VANCOUVER – The date is Gudbranson+1, the day after the Vancouver Canucks re-signed the ideologically divisive third-pairing defenceman to a three-year, US$12-million contract extension.
Although Erik Gudbranson actually a pretty swell guy who gets along with everyone, he’s ground zero in the war between hockey analytics and instincts. Today, the earth is scorched in that place and there seems no one left between the rival barricades.
But if the choice – the main choice because this is a many-tentacled issue – was between re-signing Gudbranson, 26, or trading him for, say, second- and fourth-round draft picks, then the Canucks made the right call.
The only way a Gudbranson trade would have worked for the Canucks was to get back a good early-20s player ready to help them next season. And National Hockey League teams don’t tend to surrender those.
In the last three years, through draft or trade, the Canucks have accumulated forward prospects Brock Boeser, Adam Gaudette, William Lockwood, Jonathan Dahlen, Nikolay Goldobin, Elias Pettersson, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich. Obviously, not all eight are going to develop into NHLers.
But these are the Canucks’ best prospects, not a cross-section, so it’s reasonable to think at least five will make it — especially since Boeser, 20, crested 50 points Tuesday in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche and will be a Calder Trophy finalist this spring.
Besides Boeser, the roster already includes offensive driver Bo Horvat, 22, linemate Sven Baertschi, 25, and depth winger Jake Virtanen, 21.
These are enough forwards to form the bulk of the “next” Vancouver team. Yes, goaltender Thatcher Demko, 22, needs to be as good as projected and the organization needs more coming on defence than just Olli Juolevi, 19. But whatever the Canucks are going to become, these players will be responsible. And since NHL players peak statistically in their early to mid-20s, this group needs to be fortified not with more draft picks, but with players who contribute now – or at least starting next season.
Gudbranson, of course, remains a tradeable asset because there aren’t any no-movement restrictions in his new contract. But dealing him for draft picks doesn’t help Boeser and Horvat, Gaudette and Pettersson, Juolevi and Demko succeed in the next couple of years.
As far as the rebuild goes, general manager Jim Benning could probably trade Chris Tanev for a first-round pick before Monday’s deadline, and Brandon Sutter for a second- or third-, and maybe get something for Michael Del Zotto. The Canucks could even force Daniel and Henrik Sedin to retire this summer so there’s roster and cap space for others.
And in three more years of 60- and 70-point seasons – and six years without a playoff appearance — the Canucks could be just like the Arizona Coyotes. Except there will be 8,000 fans in the building, not 4,000.
BARRIE GOOD: If Benning wants to think big ahead of the trade deadline, he should be looking at Avalanche defenceman Tyson Barrie. Chances are, he already is.
The Canucks were among the many teams watching Barrie’s contract saga a couple of years ago when the offensive defenceman went to arbitration with the Avalanche and there was a possibility Colorado would trade him rather than pay him.
All Barrie has done since then is continue to drive offence. His five-point night against the Canucks gave the Victoria native 36 points in 45 games this season, and Barrie is among the NHL’s top-10 scoring defencemen over the last five years. He is 26 years old – six months older than Gudbranson – and under contract for two more seasons at $5.5 million.
He is the dynamic puck-carrying, power-play quarterbacking defencemen the Canucks have lacked for most of their 48 years in the NHL.
And now, Barrie again is reportedly available. Why? Because it’s the Avalanche and Colorado just drafted offensive defenceman Cale Makar.
What would Barrie cost the Canucks? Start with their first-round draft pick and build from there. But with Vancouver’s needs on defence and the window to win opening in the next couple of years, Barrie is a player Benning should target.
FINAL THOUGHT: This whole rebuild thing in Vancouver would be a lot easier if the Canucks started, as Toronto did, with Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. Winning the draft lottery and getting a generational player would help, too.