Vancouver Canucks off-season report: Defence the big priority

Vancouver Canucks players celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during first period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday April 7, 2018. (Jason Franson/CP)

Last Valentine’s Day, the Vancouver Canucks extended general manager Jim Benning’s contract. It wasn’t so much a show of love by Francesco Aquilini’s ownership family, as a display of patience.

It was like: We’ve suffered for three years; we’re willing to suffer for one or two more.

But that’s it. That’s the longest runway any National Hockey League GM should expect these days to get a franchise flying again.

It’s a good thing Benning signed his three-year extension when he did because the Canucks went 3-11-2 over the next five weeks as another season swirled down the toilet while management, headed by president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, struggled to rebuild a team that aged itself over a cliff.

The poignant retirement of Daniel and Henrik Sedin generated a lot of emotion inside and outside the team and spurred the Canucks to a 5-1-1 finish that hurt Vancouver’s draft position but allowed it, at least, to finish four points better than it did the previous season.

The departure of the Sedins has actually generated some excitement and anticipation in Canuck Nation because the future clearly belongs now to young players like Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, and talented prospects like Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko. But there remains immense pressure on Benning and Linden to keep pushing the Canucks’ transformation, to reinvigorate the market and build on the development momentum epitomized by Boeser’s rookie-of-the-year nomination

PROJECTED SALARY-CAP SPACE: $22.2 million

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Jussi Jokinen, RW $1.1 million
Nic Dowd, C $640,000
Darren Archibald, LW $650,000

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Jake Virtanen, RW $894,000
Sven Baertschi, LW $1.85 million
Markus Granlund, C $900,000
Troy Stecher, D $925,000
Derrick Pouliot, D $800,000

2018 DRAFT PICKS

First, second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh.

BIGGEST OFF-SEASON NEED

A good deal of angst exists in the market about how the Canucks will replace the Sedin twins, the future Hall-of-Famers who won’t be at training camp for the first time since 1999.

It’s funny because many of the people worrying couldn’t seem to get rid of the Sedins fast enough in order to make room for younger players. Even at age 37, the Swedes combined for 105 points and that offence will be difficult to replace immediately. But given the evolutionary stage of the Canucks, the last thing the organization needs is a high-priced, 30-something free-agent forward who will demand a long-term deal in exchange for short-term help.

The Canucks’ biggest priority remains bolstering their depth and adding more young players, especially on the defence. Benning has done a terrific job building inventory at forward, drafting players like uber-prospects Pettersson and Demko, Adam Gaudette and Kole Lind, and acquiring Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin.

But the prospect cupboard is still sparse on defence.

Fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi (taken by Benning ahead of Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy in 2016) could help the Canucks next season. The team is also expected to nab one of the top defencemen available when it picks seventh at this month’s draft in Dallas. But Vancouver needs more on its blue-line at all levels: the NHL, the minors, and in the junior-college pipeline.

POSSIBLE OFF-SEASON TARGETS

John Tavares, C – Why not dream big? The Sedins’ retirement created $14 million in cap space for Canucks and it might take most of that (times seven years) to get Tavares. The best free agent available probably will re-sign with Lou Lamoriello’s New York Islanders, and if he doesn’t, he is expected to go somewhere where he has a chance to win a Stanley Cup soon. But the Canucks can offer him lots of money, the captaincy and excellent young forwards to help groom. Tavares is an outlier UFA, a 27-year-old still young enough to fit Vancouver’s rebuild and be in his prime when the team makes it back to the playoffs.

Thomas Vanek, RW – The 34-year-old was one of the Canucks’ success stories until he was rented at the deadline to Columbus, where his bounce-back season continued. In 80 games between the two teams, the winger had 24 goals and 56 points. He also proved to be a quiet leader, and mentor to Boeser, in the Vancouver dressing room. Vanek loved the city and would seriously consider coming back on a short-term deal with trade protection.

Tyson Barrie, D – A report about alleged interest in Carolina defenceman Noah Hanifin sparked a social-media firestorm in May. But Colorado’s Barrie, shopped periodically by the Avalanche, is always on the Canucks’ radar. The 26-year-old B.C. boy would cost a tonne. However, if the Avalanche thinks prospect Cale Makar is ready and wants to shed Barrie’s $5.5-million salary, the Canucks will be among the teams lining up to bid.

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