VANCOUVER – For a team emerging from a rebuild, there is no good answer to the loaded question: When will you be in a position to win a Stanley Cup?
Certainly, there are no smart answers (see ridiculed Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk).
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning seemed to be stumbling towards a bad answer on Monday when he volunteered that good teams "win with 26- to 35-year-old players."
Benning’s best player is 20-year-old centre Elias Pettersson. Defenceman Quinn Hughes is 19, top winger Brock Boeser is 22 and team leader Bo Horvat, 24. If the Canucks don’t make the National Hockey League playoffs next season, Benning probably isn’t going to be around until these young core players are all 26 or older.
What Benning was getting at during the festival of press conferences the Canucks staged for the media on Monday is that Pettersson and others are not yet in their primes, and when they are, this Vancouver team will be the best it can be.
Until then, the Canucks need to continue to get better. And in that regard, the most concrete promise wrangled during two hours of year-end press conferences and interviews came from Vancouver coach Travis Green, who said: "We’re going to be better next year. I have no doubt about it. I thought we took a good step this year, and we’ll take another one next year."
The Canucks improved this season by eight points which, if adjusted to reflect the universally dismal predictions for them, is about 12 points better than most people thought.
Even missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight year, that’s a good season.
But now Benning and Green must manufacture another 12 or 15 points next season for the Canucks to take the next step in their resurrection by actually making the playoffs.
The team is going to improve organically as Pettersson and Hughes mature and get stronger while Boeser, Horvat and the Canucks’ many other 20-somethings refine their games.
But to get to 95 points from 81 – the Canucks finished 35-36-11 to extend their upward trend to three seasons – Benning is going to have to add a significant player or two this summer.
He reiterated Monday that he’ll be exploring free agency and the trade market for a top-six winger and another reliable defenceman. So he’ll be looking for what nearly everyone else in the NHL seeks.
The advantages the Canucks have are salary-cap space and the opportunity to be part of a future brightened dramatically by the emergence this season of Pettersson and the expected impact next year of Hughes.
"In free agency, we’re going to look at all of our options," Benning said. "We’re going to try to be aggressive to address those weaknesses. That’s a priority.
"I’m excited about the future. I’m excited about what happened this year and with the growth of those young players. We have lots of work to do this summer to continue to add to this group to get to the next step."
Benning’s first business, after practising his grimace for Tuesday’s NHL Draft Lottery spectacle that annually kicks Vancouver in the teeth, is to restart negotiations with Boeser on a long-term extension. He’ll also try to get 32-year-old defenceman Alex Edler re-signed to a short-term contract that won’t encumber the Canucks during the Seattle expansion draft in two years.
Benning said skilled winger Sven Baertschi is healthy and will be relied upon next season despite playing only 26 games in 2018-19 due to a serious concussion. The team hasn’t given up on perplexing forward Nikolay Goldobin either.
Hockey operations meetings will determine how veterans Brandon Sutter, Chris Tanev and Loui Eriksson fit the Canucks’ future after another season of injuries and, in Eriksson’s case, disappointing play. And winger Antoine Roussel won’t be fully recovered from knee surgery when training camp opens in September.
"We just have to keep pushing forward," Green said. "I don’t think there’s a magic formula. Simplest version: score more, allow less. You look at the teams that make the playoffs, just goal-differential is a big part of it."
The Canucks finished 25th in the NHL with 219 goals and scored only one more goal this season than last, which is better than what was expected after Daniel and Henrik Sedin retired last spring. Vancouver’s 248 goals-against ranked 17th and were an 11-goal improvement from 2017-18.
"I think as a team we surprised a lot of people around the league this year and started to earn a little bit of respect," 25-year-old defenceman Troy Stecher said. "But it can’t just be a one-off. We’ve got to show up to camp ready to work and ready to do it again, and add a little more to it, too."
Veteran centre Jay Beagle said: "Next year, it’s 100 per cent in all our minds that we need to make the playoffs. This was a year of growth. There’s no doubt that we need to be in the playoffs next year. Even this year, halfway through the year, we were very hopeful and determined to make the playoffs. That was encouraging."
The Canucks held the Western Conference’s final playoff spot on Feb. 2 before another avalanche of injuries led to a 4-10-3 crash in the standings. It was further proof that the team needs to be deeper, especially on defence.
"I’m excited, as I hope the fans are," Green said. "I think our team has taken a step this season. I think we’re going to take another step next year. And we’ve got young players I believe you can win with."
Hughes, Pettersson and Boeser were first-round draft picks by Benning. As the NHL’s 23rd-place team this season, the Canucks are ninth in the 2019 draft order and have a five per cent chance of winning the top pick in Tuesday’s lottery. Vancouver has a 16 per cent chance of moving into the top three.