VANCOUVER — There are the changes you see coming, and the changes you don’t.
With 14 years in the NHL, Alex Edler had learned not to be surprised. And then 2020 came along. And between the first and second waves of COVID-19, the Vancouver Canucks defenceman also saw three good friends leave the team in free agency over the span of 24 hours.
While the 34-year-old was theoretically aware of his senior standing on the team before Oct. 9, the free-agent departures of Jacob Markstrom, Troy Stecher and Chris Tanev, his longest-serving teammate, made Edler understand keenly that he is the last of a generation of Canucks.
With Tanev following Markstrom to Calgary, the second longest-serving Canuck is 25-year-old captain Bo Horvat, who arrived in Vancouver as a teenager in 2014. Edler has been on the team since 2006.
Think about that — eight years of his career, and not a single teammate remaining.
“Sometimes you see it coming, sometimes you get a little surprised over it,” Edler said Wednesday in an interview from his Vancouver home. “Those three players, personally, they’ve all been very good friends of mine. I played with Tanny a long time on the same team (since 2011), playing a lot together. So it was hard to see him leave. Also with Troy, we’ve built a relationship off the ice as well as on the ice. And then, of course, Marky, I’ve been very close with since he came here, and he’s close with my family — my kids and my wife.
“You lose an all-star goalie and you lose two key defencemen, obviously that’s a big blow and a big void to fill. That’s three players I was really sad to see leave, and three key guys for our team.
“We’ve added some good players, too, and that’s exciting. I understand there’s a lot of thinking and planning and everything and it’s harder times now and it’s not easy to build a team and make all the pieces fit with the salary cap. I get that part that you probably couldn’t fit all three of them. But I was a little bit surprised that all three of them are gone. But that’s the business.”
Vancouver general manager Jim Benning was unwilling to match the hefty offers the Calgary Flames made to Markstrom (six years and $36 million) and Tanev (four years, $18 million), while Stecher, made to wait in free agency while the Canucks worked on other deals, chose to sign in Detroit rather than return to his hometown team.
Countering these losses, Benning signed free-agent goalie Braden Holtby, then landed first-pairing defenceman Nate Schmidt in a bargain trade with Vegas. The Canucks plan to replace Stecher on the third defence pairing with a player promoted from the AHL.
So, the Canucks are getting younger still, which, of course, only makes Edler feel older.
“Before the twins (Daniel and Henrik Sedin) retired a couple of years ago, I never felt close to being one of the older guys on the team,” Edler said. “It’s been a big change over the last few years and we’re so much younger, and now I feel I am so much older than most guys. They joke me about it every day, too.”
They’re not the only ones. The Vegas Golden Knights could be heard chirping Edler as “old man” during playoffs in the Edmonton bubble.
Not only is Edler the only player remaining from the Vancouver team that made it to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, he hasn’t a teammate left who played for coach Alain Vigneault or even John Tortorella. Only six Canucks remain from the team current coach Travis Green inherited just three years ago.
A 2004 third-round draft pick plucked by Canucks scout Thomas Gradin out of a semi-professional league in northern Sweden, Edler made his NHL debut at age 20 on Nov. 4, 2006 in a road game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Edler played mostly with fellow Swede Mattias Ohlund that night, but the defencemen at the bottom of the Vancouver lineup were Rory Fitzpatrick and Luc Bourdon, who was killed in a 2008 motorcycle crash. The depth forwards included Jan Bulis, Tommi Santala and Josh Green. In goal, Dany Sabourin backed up Roberto Luongo, who was two months into his Canucks tenure.
“Honestly, I don’t have too many memories from that game,” Edler said. “But I remember being out there a couple of shifts against (Joe) Sakic, and that’s the only thing that kind of stuck with me.”
It was a fascinating time in Canucks history, as the improving team was transitioning from Marc Crawford to Vigneault. Veterans Trevor Linden, Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison joined Ohlund as holdovers from the previous era, but the Canucks were being taken over by rising stars like the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa.
“When you name all those great players, I feel like maybe we should have been better,” Edler said. “But when you’re young, you just kind of play and don’t think about it too much.”
In all, Edler has skated with 202 teammates in Vancouver, played in front of 16 goalies.
Pop quiz. Among the 65 defencemen, does he remember Lee Sweatt (three games in 2010-11)?
Edler: “He scored and then he retired.”
True. With an economics degree, Sweatt scored the game-winner in his debut but quit hockey for business that summer.
How about Alex Sulzer (12 games in 2011-12)?
Edler: “Yep, I do. German guy. I remember that we played in Tampa, we won a faceoff and he gave it to me and we scored.”
Derek Joslin (two games in 2012-13)?
We admit we couldn’t remember Joslin, either, but the former San Jose Shark and Carolina Hurricane got two games at the end of Vigneault’s final season before taking his career to Europe, where he still plays in Austria for Salzburg.
Edler has logged another 872 regular-season games for the Canucks since his debut, plus 82 in the playoffs, 17 of those last summer.
He is Vancouver’s all-time leader among defencemen in games, goals (99), assists (302) and points (401). Edler remains a top-four blue-liner, last season logging 33 points in 59 games before leading the Canucks with 23 minutes of average ice time in the Stanley Cup tournament that saw Vancouver win two rounds — the franchise’s first playoff success since 2011.
“I think the team really came together in the playoffs and we showed people and ourselves, too, how good we can be,” he said. “It was a good, little playoff run. But I also think when you have a season like that or a run like that, you have to push even harder the next year because you can’t expect to take another step from momentum. You’ve really got to work hard to take the next step.”
Edler said the NHL is faster and younger than it has ever been, but he has a similar sense that this Canucks team is rising towards something, just like the one he started with 14 years ago.
“I’m definitely proud of what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve done, that I’ve been able to stay with the same organization and be an important player, an important part, of the team every year,” Edler said. “But you still want more. I still want more. I think that’s what drives everyone, maybe especially when you get older and realize you don’t have that much left. You want to be in the playoffs again, want to play those big games. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I don’t feel like I’m satisfied yet.”