VANCOUVER — As you would expect from an 81-point team that just missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season, there are significant gaps in the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup.
But up front, the gaps are smaller than they were a year ago. Elias Pettersson filled an awfully big hole.
The rookie’s emergence this season, coinciding with yet another uptick in Bo Horvat’s play, gives the Canucks 20- and 24-year-old centres who should provide a powerful one-two wallop for years in the National Hockey League.
Winger Brock Boeser, 22, is a great finisher who plays with Pettersson. Mid-season acquisitions Josh Leivo, 25, and Tanner Pearson, 26, are big, powerful, top-nine wingers. Leivo frequently partnered Pettersson and Boeser, and Pearson — finally, mercifully — gave Horvat a steady winger. Pearson scored nine times in 19 games after his trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With wingers Jake Virtanen and Antoine Roussel to play with either injury-prone shutdown centre Brandon Sutter or prospect Adam Gaudette, who got noticeably better during his 56-game trial this season as rookie, Vancouver has the ingredients for a solid third line.
So, what’s missing?
Another 30-goal scorer to flank Horvat, improve the Canucks’ power play and help push the team back into the Stanley Cup playoffs next season.
Skilled winger Sven Baertschi missed most of this season with a concussion, and may yet develop into a first-line NHL player. But Baertschi will be 27 when next season starts and, even when healthy, looked to be plateauing as a secondary scorer (14 points in 26 games). Enigmatic winger Nikolay Goldobin appears to have exhausted his many chances in Vancouver.
No wonder, then, general manager Jim Benning has said adding a top-six forward is a priority. He has vowed to be aggressive in free agency on July 1.
But the Canucks also need at least one more reliable defenceman — two if Alex Edler fails to re-sign and leaves as a UFA — and if Benning can afford only one expensive free agent, it will be interesting to see to which position he leans.
CapFriendly shows Vancouver with $26.1 million of available cap space for next year, but at least half of that could disappear when Boeser, a restricted free agent, and Edler re-sign. The Canucks also need to be mindful of potentially huge paydays that loom two years from now for Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes.
Sometime in the next three years, Loui Eriksson’s $6-million cap hit will come off the books. And maybe governments around the world will actually tackle climate change. But Benning needs to be careful July 1 because his cap space isn’t quite what it appears to be.
“I don’t think it’s as much as people think,” Benning agreed. “We’re continuing to talk to Alex Edler and try to figure out a new deal for him there, and we’re in conversations with Brock and his camp. I don’t think we’re going to be going crazy with a lot of the top-end guys (in free agency).
“Whether it’s a player good enough to complement Pettersson and Boeser or complement Pearson and Bo, if we can add a player through free agency or trade that fits in with those guys, I think it’s going to improve our group.”
Since the Canucks aren’t going crazy, forget about top free-agent forward Artemi Panarin coming here. Actually, any team that can’t offer Panarin either Manhattan’s skyline or Palm Beach’s cucumber sandwiches can probably forget about the Russian.
“Crazy” may also describe what scorers like Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner and Joe Pavelski command on July 1 if their teams don’t re-sign them before then.
But there is another solid tier of offensive free agents, including several young enough to be around for what the Canucks hope will be the team’s continuing evolution over the next few years.
Gustav Nyquist is 29, Marcus Johansson 28, and Ryan Dzingel 27. But are they first-line players? Mats Zuccarello will be 32 when next season begins.
Anders Lee, who has averaged 34 goals per season over the last three years, would be a great fit on a lot of teams but the New York Islanders almost certainly will re-sign their 28-year-old captain.
If the Canucks are going to be better next season, it’s imperative they improve their 22nd-ranked power play, and Benning will keep this in mind when looking at acquisitions.
Even with their young stars up front, the Canucks’ power play generated just 43 goals this season, down 12 from the previous year. Coach Travis Green noted several times that Pettersson and Boeser, for all their skill, still need to learn to run an NHL power play.
The creative, puck-carrying Hughes should provide a significant upgrade on the point next season, but Vancouver still needs players who can finish. The Canucks were 25th in the league this season with 2.67 goals per game.
“Let’s not forget, we came into this last year without having Daniel and Henrik Sedin,” Benning said of the Canuck icons who retired after last season. “We were worried about putting young players in a position where the Sedins were maybe two of the best power-play players of all time.
“That’s an area where if we can improve our special teams by adding players… I think it would be huge.”
So could the cost be huge. But the first time in a while, with a promising future emerging around Pettersson and Horvat, the Canucks can offer more than just money on July 1.