Canucks off-season needs: Upgrade the blueline

Alexander Edler controls the puck. (Brian Blanco/AP)

The Vancouver Canucks’ offence rebounded during the 2014-15 campaign, as the Sedin twins – and the team itself – returned to the top-10 in NHL scoring.

The goals, the polished special teams, and the club’s sterling record in one-goal games helped to paper over some rather significant team-level defensive issues.

Those issues came to the fore during a first-round playoff series loss to the Calgary Flames, in which Vancouver’s blueliners were viciously carved up by an aggressive Flames forecheck.

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It’s clear that the Canucks blueline will have to be stingier defensively and more dynamic and effective at moving the puck if the club hopes to return to the post-season for a second consecutive season.

“If we can make an improvement somehow on our defencemen we’re going to look at it and examine it and we’ll try and execute it,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet this week.

Today we take a look at potential blueline options for the Canucks, starting inside the organization.

Where things stand

The Canucks have five defencemen signed to one-way contracts for next season including Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, and Luca Sbisa. The annual average value of those five contracts combined is $22.15 million, according to

Yannick Weber, 26, is a restricted free agent for the final time this summer. He is eligible to file for player-elected salary arbitration, and will cost $892,500 to qualify. Weber led all Canucks blueliners in goals scored, emerged as a bona fide top-four option when Vancouver’s defence was bit by the injury bug in February, and was a key contributor to the Canucks power play.

The two sides have begun preliminary contract discussions and Canucks general manager Jim Benning insisted that the club would get Weber re-signed at his season ending press conference.

In Ryan Stanton, Adam Clendening, and Frank Corrado, the Canucks have a trio of restricted blueliners with enough NHL experience that they’ll all require waivers this fall. All three players have shown that they can credibly hold down a depth role at the NHL level.

Benning has said that the Canucks will look to carry eight defencemen on their 23-man roster next season, but we’ve already listed nine blueliners who will require waivers.

While many expect the Canucks to look to leverage this surplus in an effort to recoup draft picks this summer, Benning insists that the club is in no rush and may allow the situation to play itself out at training camp.

“I’m comfortable (carrying nine defencemen into training camp),” Benning told Sportsnet. “A lot can happen in the next four to five months, but I think we need depth on defence.”

The Canucks will spend the off-season pressed up against the upper limit of the salary cap, limiting their ability to add to their roster from outside. In a conversation with Sportsnet this week Benning suggested the club is confident they can improve the speed and overall quality of their defence with players who are already in the organization.

“We’ve got some young defencemen, with Corrado and Clendening,” Benning said of the club’s internal options. “I went to the (Utica Comets) game last night and they’re real good puck movers, they get back, they have their head up, and they can transition the puck up the ice fast.

“So if that’s the direction we decide to go in I think they’re going to give us some mobility from the back end.”

Aiming high

The Canucks haven’t made any firm decisions about how they’ll proceed yet, but Benning indicated in a recent radio interview that when the organization broaches the subject at their upcoming pro-meetings, they could be players on the trade market or in free agency.

“If when we talk about that, when we get to that point, we’ll make a list of guys that are UFAs and that are trade possibilities that maybe if we could acquire to make our team better,” Benning said.

Unless the Canucks opt to shop one of their more highly paid defencemen, they’ll be easily priced out of the bidding on unrestricted defencemen like Cody Franson or Christian Ehrhoff.

Franson recently expressed some interest in returning to Vancouver, but acquiring him will be an expensive proposition, especially after Montreal Canadiens defender Jeff Petry, who has played 80 fewer NHL games and has scored half as many points in his career, set the market with a six-year, $33 million contract.

Canucks brass approached Ehrhoff about a possible deal last summer before he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A top-pairing quality puck mover, Ehrhoff battled a variety of injuries last season, but is still likely to be very much in demand when free agency opens on July 1.

Established free agents

Their salary cap situation would suggest the Canucks aren’t likely to be looking at big-ticket items this summer, but even if the club is forced to shop in the bargain bin, there are some intriguing names available.

Matt Bartkowski seemed to fall out of favour with the Boston Bruins this season, but he has experience playing big minutes for a good team. He’s the sort of crafty, heads up blueliner who could stabilize the left side of Vancouver’s defence, and at reasonable cost.

Young San Jose Sharks veteran Matt Irwin, 27, hails from Brentwood Bay, B.C. and is a versatile left-handed shooter. He’ll cost a fraction of what the bigger names will demand in free agency, and has some top-four upside.

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Buying low

Benning has billed his organizational model as consisting of 11 defenders that are capable of logging minutes in the NHL.

“Last year we were on our 11th defenceman, so we need depth on defence,” Benning told Sportsnet.

“With our travel schedule and the wear and tear on defencemen, you end up getting defencemen hurt. So we’re going to make sure we have good depth so if we run into injuries next year we’re covered.”

Alex Biega performed admirably in spot duty for the Canucks this season and is an elite AHL defender. He may have other suitors in free agency, but he’d represent a luxury item if the Canucks could retain him as their 10th defender.

Bruins defender David Warsofsky, a group VI UFA, is undersized at 5-foot-8, but Benning has some familiarity with him from his time with the Bruins, and he’d fit in the club’s recent track record of gambling on successful American League players who are in their 20s.

Colorado Avalanche defender Ryan Wilson has barely played more than 40 games over the past three years, but when we last saw him log a regular shift in the NHL, he was producing the sort of results you’d expect from an above average top-four guy. He could be this summer’s Carlo Colaiacovo.

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