What should the Canucks do with upcoming UFA Alexander Edler?

Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Edler skates off the ice. The 32-year-old defenceman will be a UFA at the end of the season. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – There are four things the Vancouver Canucks can do with Alexander Edler. At least two of them would be good, but both of those scenarios hinge on the defenceman returning to the National Hockey League team next season.

The most important meeting of Canucks on Wednesday was not the gathering of players for a morning practice at Rogers Arena, but the summit of hockey operations staff upstairs in the afternoon.

General manager Jim Benning and his staff are meeting this week to plot the Canucks’ course through the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25. By far the most pressing file is Edler, who, through his full no-trade clause and looming unrestricted free agency, is empowered to severely limit management’s options.

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The 32-year-old Swede, a career Canuck who is having one of his best seasons in years, is on an expiring contract. A majority of respondents to a Sportsnet 650 Radio poll said the Canucks should trade Edler and Chris Tanev, a 29-year-old whose contract expires after next season.

The poll says a lot about the market in which they play.

Edler and Tanev are easily Vancouver’s best defencemen. The Canucks, driven by young forward stars Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, are more competitive than anyone thought they’d be this season. But Vancouver’s defence hasn’t been rebuilt to the same level as the forward group. The Canucks need more good defencemen, not fewer of them.

“We don’t have anybody in our organization right now who’s ready to step in and fill Alex’s shoes,” Benning said Wednesday. “He’s probably our best penalty killer on the back end and he plays on our power play. He’s physical. He plays a good all-around game for us. We don’t have anyone in our system right now who can replace that.”

So, let’s start from there and proceed.

The four options with Edler are: trade him at the deadline but try to re-sign him on July 1, trade him at the deadline and move on, re-sign him before free agency, or let him leave for nothing on July 1.

The fourth option would be a disaster. No NHL team that doesn’t win the Stanley Cup can squander a valuable asset by getting nothing in return.

Obviously, the first option is the best. Obtain something for Edler before the deadline and see it become free money when the defenceman re-signs July 1 in Vancouver. Makes sense. It’s the most popular option for armchair GMs, a win-win.

But the reality is it simply doesn’t happen in the NHL very often where a traded player happily and immediately returns.

Roman Polak re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016 after being traded to the San Jose Sharks. But he returned on a one-year deal for $2.25 million US. There wasn’t exactly a frenzied bidding war for Polak in free agency.

The previous summer, Antoine Vermette found his way home to the Arizona Coyotes after being ransomed to the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2015 trade deadline. He signed for two years at $3.75 million.

Edler leads the Canucks with 23:13 of ice time and is their best defenceman. He is on pace for 46 points, which would be his most productive season since 2011-12, and would be a highly-attractive UFA who could command a multi-year deal for at least the $5 million annually he is earning now.

But he loves Vancouver. Surely he would return on July 1 if traded? Well, no matter how strong the napkin on which the Canucks write their I.O.U. to Edler if they trade him, he is beyond their control the moment he leaves. He may find playing in Tampa or Vegas quite pleasant, especially if he wins there. Or maybe he resents being pressured by the Canucks to accept a trade.

It’s all a non-issue if Edler flexes his NTC.

“I don’t know what their plan is but I’ll focus on what I can control and just play my best,” Edler told Sportsnet. “If that time comes, then I’ll make a decision then. But right now I’m fully committed to this season and this team and I’m excited to be part of this group.

“Whether it’s on or off the ice, I just try to do the right thing, whether it’s go out there and play hard or just approach every day with a positive mindset and show what I’ve been shown by leaders in the past. I’ve always said that I like it here, and I want to be part of this franchise. (But) sometimes it’s not your decision, so I’m prepared for anything.”

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It’s unknown how strong the trade market would be for Edler as a rental. Benning needs to explore that. But what’s almost certain is that whatever the Canucks could fetch for Edler, his departure would make the organization’s defence weaker next season.

Considering the impressive progress coach Travis Green’s team has made this season, Pettersson’s brilliant emergence, and ownership’s impatience to win, Benning can’t make moves on defence that diminish the Canucks’ chances of making the playoffs next season when the franchise celebrates 50 years in the NHL.

One way or another, the Canucks need Edler back.

“There’s a lot of different things,” Edler said of his desire to stay. “I’ve lived here for most of my adult life. I started a family here and the city feels like home. But the organization has been good to me, too. I’ve been treated well and given chances to improve and play a lot.

“My best scenario is to get that chance (to win again) here. We have some work to do and there’s a lot of learning and a lot of teaching. But for sure, we have young, talented players who are going to keep developing. It’s no fun to lose like we did last year, but it’s exciting to go through a change like this and be part of it until we get good again.”

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