VANCOUVER – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ trade for Jake Muzzin may set the market for defencemen ahead of the National Hockey League’s trade deadline, but it doesn’t change anything for the Vancouver Canucks and impending unrestricted free agent Alex Edler.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning reiterated in an interview with Sportsnet that the priority remains to negotiate a contract extension for Edler and that there is enough trust in the team-player relationship that a deal need not be completed before the Feb. 25 deadline for trades.
Benning also said he won’t be trading away any 2019 draft picks ahead of the deadline and that if the surprising Canucks are going to stay in the Western Conference playoff race, it’s up to the current players to continue the fight.
Veteran winger Antoine Roussel said last week that he hoped the Canucks would play well enough to be “buyers” at the deadline, perhaps adding a depth defenceman or another forward who can score in order to bolster the team’s playoff drive.
“Antoine is an emotional player and a competitive guy,” Benning said Wednesday. “He’s kind of like Alexandre Burrows was for us. He’s our emotional leader. He wants the team and our organization to be successful. Having said that, I’ll make hockey trades. If there’s a trade to be made, players for players, and we can make the team better, I’ll look at something like that.
“But we have a plan in place and I’m not moving picks from this year’s draft to make the team better now. It’s going to be about the guys in that room pulling together and having a good run. And that will dictate whether we’re a playoff team or not.”
The Canucks haven’t made the playoffs since 2015 and haven’t won a playoff round since losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Benning said he’ll meet this week with Edler and agent Mark Stowe to start discussions on an extension for the 32-year-old defenceman who has spent his 13-year NHL career in Vancouver and stated, unequivocally, his desire to stay. The Swede’s expiring six-year, US $30-million contract contains a full no-trade clause, so the Canucks would need Edler’s consent to trade him.
Benning agreed that the Maple Leafs’ acquisition of Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday in exchange for a first-round draft pick and a couple of second-tier prospects, one of them unsigned, establishes a market for veteran defencemen who could be traded in the next 3 ½ weeks.
But he said, Muzzin, a 29-year-old who has a year remaining under contract, a Stanley Cup ring, and was good enough to make Team Canada’s World Cup roster in 2016, may be at the “top of the market.” And even then, Benning noted, there is no guarantee that a draft pick near the end of the first round will turn into an NHL player.
“The numbers speak for themselves if you go over the history of the draft,” he said. “If you’re looking at the top five picks, they have a chance more often than not to become impact players over time. But if you look at the bottom five picks in the first round, some of those guys don’t even play.
“But I think teams, even the top teams that are trying to win the Stanley Cup, are more reluctant now to give up their picks maybe than two years ago. But it’s early yet (for this year’s trade deadline) and maybe I’m wrong.”
With Edler not on the market, Vancouver defenceman Chris Tanev still a year away from potential unrestricted free agency and impending UFAs Anders Nilsson and Michael Del Zotto already traded (to Ottawa and Anaheim) for late picks, 2019 could be a different trade deadline for Benning than the last couple of years.
The GM was probably never more popular on the West Coast than at the 2017 deadline when he leveraged aging Canucks Jannik Hansen (San Jose) and Burrows (to Ottawa) for prospects Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen. And he was never more vilified than at last year’s deadline when his failure to acquire a draft pick for rental forward Thomas Vanek outraged many fans and some in the media.
Winger Tyler Motte, the Chicago Blackhawk prospect Benning settled for, has been a fourth-line regular for Canuck coach Travis Green all season.
“Our team is healthy now and the (schedule) break came at a good time for us,” Benning said. “Talking to some of our players, our group was tired. But now we’ve had this break and we have almost four weeks until the deadline and we’ll see where we’re at. We’ll make decisions based on our long-term plan.”
The Canucks return to practice Thursday afternoon, and Saturday in Denver will end a nine-day layoff. There are eight teams separated by six points battling for a total of three playoff spots in the Western Conference: third place in the Central Division and two wildcard positions.
The entire race is a little misleading because .500 hockey gets you into the mosh pit but certainly isn’t going to get you into the playoffs once the race for the Stanley Cup tournament accelerates over the final two months of the regular season.
But at 23-22-6 and the worst of their schedule – and injuries, they hope – behind them, the Canucks are doing better this season than anyone expected, led offensively by remarkable rookie Elias Pettersson.
That competitiveness, and the culture Green is trying to build around Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, is also why Benning can’t afford to take his team backwards at the deadline by trading pieces from his roster for futures.
“This was our goal when we talked in the summertime. … to have a team that’s playing meaningful games in February,” Benning said. “With the way Petey has come in here, the way he has played has given everyone confidence and a lift that we have, you know, a player who can be a difference-maker for us along with Brock and Bo. The core pieces are starting to fall into place.”
What does it mean?
“I think it says we’re on the right path.”