NHL’s 30 in 30: Vancouver Canucks

For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.

Today’s team: The Vancouver Canucks. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.

NHL’s 30 in 30: Vancouver Canucks

Finishing 8th overall, the Vancouver Canucks posted a record of 48-29-5 to end up with 101 points, placing them in second place in the Pacific division and just four points ahead of the Calgary Flames and eight back of the Anaheim Ducks. Their home record (24-15-2) accumulated for 50 points. Their away record (24-14-3) was almost identical to their home record, accumulating 51 points. It was out with the old and in with the new, as John Tortorella was replaced with newcomer Willie Desjardins behind the bench as head coach. A two-time WHL Championship and one-time AHL Championship winner, the Canucks looked to redeem their lost season and get back into the hunt under Desjardins.

The 2014-15 Regular Season

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Vanouver Canucks cleaned house, firing General Manager Mike Gillis and giving Tortorella the boot. Franchise icon Trevor Linden, who was brought aboard as director of hockey operations, spoke about bringing the team back to where it needed to be – even going so far as to promise season ticket holders their money back if they were disappointed with the product. Linden’s next step was to hire Boston Bruins Assistant General Manager Jim Benning to replace Gillis, as well as Desjardins to replace Tortorella. Benning made a number of bold moves last summer, including trading defenseman Jason Garrison and two-way center Ryan Kesler, as well as buying out oft-maligned winger David Booth. Setting the stage early, Benning put his team on notice that they would be held accountable and they responded by making the playoffs and finishing second in their division.

Up front, Henrik and Daniel Sedin were back at it again, posting 73 and 76 points respectively, while both playing all 82 games. Their ice-time was slightly reduced and their effectiveness has begun to reach its downside, but that’s natural given they are 33 years old. Still, the two managed to finish 9th (Daniel) and 13th (Henrik) in NHL scoring. New linemate Radim Vrbata was exactly what the Canucks needed, as he posted a career-high 63 points while slotted alongside the Sedin twins for much of the season. The common question that arises is what will management do with Vrbata, who will enter the final year of his contract at the age of 34?

Coming over in the Kesler trade, Nick Bonino came in as the team’s second line center and contributed well at five-on-five play, though he faded down the stretch and into the playoffs. His contract is a bargain at this point, as he will make $1.9 million for the next two years. Acquired from Los Angeles, Linden Vey stepped up in a big way during the first half of the season before cooling off and scoring just three goals in the final 38 games of his first full NHL season. He’s still only 23, so there’s time for Vey to improve within the organization and become an asset to the team. Drafted 13th overall in the 2009 draft, Zack Kassian hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations just yet but he’s only 24, so there’s still time for him to blossom into the player he was projected to become. He’ll need to focus on remaining healthy and continuing to be a consistent player that is physical and chips in offensively every now and then. Bo Horvat had an impressive rookie campaign and played more and more as the season progressed, ultimately finishing with 25 points in 68 games, and chipping in 4 points (tied for the team lead) in 6 games for a Canucks team that was starving for offense in their first round playoff loss to Calgary. At the age of 20, look for him to improve his play as he builds on experience.

Players like Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins saw their ice time drop dramatically, but still contributed in complimentary roles. Hansen still has the ability to provide two-way depth and a scoring touch in the top-nine, and even saw some ice time beside the Sedins this past year, but Higgins’ play has regressed and at the age of 32, he could become trade-bait soon enough, despite his cap friendly deal. Derek Dorsett signed a four-year extension with the Canucks, which could appear somewhat bizarre given his reputation for being a face-puncher. He produced well enough last season (25 points in 79 games), however it seems the impact he had in the locker room, especially in taking Horvat under his wing, apparently proved to be very valuable in the eyes of Canucks management and worth the $2.5 million cap hit for four more years.

On defense, Chris Tanev was one of the more underrated stories of the league last season. Signed at $4.45 million for the next five seasons, if he can play like the way he did last season, his contract will look like one of the best deals in the NHL, especially since the turnaround in Alexander Edler‘s game while paired with Tanev was night-and-day compared to last season. The Canucks defense seems to hang in the balance of the way Edler plays and last season, he was a league-worst -39. This year, he put up 31 points in 74 games and was a stable presence on the Canucks top pair. Given the time being spread out between the defensemen, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa saw their ice-time reduced. Hamhuis missed time with a groin injury, while Bieksa saw himself demoted to the third pairing in favor of Yannick Weber, who had a career year offensively. Bieksa is at the age where his play will start to regress and the Canucks may consider trading him as they think about the future of their blueline.

Coming in as a free agent, Ryan Miller arrived in hopes of becoming the fixture needed between the pipes to replace Roberto Luongo, his 2010 Olympic rival. Instead, he had a very uneven year, offsetting great starts with stinkers, and missed time with a knee injury. Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom stepped in during Miller’s absence and played well enough to keep the Canucks afloat. Lack improved over his rookie campaign, posing a .921 SV% and 18 wins as a sophomore, while Markstrom was incredible in the AHL, taking the Canucks affiliate, the Utica Comets, all the way to the Calder Cup Final. Now, there’s the dilemma of what to do with three goaltenders and NOT end up with another Luongo/Cory Schneider situation. Benning has already stated he intends to keep Miller and deal with the two younger goaltenders, but it remains to be seen who will be backing Miller up next season.

Benning made a series of trades during the season, leading into the deadline. He made an AHL swap when he acquired Will Acton from Edmonton for Kellan Lain, a 25-year-old forward and another when Alexandre Mallet was sent to the Islanders, along with a 2016 3rd-round pick, for Andrey Pedan. Adam Clendening was acquired from Chicago for Gustav Forsling and Cory Conacher was added for Dustin Jeffrey. Finally, Benning landed Sven Baertschi from Calgary for their 2015 2nd-round pick.

The Off-Season and Free Agents

Heading into the off-season, the Canucks have a total of seven free agents to decide on. Of the seven free agents, five of them are restricted to the team, including forwards Linden Vey and Brandon McMillan, defensemen Yannick Weber and Ryan Stanton, and goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Forwards Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson are the upcoming unrestricted free agent. In terms of non-roster players, Benning will have to decide on eight restricted free agents and seven unrestricted free agents.

Committed to eleven forwards, five defensemen and two goaltenders, the Canucks have around $5 million in cap space to spend, so obviously there isn’t much room to maneuver. Signing Vey and McMillan to inexpensive deals will provide the team with enough bodies on offense to head into the season and be comfortable. They also have the likes of Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen and Brendan Gaunce all expected to fight for roster spots next season, among many other talented prospects, not to mention the newly acquired Baertschi.

With Hamhuis and Bieksa on the final years of their contracts, it could be an option to move one of them, clear up some cap space and find some cheaper, younger replacement to fill the void. Gaining some cap flexibility, the Canucks could also look to within their own depth, as Frank Corrado and Clendening could become contributing players on the blue-line.

Between the pipes comes the biggest decision to be made. Benning has already stated that Miller will be back next season, making it clear that he does not feel comfortable starting the season with two younger goaltenders. That leaves restricted free agent Markstrom and Lack, one of which will be dealt. Lack provides more opportunity to bring back a better return, especially with his very friendly $1.15 million cap hit for next season, while Markstrom could be a savings on the cap, however he is less proven than Lack and could leave a serious problem in goal if Miller can not remain consistent or healthy.

The Draft Table

It will be a rather bland draft for fans of the Vancouver Canucks, as the team possesses just five picks in seven rounds. While they have their own first-round selection, their second-round pick belongs to Calgary as part of the Baertschi trade and their third-round pick belongs to the Ducks as part of the Kesler deal. In all, the Canucks will select 23rd, 114th, 144th, 149th and 174th, although it seems very likely that Benning will try to add some early to mid-round picks through pre-draft trades.

Two of the issues the Canucks should be addressing at this year’s draft  is the lack of game-breaking defensemen and right wingers in their prospect chart. While they only have one pick in the first three rounds, fulfilling both may be too difficult to pull off but there should be enough gems in the late first to snatch up one. On defense, there’s two defensemen that play a solid two-way game; Thomas Chabot and Jacob Larsson. Brock Boeser is an excellent pick to consider as well, as he possesses the size and skill to be a contributing top-nine winger. They could also consider right winger Daniel Sprong, who is one of the better snipers in this year’s draft.

The option of trading down to acquire a pair of second-round picks could also be there, as several teams have two picks in that round, some even with three. Granted, it all depends on who is left and if some even fall into the bottom half of the first, Benning could very well add to his stock pile and take both a defenseman and a right winger in the second-round, bolstering the depth at both positions.

With a team that is getting up there in age, on all fronts, it will be interesting to see what Benning does regarding his aging stars, regardless of whether they make the playoffs or not. Ownership has handed down a mandate of remaining competitive while the team “retools on the fly,” which could prove a tricky balancing act for management. Benning himself has stated his desire to bring his club’s prospects along in a winning environment, which is easier said than done. Vancouver is clearly mid-way through a recycling of the roster’s core, and the potential success of the future core could be determined over the course of the near future.

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