Ask a dozen Vancouver Canucks fans their opinions on their favourite team’s defence, and you’ll get a range of answers. Unfortunately for them, that range runs from “Yeah, they need to improve” to “[incoherent screaming]”. There are a lot of things outside a team’s control, but that doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Indeed, something must be done if they want to improve. Here we list three different Vancouver Canucks defence options in terms of how much risk each involves.
The Boilerplate (or: Skip This Bit)
Anyone who’s been following the league knows what’s up. The COVID-19 lockdown has hurt a lot of businesses, especially in the entertainment industry. Of the major North American sports, hockey is the most gate-driven one, deriving around half their income from in-person fans. Between the 2019-20 shutdown and not knowing when the 2020-21 season will start – or what that will look like – team owners are tightening belts. There are going to be a LOT more Restricted Free Agents who don’t get qualifying offers. The effect will be to flood the market with Unrestricted Free Agents, all looking for the same number of jobs. More teams are going to be under an internal cap limit, saving money on player salaries until they have a more secure financial footing. What teams can’t do is go below is the salary floor, this year set at $60.2 million.
We’ve talked about how that can be an advantage to moving some few cap-heavy contracts, but it’s hardly something to rely on. Unless a team is determined to get their cash outlay below $50 million, the high-cap/low-pay contract is a very minor plus. This relates directly to the Canucks because of one of their longest-serving players, Chris Tanev, being a UFA. At the same time as the team is trying to bolster their forward depth, they need to fortify their defence. And that’s not going to be easy. Redundant contracts among the forwards and a ridiculous number of no-move and no-trade clauses have tied GM Jim Benning‘s hands. Though it’s hard to be sympathetic when the bonds are self-applied.
We’ll soon see if he’s Harry Houdini or your drunk uncle who’s “pretty sure” he can get out of a straightjacket for your kid’s birthday.
Option One: Safety First!
Chris Tanev is comfort food.
The undrafted free agent has spent his entire career within the Canucks system. His game is steady, solid, reliable. He played for Canada at the World Championships in 2016, winning gold in Moscow. His time there was pretty typical: around 16 minutes a game in the round-robin, then 21 minutes in the 2-0 final against Finland. He’s not adding a lot of goals, but when it comes time to lock things down, his preternatural calm is what you’re looking for.
Off the ice, it’s much the same. At 30 years old, Tanev has taken on the role of “Den Father” for new arrivals, including superstar Quinn Hughes. He did the same for Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser before him. The younger players call him “Dad” on Instagram and on the ice. And on a team that had three different players lose their fathers this year, maybe that resonates a bit more. Add to that the team’s uncertainty on the right side, where only Tyler Myers is signed and Troy Stecher is an RFA.
The safest move for the team is to re-sign Tanev and qualify Stecher. Tanev’s contract ended at $5.25 million, but perhaps he knows that it will be hard to find that number again in the current environment. He has, after all, never played a full season since turning pro. In fact, he managed 70 games only once in a decade. He would have done it again this year without the pause but left the last regular-season game because of injury.
Clearly, the Canucks’ safest play would be to re-sign Tanev and Stecher, hopefully for a combined $7 million or so. That gives them six NHL-proven defencemen with room for a rookie to move up.
Option Two: Call For Reinforcements!
One way to get proven NHL players is through trade or (quake, Canucks fans!) free agency. While Benning has implied he has no interest in pursuing free agents, it’s not hard to see him go shopping if his own walk. If he tries to get Stecher to take a lower number by not qualifying him and walks away from Tanev? He could easily lose them both. Ironically, given his past experience, there are some not bad free agents out there. He could very well pick up what Vancouver needs for a reasonable cost. The cap freeze should reduce expectations from players and the improving team is a tempting destination now.
Free agency could provide an alternative for Tanev’s defence. Or if not quite at Tanev’s level, close enough for the cost, perhaps. Zach Bogosian is proving himself in the playoffs, getting 18 minutes a night. He has been a top-pair defenceman but is better suited lower down. Heck, even his injury history replaces Tanev! Dylan DeMelo is a welcome addition to most teams and handled being pressed into service with the Winnipeg Jets well. Brenden Dillon adds a far more physical element and has loads of playoff experience. He’s a local boy out of New Westminster, too, and might want to play at home.
That’s fine for defence, but the team wants some increased scoring if they can get it. After Kevin Shattenkirk had his massive contract bought out he’s been an important part of the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s playoff run. Or the long rumoured arrival of Tyson Barrie may finally come true. Either one would provide more scoring than Tanev, but neither his defence. Still, it would be nice to have more than one blueliner for whom 35-40 points would be an expectation rather than a pleasant surprise.
Option Three: A Shrine to Markstrom
The Canucks’ MVP has proven he can play in chaos. One of his nicknames is The Scrum Lord for a good reason, given the state of the blue ice. Chaos often reigns in the 6’x4′ space, and he can handle all comers. This is the Canucks defence options that would be the most fun to watch by far. So why not lean into it?
All the money is going to Jacob Markstrom and Tyler Toffoli, with none for Stecher or Tanev? Fine. We have rookies. Lots and lots of rookies! The starting blocks of Hughes, Myers, and Alexander Edler are added to with promotions. Guillaume Brisbois has proved himself at the AHL level and should probably get his shot this season anyway. Brogan Rafferty set that league on fire for his first few months, let’s see if he can do the same to the NHL! And if the team is going to make decisions based on solid playoff performances, Olli Juolevi was fine in his one appearance. And Jordie Benn is still here as a veteran to help get the kids through whatever compressed schedule madness will make up 2020-21.
Vancouver Canucks Defence Options: Frustration, Tension, or Fear!
Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But the choices aren’t far off. The defence wasn’t good enough this season, either in transition or reducing chances. Realistically the team has to change if they want to improve. If they stay still, bringing back the same players but a year older, how is that getting better? Free agency is always nerve-wracking for future results, as evidenced by the cap pressures now. And bringing unproven players leaves you wondering every time they step on the ice. Fans will have to be awfully forgiving of the inevitable mistakes that come with rookies.
Something is going to happen, big or small. All we can be sure of right now is that all the Vancouver Canucks defence options next year are going to get their fans talking. Let’s hope they can do it in person.