VANCOUVER – After two and a half seasons with defenceman Erik Gudbranson, the Vancouver Canucks had an excellent read on what they were surrendering Monday when they acquired winger Tanner Pearson from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Far less certain is what Vancouver gave up in talented minor-league prospect Jonathan Dahlen, who in his first season in North America was traded to the San Jose Sharks for another young Swede, Linus Karlsson.
The transactions illustrated the fluidity of team-building and how quickly a National Hockey League organization will move on from players not long ago considered semi-essential.
“As we’re watching the game, it’s so fast out there now,” Vancouver GM Jim Benning told reporters after the trades and before the Canucks played the Anaheim Ducks Monday night. “Defencemen have to have mobility. You’ve got to have the mobility to get back there (to retrieve pucks) and handle the puck and make a good first pass. The last couple of years, the game — especially for a defenceman — has really changed.”
Gudbranson was the centrepiece of Benning’s biggest and most controversial trade when he was acquired from the Florida Panthers in 2016 for a package that included centre Jared McCann and a high second-round draft pick.
The third-overall pick in the 2010 draft, Gudbranson was coveted for his size and toughness, traits that Benning cited when he doubled down and re-signed the defenceman to a three-year, $12-million (USD) extension last season.
But plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, Gudbranson became a defensive liability and was excoriated by critics in the analytics community. His shots-for percentage of 43.45 per cent is among the worst on the Canucks this season. In 139 games with Vancouver, Gudbranson was minus-58.
Trading him further thins a Vancouver defence that needs improving. But the Canucks get a winger in Pearson who averaged 18 goals and 39 points the last three years with the Los Angeles Kings before his trade earlier this season to Pittsburgh.
The trade may also finally provide a dependable, capable winger for Canucks centre Bo Horvat, who has suffered ever-changing combinations of wingers since coach Travis Green moved Brock Boeser onto rookie Elias Pettersson’s line last fall.
Quinn Hughes, the outstanding defensive dynamo from the University of Michigan, could help the Canucks if he makes the jump to the NHL directly from college hockey in March. But Benning admitted Monday the defence requires more than just the arrival of Hughes and another good prospect, Olli Juolevi.
“That’s something we’re going to look at in the summertime, to make some improvements on the back end,” he said.
One way or another, a key to the defence’s future will be veteran Alexander Edler.
Benning is trying to re-sign the 32-year-old, who appears close to returning to the lineup from a concussion and is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1. But the GM revealed to reporters after the trade deadline that he had approached Edler’s agent, Mark Stowe, a few days ago and asked if the defenceman would waive his no-trade clause.
Edler refused, and no one will know if the Canucks would actually have traded their top defenceman before Monday’s deadline. But with holes on the blue line, Benning must now re-sign Edler. Losing him for nothing to another team on July 1 would be a huge setback.
“We told him the teams that have called on him…. If he would have waived his no-trade to go to one of those teams, we’d have tried to figure out a deal for him,” Benning explained. “That obviously didn’t happen, so we’re still excited to have him and be part of our group moving forward.
“Alex has been a great player for us for a long time and we’d like to continue for him to be part of our team.”
As with the trade request, that’s pretty much up to Edler. He has said repeatedly that he wants to remain with the Canucks, and it’s believed he and the team can agree on a three-year term for an extension. But lockout protection and a no-movement clause could be problematic, and Benning has no leverage in negotiations except Edler’s desire to stay.
Clearly, the Canucks didn’t want Dahlen if the 21-year-old winger didn’t want them.
Benning said Dahlen asked for a trade through his agent, J.P. Barry. Although the Canucks weren’t necessarily looking to move on from the Swede, they granted his wish when Karlsson, a 19-year-old centre selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, became available from San Jose.
After a 44-point season last year in Timra, where he was second in Swedish second division scoring, Dahlen has had a challenging first year in the American Hockey League. Still, he had 14 goals and 29 points in 50 games for the Utica Comets and possesses a high offensive ceiling. He is a friend and former linemate of Pettersson, this season’s Calder Trophy favourite.
“Our guys felt really good about Karlsson, so we made that move,” Benning said. “Different players and agents have their own reasons why they do things. I find young players now, sometimes they don’t want to pay their dues in development time. They just want to be given an NHL opportunity right off the start. We just felt there was some development left in [Dahlen’s] game before he was ready to be given an NHL opportunity. We felt he wasn’t there yet and I guess that’s kind of where the discrepancy (was) between what they thought and what we thought.”
Karlsson, who Benning said was on the Canucks’ radar at the draft last June, has 17 points in 48 games for Karlskrona in Sweden’s second division.