When Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning talks about getting younger and faster — and he often does — it isn’t idle chatter or a tired hockey cliché. It’s serious business.
The second-year executive warned his veteran players this past fall that he was prepared to go young. He’s stuck to that. He’s even accelerated the process.
First, Benning’s Canucks had three rookie skaters make the team out of training camp. Then the club gave 22-year-old Sven Baertschi and 20-year-old Bo Horvat plum top-six roles and stuck with them even as they struggled early on. And now comes the hard part: the club is jettisoning relatively expensive veteran players at a dizzying rate.
On Tuesday, the club waived 31-year-old veteran grinder Brandon Prust. When you factor in that Chris Higgins was sent home from practice and put on the trade block via press release in early January, Prust’s posting on waivers marks the second time in less than a month that the Canucks have waived a long-tenured, well-paid veteran.
"We made a decision going into the All-Star break that we want to get younger and faster and in our quest to get younger and faster we made a decision that we were going to try to find Brandon another team to play with," Benning said of Prust’s situation on Tuesday. "I worked with his agent Claude Lemieux for the last three or four days to try to find another team. There were teams that were interested, maybe that will happen closer toward the trade deadline, but for right now we couldn't move him, so we put him on waivers.”
Though everyone expects that Prust will clear waivers, for avariety of reasons, it still wouldn’t be shocking if he were dealt later on this month.
Waiver claims have become so rare, partly because they’re so difficult. It really isn’t just a matter of adding a player for free. A claiming team needs to have space under the salary cap, be under the 23-man roster limit, be under the 50-contract limit, and the player they’re claiming needs to provide a worthwhile marginal upgrade over the player he’d be replacing. It’s difficult math.
A trade can be a simpler equation though: dead money in, dead money out.
More of Prust’s $2-million salary will have been paid out at the end of February for example, which makes him cheaper to acquire. Also, on trade deadline day the 23-man roster limit is lifted (although the salary cap still applies.)
And the 23-man limit is a significant factor here. With Henrik Sedin returning shortly, the Canucks have to make space before they activate their captain off of injured reserve. Though he’s a popular and long-tenured veteran player, Prust was the natural choice.
More than ever, the day-to-day composition of an NHL roster is shaped by a cold and ruthless numbers game.
Of course, there’s one more way this might play out. The Canucks could retain salary in a Prust deal and take back an additional contract too. That could maybe make a Prust transaction more palatable to a rival NHL team.
It’s certainly something the Canucks are willing to consider.
“We were willing to retain salary,” Benning said of trade talks involving both Prust and Higgins. “That was our goal: to keep them in the NHL and keep them playing in the NHL.
“So we exhausted our opportunities, and that's not to say that it might not still happen because as you get to the deadline things can loosen up…
“So we'll still work with teams to try and figure out how they can get back to the NHL."
Whether Prust is the sort of player that a contending team might covet is a more difficult question. The grit and experience is there, and so is Prust’s sneakily effective passing game.
Though eyebrows were furrowed in late January when Prust dressed for a game against the New York Rangers – quite possibly his last game in a Canucks uniform – only one day after skating as a healthy scratch at practice, Benning and Prust’s teammates spoke highly of his character on Tuesday.
"As a young guy, (Prust) is one of the guys that kind of took me under his wing,” said Jake Virtanen. “I sat with him on the plane. He's such a good team guy, everyone loves Prusty, he does his job so well. It's tough for that to happen.”
“Brandon didn't ask to be traded,” added Benning. “He's a true team player, and he stuck up for our guys. This was more of a decision that we made for us to get better going forward, that we want to give our younger players more opportunity to play. We don't have any problem with Brandon…”
The seven fights this season, the nearly 500 games of NHL experience and the sparkling character references only get a relatively expensive veteran player so far these days.
The fact is that Prust’s trademark defensive effectiveness fell off in a major way this season. In the wake of two separate ankle injuries over the past calendar year, he too often just couldn’t make the plays he once could at the NHL level.
All of which makes it crystal clear that if the Canucks recoup any assets at all for Prust, they won’t be significant.
No one said getting younger and faster would be easy.