VANCOUVER – Canuck general manager Jim Benning has never been more popular than he was at the trade deadline last year when he managed to leverage outgoing soon-to-be unrestricted free agents Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen for good prospects.
Hansen fetched 2014 first-rounder Nikolay Goldobin from the San Jose Sharks, while the Ottawa Senators somehow gave the Canucks 2016 second-rounder Jonathan Dahlen for Burrows.
Dahlen is having another impressive point-per-game season in Sweden’s second division of pro hockey, but is probably at least another year away from challenging for a Canuck roster spot. And Goldobin, after some ridiculous over-hyping by the media, is still struggling in his third pro season to transfer his decent American Hockey League game to the NHL.
Still, these trades look like Roberto Luongo-for-Todd Bertuzzi when you see what Burrows, 36, and Hansen, 31, have done this season, combining for three goals and 13 assists in 85 games.
Benning’s widespread popularity, alas, didn’t hold although his recent three-year contract extension is validation that his drafting and player development have the Canucks on the right path. He probably won’t convert many of his critics at this year’s deadline because his biggest decisions might be to retain the Canucks’ most expendable trade chips.
Erik Gudbranson was already signed to a three-year extension with a $4 million cap hit and now the GM must make a decision on 34-year-old impending UFA Thomas Vanek, who has surpassed expectations in Vancouver and should be a prime rental candidate, except the market is soft for sellers and the Austrian winger with little playoff success probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s wish list.
Can we say “everything?” The Canucks are staggering towards another bottom-five finish and their 14-10-4 start, before a slew of key injuries scuttled their season, is difficult to remember.
Vancouver needs more skill and offensive depth, more speed, more defencemen, more grit and more consistent goaltending. Other than that, the club is set.
Actually, Benning has assembled the most impressive prospect pool in franchise history. Calder Trophy candidate Brock Boeser is the first to arrive. But the talent pipeline still lacks elite defence prospects other than 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi – and nobody knows whether he’ll be a complementary or core piece. So the blue line is the Canucks’ weakest area from a positional standpoint.
Pending free agents, age, salaries:
• Daniel Sedin, 37, $7 million
• Henrik Sedin, 37, $7 million
• Thomas Vanek, 34, $2 million
• Alex Biega, 29, $750,000
• Darren Archibald, 28, $650,000
• Nic Dowd, 27, $640,000
• Sven Baertschi, 25, $1.85 million
• Troy Stecher, 23, $925,000
• Markus Granlund, 24, $900,000
• Jake Virtanen, 21, $894,167
• Derrick Pouliot, 24, $800,000
• Philip Holm, 26, $925,000
Potential assets to move:
Ben Hutton: Five times in the past two months, 24-year-old Hutton has been removed from the lineup by coach Travis Green – a scratching unthinkable two seasons ago when the defenceman made the Canucks straight out of college hockey and was seen as a future core piece. But Hutton’s game hasn’t progressed and Green has warned several times that players in their early-20s who have made the NHL shouldn’t assume they’re going to stay there. Another guy still looking for a box in which to organize his many tools, Hutton has another season under contract at $2.8 million and possesses the size and mobility to at least interest some teams.
Anders Nilsson: The backup goalie has been a major disappointment since his excellent start to the year, and the Canucks need to create an opening next season for outstanding AHL goalie Thatcher Demko. But Nilsson has another year at $2.5 million, which makes him almost untradeable. No one looking for a starter is looking at Nilsson, and anyone in need of a backup can probably find someone cheaper or more reliable or both.
Chris Tanev: His name surfaces periodically in trade speculation, which pleases rebuild extremists who believe anyone who is 28 years old and has as much value at Tanev should be leveraged for futures. Tanev is one of the best shutdown defencemen in the league and, due $4.45 million each of the next two seasons, would come with cost certainty. But Tanev is brittle – he is currently out of the lineup with his fourth different injury this season – and this undermines his trade value. Another problem: Benning doesn’t want to trade Tanev, figuring the Canucks may actually need a few excellent players over the age of 25 while the kids develop.
2018: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th.
2019: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th.
One bold move the Canucks could make:
In order, here are the Canucks’ best prospects at forward: Elias Pettersson, 19, Kole Lind, 19, Adam Gaudette, 21, Jonah Gadjovich, 19, Jonathan Dahlen, 20. It’s naïve to think they’ll all be NHLers, let alone impact players in the best league in the world. But with Bo Horvat, 22, and Brock Boeser, 20, already locked into top-six spots forever, the Canucks have enough Grade-A forward prospects to trade one of them for futures on defence.
I think the Canucks shouldn’t…:
Trade any of their elite prospects or any draft pick lower than a fifth-rounder, or keep Vanek at all if they get offered anything better than a fifth-rounder.