vancouver forward core just isn’t good enough.
On defense, the team was dreadful — earning the 22nd-best xGA60 at 2.59. While Troy Stecher was a nice surprise for the team, there was little else to write home about. 31-year-old Alex Edler’s best days are behind him, Nikita Tryamkin is heading back to Russia, Chris Tanev may be on the move, and the rest of the group is filled out by bottom-pairing players. In other words, the group lacks in both talent and depth.
In net, the team was just okay, which isn’t good enough. Wiley veteran Ryan Miller posted a .914 save percentage and Jacob Markstrom had a .910. On a team with a high-flying offense or a smothering defense those numbers might be enough to keep you high in the standings, but given the lack of talent throughout the roster that we’ve already examined, the mediocre goaltending only accelerated the Canucks’ fall down the standings.
Conclusion: Such as you’d expect from a 29th placed team, the Canucks’ are lacking both talent and depth on all fronts.
Now we’ll take another look at the team’s forwards, defensemen, and goalies, as well as the players they still owe money to not even on the roster anymore.
Up front the salary situation is mostly okay. The Sedins having one year left on their deals means management will have to make a tough decision with them sometime in the next year, but that doesn’t have to be an immediate problem. Bo Horvat needs a new contract, which would ideally be long-term and in the $5M cap hit range. Problematic though are the contract to Loui Eriksson and to a lesser extent Brandon Sutter. Sutter’s never going to fully live up to that contract so that’s one you stomach as much as you can and move on. Eriksson on the other hand needs to be better, otherwise that deal could really hurt the team moving forward.
On defense the team has no real blemishes. Alex Edler is overpaid given his current level of play, but with just two years left, and on a team in no need of salary cap room, the team will be fine. Tanev’s three years left means if the team elects to trade him, his value should still be nice and high. And as far as Erik Gudbranson goes, hopefully the team doesn’t do a long-term deal.
In net Markstrom’s contract is fair and Miller, even if he re-signs, won’t be hurting the team’s long-term future. Nothing to see here.
The team also carries a $1.633M cap hit on a buyout to Chris Higgins and retained salary from the Roberto Luongo trade. But with over $20 million in salary cap space, the team doesn’t need to worry about that, especially with Higgins’ cap hit coming off the books after next year.
Conclusion: The Canucks only have four players on their roster locked up for more than two years, meaning that in spite of a couple bad contracts, they still have a lot of flexibility.
Okay, arbitrary exercise time. Let’s note every player of relative consequence on the Canucks, that’s also under 30 years of age, and ask ourselves this one simple question: is this player, or will this player one day become, a legitimate top-six forward, top-four defenseman, or starting goalie? In other ways, will they be an impact player?
Here’s what I came up with:
You may disagree on some of my takes, but in general, here’s what we have: four yeses. That’s four players in the entire organization that most likely figure to be legitimate impact players.
That right there is why the team is bad, and why they’re in such bad need of a rebuild.
So forget all the little details about this team for a minute. Forget a potential Tanev trade. Forget if the team will re-sign Ryan Miller. Forget about if the team will qualify Joseph Cramarossa. Forget the band-aids that might be signed in free agency. This team needs to worry about the long-term. This team needs to ask itself one simple question heading into this offseason: what do we need to do to put ourselves in a better position to one day be perennial Stanley Cup contenders?
The answer: acquire good, young talent.
That’s all the Canucks need to really worry about here. Yes there’s next season to worry about. Yes they have some organizational housekeeping to do. But in the end Michael Chaput’s cap hit next year doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. This team needs to acquire young talent with the potential to make a meaningful impact on the team. They need to acquire, or put themselves in the position to acquire, top notch young hockey players. Players with the potential to be top-six forwards, top-four defensemen, or starting goalies. Players that can be All-Stars. Players that can win awards. Players that can lead the team to a Stanley Cup. The Stanley Cup is your guiding principle. Never forget that.
So specifically, the main way the team can put themselves in good position moving forward is via the draft and via trade. The team has the 5th overall pick, which offers tremendous potential to add another great young player to the organization. After that they have just five more draft picks though, so they could stand to add some more. Or they could simply stand to add more quality prospects. The way to do either or both of those things is via trade. So they should explore not only a Tanev trade but a trade involving the likes of the Sedin twins, as long as they have a willingness to play elsewhere. So the draft and the trade market need to be the real centers of the Canucks’ offseason.
In terms of the expansion draft, the team has little to worry about. They aren’t in a position to lose an important forward or goalie. They may well lose a veteran on defense though, which is actually okay — having a player like Erik Gudbranson taken off their hands may actually be for the best.
And then there’s free agency. The best approach would be to trade who you can for premium assets, and fill any remaining roster holes with productive players on one- or two-year deals, offering the potential to later jettison those players off for more draft picks and prospects. Again, they need to do everything they can to acquire blue chip or borderline-blue chip prospects and young players.
And that’s really it. If Jim Benning makes the future the priority this summer, the team will be doing themselves a favor. If he makes rash decisions as he has in the past and prioritizes veterans and depth, there’s no telling how long it may take for the team to finally be good again.
But no matter what, it’s going to be fun watching it all play out.
Conclusion: Please Canucks, rebuild this roster. You need to get quality young players by whatever means necessary. Band-aids and short-term fixes might, might make you a playoff team, but not a team that can win the Stanley Cup.