Canucks weighing experience versus development with extra roster spots

A coaching change helped turn Minnesota’s season around. Will it be enough to take down the young talent of the Vancouver Canucks?

VANCOUVER — Brogan Rafferty is more enticing than Guillaume Brisebois like Oahu is more enticing than Omaha.

In the same way, Vancouver Canucks minor-leaguer Kole Lind is a more exciting prospect than Reid Boucher. Lind is 21 years old and has yet to play an NHL game, but one day could become an everyday player for the Canucks. Boucher is 26, has logged 133 NHL games and hasn’t been an everyday player for anybody.

But if you’re a groin strain away from needing either Lind or Boucher to play in a game that the Canucks need to win, who do you think is more capable of helping them right now?

That’s what Canucks coach Travis Green, general manager Jim Benning and the hockey operations staff will be asking as the team works toward an expanded roster of 28 skaters for what the NHL hopes will be a 24-team playoff tournament this summer.

Those extra roster spots, which are surprisingly few when you account for injured forwards Josh Leivo (knee cap) and Micheal Ferland (concussion), seem like a great opportunity for the Canucks to give future players like Rafferty and Lind valuable airtime at the NHL level.

Reward their development in the American Hockey League this season with a chance to practice with the NHL team. Let them see where they stand and how much more they need to work on and improve to play at that level. An experience like that should inspire them.

The problem is the Canucks will be desperately trying to, you know, win when they get to a planned play-in series against the Minnesota Wild. Meanwhile, Rafferty just finished his first season of professional hockey and Lind his second.

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs aren’t about development.

“People say, ‘You’ll finally play meaningful games,’” Green said in an interview from his home in California. “That’s not what this is about to me. It’s not about getting a few games under our belt under hard and exciting circumstances, in pressure-filled games. This is about, how do we win the first series, and then how do we win the second series? And I can tell you, we’re not going into this thinking we’re only going to be playing one or two rounds.”

In his first two years, Green had to find a balance between developing NHL players and trying to win NHL games. But after a 36-27-6 regular season record placed the Canucks seventh in the Western Conference in winning percentage and gave them a seat at the NHL’s summer ball, the organization’s singular focus is trying to win while they’ve still got goalie Jacob Markstrom and winger Tyler Toffoli under contract and young stars Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes on entry-level deals.

And the AHL 34-goal scorer, Boucher, or minor-league winger Sven Baertschi, who had 46 points in 43 games after a surprise demotion to the Utica Comets followed his four seasons in Vancouver, probably gives the Canucks a better chance to win than Lind.

Differences in experience and positions on the development arc are not nearly as defined on the Comets’ blue line, which is why the promotions on defence are harder to project for the Canucks.

Rafferty, for example, may have just finished his terrific rookie season with 45 points in 57 AHL games. He was an undrafted free agent the Canucks signed out of Quinnipiac University just over a year ago. But at 25, the dynamic defenceman is actually two years older than the steady Brisebois, a third-round pick in 2015 who just finished his third full season in the American League.

“We haven’t had those conversations yet, but those are the things we’re going to talk about,” Benning told Sportsnet. “We have five lines of forwards (at the NHL level), so we don’t have to bring in as many forwards. But we’ve only got seven D, so if you have two guys go down, the second injury on defence, one of those guys called up is going to play.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

“We’ve told guys down there – when (Utica GM) Ryan Johnson did his year-end Zoom meetings with them – to be prepared and stay in shape in case we start back up again. He’s given a heads-up to the 10 or 11 guys we’re considering for the spots.”

Identifying the candidates for the Canucks’ call-ups isn’t as hard as choosing the winners.

The NHL has placed no limit on goaltenders, so Utica starter Mike DiPietro, 20, will be promoted to join Markstrom, Thatcher Demko and Louis Domingue at a July training camp.

On defence, the candidates should be Rafferty, Brisebois, Ashton Sautner, Jalen Chatfield and Olli Juolevi, the fifth-overall pick from 2016 who could be summoned from Finland.

Lind may only be the No. 5 candidate at forward, behind the more experienced Boucher, Baertschi, Justin Bailey and Tyler Graovac.

It’s unclear, Benning said, how the uncertain health status of Leivo and Ferland affects the 28-skater limit, but there could be as few as five players brought up from the AHL to deepen the NHL roster. At least three of those would be defencemen.

“I don’t know the answer yet about how we’re going to do this,” Green said. “We’re going to look at our options. But the NHL playoffs are about winning.”

If we’re guessing – and why wouldn’t we? – we’d go with: Brisebois, Rafferty and Juolevi on defence, along with Graovac and Boucher up front.

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