Canucks retooling blue line with restricted free agency decisions

Jim Benning talks about the Vancouver Canucks looking at possible trades and if the team could make any deals during the 2019 Draft.

VANCOUVER — One way or another, the Vancouver Canucks will have a different defence next season.

Four-year blue-liner Ben Hutton, who appeared to re-start his National Hockey League career this past season when he rebounded from a dismal 2017-18 campaign, was among five restricted free agents who did not receive qualifying offers from the Canucks on Tuesday and will become unrestricted free agents.

Canuck general manager Jim Benning, criticized for not changing his defence from the previous year, is expected to try negotiating a new contract with Hutton while continuing to seek upgrades to his defence through trades and free agency. But it is likely the Canucks will lose Hutton for nothing in free agency.

At the very least, Vancouver’s blue line next fall will include rookie Quinn Hughes, who sparkled during a five-game appearance at the end of the season when the 19-year-old reported to the Canucks straight from the University of Michigan. Minor-leaguer Ashton Sautner will also be pushing for an NHL spot after getting 17 games with the Canucks this season.

Other restricted free agents cut loose by the Canucks on Tuesday included experienced checker and penalty-killer Markus Granlund, former first-round pick Brendan Gaunce, and minor-leaguer Yan-Pavel Laplante. The Canucks said in May that defenceman Derrick Pouliot would not return.

Benning’s most significant decision among the eight players whose rights as restricted free agents were retained was the Canucks’ qualifying offer to winger Nikolay Goldobin, a mercurial 23-year-old who appeared to be playing his way off the team the way Hutton did in 2017-18.

Ironically, Hutton’s resurrection this season harmed his chances of staying with the Canucks, who were wary of what he might command in salary through arbitration.

An erratic sophomore season in Vancouver lurched into a dreadful third-year for Hutton, who played himself out of coach Travis Green’s lineup in the spring of 2018. Green challenged Hutton to get into the better shape, and Benning spent the summer trying to trade the defenceman.

Almost nobody expected the 2012 fifth-round pick to be back with the Canucks. But when he showed up for training camp last fall, Hutton was noticeably leaner and fitter. He made the roster but was healthy-scratched by Green for Vancouver’s first two games.
Dressed for Game 3, Hutton seized his chance.

Not only did he not leave the lineup until injuring his foot in March, Hutton was rewarded by Green with opportunity and ice time. Due to injuries, he logged as much as 31:18 in one game and finished the season with an average time-on-ice of 22:21, second on the Canucks to top defenceman Alex Edler’s 24:34.

Hutton also registered 20 points in 69 games after managing just six assists the previous year. But Hutton was also a team-worst minus-23, which was backed up by a shots-for percentage of 44.23, and the Canucks were outscored 60-38 at even strength with the 26-year-old on the ice.

The mid-season spike in ice time exposed Hutton against the opposition’s best forwards. But at least Hutton looked like an NHL player again, someone who can help near the bottom of the defence order.

Coming out of a two-year contract that paid him $2.8 million per season, and with all that ice time and some moderate offensive success, Hutton had a solid arbitration case if the Canucks retained his rights. Faced with the possibility of having to pay a bottom-pairing defenceman $4 million or more to play behind Edler and Hughes on the left side, Benning punted on Hutton.

Not surprisingly, Benning was unable to get anything in a trade for Hutton before Tuesday’s deadline for NHL teams to qualify their restricted free agents. With the Canucks losing an asset for nothing, the question is whether Benning could have traded Hutton during the season or even before then.

Two years ago, the Canucks reportedly were unwilling to include Hutton, then 23 and a season removed from an impressive 25-point rookie campaign, in trade discussions involving the Colorado Avalanche’s Tyson Barrie and Buffalo Sabres’ Evander Kane.

Hutton still seemed then like a potential core piece before his game fell apart in Season 3.

Granlund, acquired three-and-a-half years ago by Benning in a trade for failed first-rounder Hunter Shinkaruk, is another once-promising prospect whose projected salary eclipsed the value of his game.

A 19-goal scorer two years ago when he spent time on the first line alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Granlund plummeted to eight goals and 12 points in 53 games in 2017-18. He rebounded slightly this past year, finishing with 12 goals and 22 points in 77 games. Playing on a one-year contract for $1.475 million, Granlund averaged 15:02 of ice time and was third among penalty-killing forwards with 2:21 of shorthanded time-on-ice.

With Granlund’s low offensive ceiling and a crowd of players who will be pushing for ice time at the bottom half of the lineup, the Canucks deemed Granlund expendable.

Benning met with impending free-agent defenceman Tyler Myers on Sunday, and said after acquiring Tampa Bay winger J.T. Miller the previous day that he will continue to look at adding players in trade.

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