With a pair of road wins this week, the obstinate Canucks find themselves just three points out of a playoff spot. As poorly as they’ve played for extended stretches, this is still a club that’s closer to earning a playoff berth than they are to falling into to a 20 per cent chance at selecting Auston Matthews.
Even as the Canucks fritter around on the fringes of the realistic playoff picture, there should be no doubt anymore about Jim Benning and Trevor Linden’s intentions. This is a rebuilding club.
The Canucks have carved out roster spots for young players with ruthless efficiency, but they’re still intent on restocking the cupboards without bottoming out. It’s a competitive rebuild and they’re sticking to it.
Vancouver’s posture and their place in the standings leave them in a complicated spot as the 2016 NHL trade deadline approaches. In defenceman Dan Hamhuis and forward Radim Vrbata, both pending unrestricted free agents, the Canucks have the sort of useful veteran pieces that could help put a contending team over the top.
If the Canucks elect to trade one or both of Hamhuis and Vrbata for quality futures, that will help jump-start the club’s restocking effort. In a vacuum, it’s the right way for a rebuilding club to proceed.
Hockey doesn’t happen in a vacuum though, and these are complicated situations.
Vrbata and Hamhuis both have no-trade protection (Vrbata’s NTC is modified, Hamhuis’ is firm), so they have a say in any deal they’re involved in. And the stagnant NHL salary cap, brought on by a falling Canadian dollar, at this point in the season has put the trade market on ice.
“I do think there is a premium on young players and draft picks,” Canucks president Trevor Linden told Sportsnet on Wednesday, noting that inflationary pressures from Group 2 restricted free agents and the low relative value of the Canadian market have served to increase the value of young talent.
“It will be interesting to see how things play out leading up to (February) 29th.”
For the Canucks this deadline presents a unique opportunity, but it also presents unique challenges. Dealing Vrbata and Hamhuis, if that’s how the Canucks opt to proceed, won’t be a simple process for a variety of reasons. Let’s get into it.
Named the team’s MVP a year ago, Vrbata is on pace for 34 points this season. It would be his lowest level of offensive output over a full campaign in 12 years.
The underlying numbers suggest something different. They suggest that he’s been Vancouver’s most impactful offensive winger, even if the results aren’t there.
Among all NHL forwards, Vrbata currently ranks fourth in the entire NHL by shot rate. The Canucks also generate scoring chances at a higher rate with Vrbata on the ice than they do with any other regular forward, according to war-on-ice.com.
In all likelihood, Vrbata remains a credible top-line forward. And credible top-line forwards that aren’t stars – players like Jason Pominville and Mike Ribeiro – have generally netted teams multiple significant future assets in deadline deals.
It's hard to imagine that the market will bear such a return for Vrbata, which could complicate things for a Canucks team that still has designs on a playoff berth. Though Vrbata could be a savvy buy-low option for a contending team, if his trade value has cratered will the Canucks value, say, an additional second-round pick highly enough to weaken their team during a playoff race?
Vrbata, for his part, seems to see the writing on the wall.
“Overall this season is different then last year, just by how we play as a team and how we are set up as a team,” Vrbata said earlier this week. “Last year everyone was talking about a rebuild and new people and a younger team, and that's where we are.
"I signed here for two seasons, I have no desire to leave, even though this season isn't going as well as last season."
Hamhuis, 33, is a local product and is very much settled and comfortable in Vancouver.
The veteran defender is coming off of a gruesome facial fracture injury. Though he’s played well in his three games since returning, the extent to which his Vancouver-based community rallied around him while his jaw was wired is probably worth noting.
“I had great care, not only by the doctors, but the community of people in terms of our friends, the team, friends from the city,” Hamhuis said in January of his recovery process. “Our church and a restaurant in town that provided a bunch of pureed food for me, David Hawksworth did, that was always a bright spot."
If that experience left an indelible mark on Hamhuis that would be understandable and in recent weeks the veteran defender and Canadian Olympian has talked openly to Sportsnet contributor and Vancouver Sun columnist Iain Macintyre about being willing to re-sign in Vancouver at a discount. All of which has contributed to an increasing sense that Hamhuis could be reluctant in the extreme to waive his ironclad no-trade clause:
"We haven't had any discussions with Dan on that," Linden told Sportsnet, addressing whether the club has broached this subject with Hamhuis, this week.
While the club is trending toward getting younger, if the price is right, the Canucks could use Hamhuis’ services. Team-level defence is Hamhuis’ calling card, after all, and that’s the area where the Canucks have struggled the most.
For what it’s worth, Benning recently admitted that top-four defencemen are hard to find, and that re-signing Hamhuis could be a consideration.
“Good defencemen are hard to come by now,” Benning said immediately following the All-Star break, “it seems like there's a premium on good defencemen, on top four defencemen.
“You have to draft and develop them yourselves,” Benning continued. “There's some guys in free agency, some players we could look at, included in that group is re-signing Dan.”
While bringing Hamhuis back is still an option, it’s not something the club is actively working on.
“We haven't had any contract discussions with Dan,” Linden told Sportsnet. “We talked to him and his reps earlier in the year, just sort of said we're in a bit of a wait-and-see type situation. Dan is a quality guy, he's been a great Vancouver Canuck and he's a leader in our room. We haven't come to that determination yet and we haven't had any discussions with Dan yet.”
It certainly seems as if the Canucks’ interest in retaining Hamhuis beyond this season is lukewarm. And defencemen with Hamhuis’ track record generally fetch a significant bounty on deadline day.
This isn’t as simple as it seems though. With a playoff spot still within reach it’s unclear whether the Canucks will even look to move Hamhuis. If they do, it’s an open and pertinent question as to whether the player would consent to being moved.