VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks have no salary cap space, few assets they’re willing to trade and a lineup general manager Jim Benning trusts and wants to reward. So, does that mean the Canucks are going to sit out next month’s National Hockey League trade deadline?
Not necessarily. But don’t expect any blockbusters from Benning, and if the team makes a move it will be as a buyer, not a seller, for the first time in years.
The Canucks are the surprise leaders in the Pacific Division, albeit with a herd of teams stampeding behind them. They won 11 of 14 games before this week’s schedule break, and the last five probably constitute the Canucks’ best five-game segment this season.
They have a good thing going and Benning, understandably, is wary of jeopardizing that, telling Sportsnet this week: "We have a group of guys that likes playing with one another and playing hard for one another. I want to make sure if we do do something, we don’t wreck the chemistry in the group that we have right now. I really like the chemistry in this group."
That means potential unrestricted free agents Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev, the Canucks’ starting goalie and shutdown defenceman/mentor, aren’t going anywhere despite their uncertain status beyond this season.
It also means Benning isn’t going to sacrifice his stash of assets or disrupt the NHL lineup to make a deal. Remember, no matter how the Canucks finish this season, they’re a team on the rise. All-Star Game participants Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, are only in their second and first seasons, respectively. Brock Boeser, 22, is in his third year. Captain Bo Horvat is 24.
Swedish world-junior sensation Nils Hoglander could be on the team next year, Russian first-round pick Vasily Podkolzin the season after. Prospects like Kole Lind and Brogan Rafferty are having excellent seasons in the American League.
It’s too soon in the Canucks’ evolution for Benning to go all-in at the deadline.
Patience is not only a virtue, but a vital development necessity with so much young talent.
"The way I look at it, outside the first month of the year, we haven’t played with Sutter and Ferland all year," Benning said. "Adding two top-nine forwards to our group, it’s going to help us. I’d like to see what our full group looks like for a couple of weeks, three weeks, before the deadline, and then we’ll be able to make a better assessment about what we need to make our team better.
"There’s still a lot of the season left to be played. We’re happy with where we’re at right now, but we want to keep improving and getting better and then let the chips fall where they may. It would be nice to make the playoffs."
After four straight years as a draft-lottery team and without a playoff series victory since the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, making the playoffs in April would be far better than "nice." And there are players out there on the market who could help them do it.
But before we look at three guys who could, one last thing to note: Benning surrendered a conditional first-round pick in June to acquire winger J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Canucks make the playoffs this season, they’re giving the Lightning that pick. So, it’s extremely unlikely Benning will offer his second-rounder to make a deal happen before Feb. 24.
Brenden Dillon, D, San Jose Sharks
The Canucks’ six-man blue line is better than it was last season, but the third pairing could still be upgraded. Dillon looks like a great fit. He’s mobile and can make a pass but also plays with a fierceness that Vancouver lacks. The 29-year-old has logged 10 rounds of playoff hockey the last four seasons and, as a local kid who grew up watching the Canucks, he might re-sign with Vancouver before his contract expires on July 1.
Of course, the Canucks could also keep their assets and try signing Dillon on July 1 anyway. Sharks GM Doug Wilson is in a tricky spot. His team has been one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments this season, but Wilson has a pile of veteran players on huge contracts with trade restrictions. He can’t afford to just fire-sale players like Dillon for futures, and Benning is unlikely to give up a key piece from his lineup to help the Sharks now.
Tyler Toffoli, RW, Los Angeles Kings
For months, Toffoli’s name has been linked to the Canucks in trade conjecture. The 27-year-old with size and skill would deepen the Canucks’ attack and there would be an instant fit with Horvat and Tanner Pearson, Toffoli’s old "70s Line" teammate in L.A., on Vancouver’s second line.
But Toffoli isn’t likely to come cheaply. His $4.6 million salary would have to be squeezed under the Canucks’ salary cap and, for all the excited speculation, the winger has 12 goals and 27 points in 49 games this season after scoring just 13 times all of last year. Does the hype exceed the player? For context, consider that Jake Virtanen has scored 14 goals and 28 points for the Canucks, and Pearson 14 and 37.
Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
Kreider is at the top of everyone’s list of trade rentals. The 28-year-old scored 28 goals last year and is on pace to get at least that many again this season. What would help the Canucks as much as his ability to finish and play in the top-six is Kreider’s 77 games of playoff experience and the physical heft he brings to the lineup (and against opposing defencemen).
But with so many teams in the playoff race and nearly all of them looking for another winger who can score and provide playoff experience, the bidding on Kreider looks especially susceptible to turning stupid. If you’re the Canucks, do you want Kreider badly enough to give the Rangers a package of assets that includes, say, Hoglander and that second-rounder you need to hang on to? Most Canucks fans would scream, “Noooo!”