The Vancouver Canucks were built to contend for a playoff spot this season, but with an eye towards building for the future.
With the club rapidly spiralling out of contention – they’ve lost 13 of their past 16 games – it’s the uncertain future that has to begin to take more precedence.
The balance between this club’s short-term and long-term moves seemed contradictory this summer, but there was a rough sort of logic behind the talk of developing young players at the NHL-level and having them learn in a winning environment. Having structure in place and mentors for young players isn’t necessarily imprudent. You never want to go full Oilers.
It’s become increasingly obvious that the Canucks’ blueprint of developing the likes of Bo Horvat, Jared McCann, Jake Virtanen and Ben Hutton in a ‘winning environment’ isn’t going according to plan.
McCann and Horvat are struggling to play secondary roles while Brandon Sutter recuperates from sports hernia surgery. Virtanen is out with a hip pointer and seems likely to be loaned out to Canada’s side for the World Junior Championships if he recovers in time. Hutton has impressed enormously in his rookie campaign, but he’s in some ways a one-man distillation of a Canucks defence corps that has been moving the puck better, but isn’t nearly good enough at preventing five-alarm scoring chances in their own end of the rink.
As a result of a lengthy streak of ineptitude, Vancouver now finds itself in a very weird place. The Canucks are still only one point out of a playoff spot in the weakest division in hockey, but they’re also only four points clear of the Calgary Flames for last place in the NHL.
This season could still go either way. The Canucks will host the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers at Rogers Arena this week before heading out east for a six-game road trip that will make or break their season. December is shaping up to be a watershed month for the organization.
The club’s confidence is low, but this is still a team that may have just enough to sneak into the playoffs in the meek Pacific Division. Or more likely, they have just enough to avoid sinking to the standard level of NHL lottery teams.
Vancouver’s special teams have been a mess, there is no secondary scoring to speak of and the defence is far too permissive. Still, the Canucks possess a legitimate top pair with Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and a dynamic first forward-line that includes two of the league’s top-10 scorers in Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin.
Combine a sturdy top-end of the roster with league average goaltending, and it’s still too soon to pronounce Vancouver’s quickly fading playoff hopes dead on arrival.
That could change over the next 14 days if the Canucks don’t get this sorted out. Truthfully, we’ve reached that point where it may be better for the organization’s long-term future if the Canucks go the other way and fade into the inglorious oblivion of the NHL draft lottery.
If the Canucks get this ship righted they may be tempted to hold on to a smattering of useful veteran pieces on expiring contracts. No matter how the balance of December plays out, that would probably be a mistake.
The Canucks have right wing Radim Vrbata and defenceman Dan Hamhuis on expiring contracts, and though both players are on deals that include no-trade protection, they could garner considerable interest at the trade deadline. As could fourth-line tough guy Brandon Prust.
Based on the way the first eight weeks of the season have unfolded, netting quality future assets for veteran pieces who don’t fit into the club’s long-range plans should be a necessity. Exploring the possibility of swapping out an inconvenient contract with a longer-term commitment to an aging player, like Chris Higgins or Alex Burrows, could also add some worthwhile flexibility going forward.
The rewards for being awful aren’t quite what they used to be, but the top of the draft is where NHL teams are still most likely to find elite talent. And there’s a large handful of intriguing names that will be called in the top-five at the 2016 draft, even beyond consensus first-overall selection Auston Matthews.
Horvat, McCann, Virtanen and Hutton have been established as young NHL players with bright futures, even potential core pieces of the next Canucks contender. There should be no doubt that Vancouver needs more going forward, and could use a player like Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat or Jacob Chychrun.
Those are rare pieces; pieces this organization is still searching for.
The Canucks organization has never picked first overall at the draft and haven’t picked in the top-5 since 1999. They’ve generally eschewed the tear-it-down rebuild. That’s fair enough to a point.
Tearing it all down is a bridge too far, but as this season unfolds, the Canucks could be forced to lean in to the inevitable. They shouldn’t resist that call.
It might be the right thing to do for the franchise.