The Vancouver Canucks have a respectable three points through two games this season, but this has not done much to disrupt the aura of expected failure around the team. The club entered the season more likely to win a first overall draft selection than the Stanley Cup, and despite Jacob Markstrom’s early heroics that projection hasn’t changed.
An 82-game season focused on the draft lottery is an ugly thing, though. It’s also a waste of opportunity. Even a team mired deep in the rebuilding portion of the NHL cycle has goals and aspirations that will lessen its time at the bottom and help a few years down the road when the planned restoration should be complete.
What objectives should the 2017-18 Canucks have for this season, beyond landing Rasmus Dahlin or Andrei Svechnikov?
Continue to develop their younger players
While it’s entirely possible that the future cornerstone of a revitalized Canucks team isn’t even on the roster yet, it’s nearly certain that some of his supporting cast is. Vancouver’s management team clearly believes 22-year-old Bo Horvat is going to play an important role in the years to come, and his continued development is thus a matter of some importance this season.
Horvat isn’t the only one. Brock Boeser is the most recent addition to a group of players aged 25-and-under who can hope to be part of the club for years to come. The odds are good part of that collection—including Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher—won’t be around when Vancouver is good again, but some of them will be and strong performances during the interregnum increase their chances.
Rehabilitate fading prospects
The Canucks have a fairly long list of suspect NHLers who are getting opportunities this season. The most recent addition is 2012 eighth overall selection and Pittsburgh castoff Derrick Pouliot, but the list also includes other relatively young first-rounders such as Alexander Burmistrov, Jake Virtanen and Brendan Gaunce.
All of those players have shaky claims to roster spots if merit is the lone factor under consideration, but in Vancouver every move this season should be made with at least one eye on the future. Given the way this season is likely to work itself out, the Canucks can be a little more tolerant of mistakes and young players finding their way in the majors. If one or two of these guys manage to reclaim their career, it’ll be a good use of those roster spots.
Get value out of current veterans
There’s this weird conventional wisdom that a rebuilding team shouldn’t acquire middling veterans. It’s a terribly misguided way of looking at things.
Middling veterans are the perfect resource for a rebuilding team. They add valuable stability in the first half of the year, without being good enough to get their team out of draft lottery range. Then at the trade deadline they get flipped for all kinds of delicious futures, leaving just enough time for the rebuilding club to nosedive for draft position. It’s a win-win.
Vancouver has a bunch of these players and should hope for reasonably competent seasons from all of them. In a perfect world Thomas Vanek, Derek Dorsett, Alex Edler, Erik Gudbranson and Michael Del Zotto would all play well enough to be flipped for prospects and draft picks at the trade deadline. None of these skaters can move the needle on franchise success or failure, but they can provide some cover for the young guys and bring back helpful long-term assets in the spring.
Do well enough to have some stability
Obviously losing a whole bunch of hockey games is part of the plan, but a total collapse should not be.
Take the Canucks’ 1970 expansion cousins, the Buffalo Sabres. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, they had 48 points in 48 games. The next year they imploded, getting only 52 points over an 82-game season. They’re now on their fourth head coach and third GM since and have yet to emerge from that pit. Just three of the 34 players to appear in 10 or more games in 2013-14 have been continuously employed by the Sabres. Crash that badly, and it’s a sign there are years of rebuilding left and that nearly the entire roster will be turned over.
A slightly better team can still finish in solid draft position and offer both a healthier development experience to its young players and the possibility of some of them surviving to the next phase of the rebuild. Florida, Edmonton, Toronto and New Jersey all won the first overall pick in recent years without bottoming out completely in the year they did so, which has made it easier for those clubs to get back to being competitive.
Vancouver’s cornerstone piece probably isn’t on the roster today, which is why finishing somewhere in the bottom-fifth of the NHL standings is important. Some of the supporting cast may already be on the roster or, failing that, useful assets who can be dealt for future members of the supporting cast. Those pieces need to be identified.
The Canucks goal this year isn’t just to finish poorly and find a primary building block. It’s also to collect as many of the bricks that will be installed around him as is possible.