The now-admittedly rebuilding Vancouver Canucks have moved past an idle performance at the 2016 NHL trade deadline, even if it remains a hot topic in the Vancouver market.
The organization is now focusing on signing their own draft picks, several of whom – like defenceman Nikita Tryamkin, who signed this week and will join the club for a full practice on Friday – are in somewhat complicated situations.
Vancouver is also expecting to be busy on the undrafted free agent market and is looking ahead to the NHL draft, where they look likely to make their third top-10 selection in the past four years.
For a team in need of more speed, more youth and more two-way skill – it’s time to get busy on the accumulation front.
"We're going to sign our own guys, there's no question,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet this week. “We're also going to be in the college free agent market, the European free agent market, the junior free agent market - we're going to leave no stones unturned in trying to get good young players so they're part of our organization going forward.”
The most intriguing of the Canucks’ ‘own guys’ is Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko. The 20-year-old netminder, Vancouver’s second-round pick at the 2014 NHL entry draft, has been among the most dominant puck stoppers in college hockey in his junior season.
Demko ranks second in the entire NCAA by save percentage this season. The only goaltender that has stopped a higher percentage of shots faced is Yale goaltender Alex Lyon, who is likely to draw significant interest as an NCAA free agent. Lyon is three years Demko’s senior.
It is absolutely the Canucks’ intention to get Demko signed following his junior season.
"We'll talk to him after his season is done,” Benning said. “We've always kept in good communication with him. We'll talk to him and see where he's at, but from our perspective when his season is done we'd like for him to turn pro."
Pushing to sign high-end NCAA players before their senior season begins has become standard operating procedure for NHL teams league wide. And for good reason.
In recent years the hockey world has seen a number of highly touted NCAA free agents – like Blake Wheeler, Justin Schultz and Kevin Hayes – avail themselves of Article 8.6(c)(iv) of the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement. That’s the CBA rule that allows a college player to finish up their senior season, withdraw from school prior to graduation, and then become an unrestricted free agent and call their shot.
The impact of this has been to incentivize NHL teams to push hard to sign their best college prospects after their junior season, when the team still has more leverage. That maximum $92,500 signing bonus looks a lot better when you’re nearly 18 months away from potentially hitting unrestricted free agency than it does when you’re just five months away.
We should note, also, that the Canucks executed this approach just last year with Ben Hutton.
We’ve even seen teams – like the Calgary Flames with Johnny Gaudreau – willingly burn the first year of a high-end prospect’s entry-level deal in order to entice a player to avoid returning for their senior season. Surely they have no regrets. Anything to avoid being in the position the Nashville Predators are in currently in regards to high-scoring Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey.
It doesn’t seem likely that the Canucks will have to take the Gaudreau path with Demko. Anyway, they may not be able too if Demko’s Boston College Eagles, who will begin their playoff run on Friday, advance as far as the Frozen Four tournament.
The organization is confident though that they’ll get the highly touted goaltender signed.
“Demko is a player that we've drafted, he's from San Diego and wants to be on the west coast, we've spent time with him, he likes our organization, he's best friends with Jared McCann already through development camps,” Benning told Sportsnet. “So he's a guy we're going to get signed. We'll wait until after his season, but we'll get him signed."
In addition to Demko, the Canucks are likely to sign high-scoring SHL forward Anton Rodin – who left the organization in 2013 after a pair of disappointing seasons at the American League level. Rodin, whose rights the organization maintained with a qualifying offer, has surprisingly developed into the most dynamic offensive player in Swedish professional hockey over the past two seasons.
Rodin sustained a gruesome ligament injury at practice a few months ago, so the Canucks won’t be able to watch him play live prior to signing him. They’ve been watching lots of video, though, and are confident that his release and all-around offensive toolkit warrants giving him another look in North America.
“We're going to get him signed here,” Benning told Sportsnet. “He wants to come back and prove that he can play in the NHL. He's gotten stronger since he's gone back and we think that now would be a good time to bring him over again because he's ready."
Adding Rodin, Tryamkin and Demko to the organization is a solid haul, even if they’re all internal prospects straight off of the club’s 90-man reserve list.
The Canucks are committed to looking outside the organization also and there are a number of intriguing undrafted free agents – the aforementioned Lyon, Richmond, B.C. born defenceman Troy Stecher (who plays with Canucks prospect Brock Boeser in North Dakota), big Finnish forward Jarno Karki, Russian sniper Anatoli Golyshev, Russian defender Nikita Zaitsev – who would carry roughly the same odds of developing into impactful NHL players as a typical mid-round draft pick.
And of course there’s the draft. Though Auston Matthews and two mammoth Finnish wingers are generating the Laine’s share of pre-draft buzz, the Canucks see a good class of defencemen at the top end of the draft. Is the club’s need for blue-liners so great that it might convince a hardened career scout to go against his own ‘best player available’ ethos?
"There's some good high-end defencemen in the draft this year and we haven't drafted a defenceman in the first round in 10 years,” Benning told Sportsnet this week.
“So all things being equal and depending on where we end up, if there's a forward that we just feel like, 'hey we've got to draft this guy because he's going to be a star and then we can find a defenceman in another avenue' then we'll go about our business like that.
"All things being equal though, we'd like to take a defenceman in this years draft in the first round."