Canucks challenged to find improvements in uncertain off-season

VANCOUVER – In any “normal” off-season, there would be no question, zero doubt, about the Vancouver Canucks re-signing starting goalie Jacob Markstrom.

The 30-year-old has grown with the Canucks in Vancouver, developing into a top-tier National Hockey League starter as well as a team leader and MVP. He is popular with both fans and teammates. After building a goalie like that into the foundation of an emerging team that could soon challenge for a Stanley Cup, there’s no way the Canucks would let Markstrom get away in free agency unless he really didn’t want to play in Vancouver.

But can anyone remember what “normal” felt like before the coronavirus came along?

Tuesday, when Canucks general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green spoke to reporters by video conference after Vancouver’s surprising playoff run finally ended on Friday, there was nothing more concrete than the re-stated hope that the team and its goalie will be able to agree on a new contract.

Sure, the Canucks’ goaltending landscape is complicated by an expansion draft next year and backup Thatcher Demko, long groomed by the team as a future NHL starter, having a brilliant three games last week against the Vegas Golden Knights.

But the uncertainty over Markstrom merely mirrors the uncertainty over, well, everything.

With a yet-to-be-determined 2020-21 season, a salary cap flattened far more than COVID-19 and an unknowable free-agent market, Benning and his staff face the monumental challenge of navigating an uncharted off-season while under pressure to maintain the Canucks’ ascension.

After four years in the rebuild wilderness and the franchise’s first playoff success since 2011, Benning can’t let the Canucks slip backwards even as gravity works against them.

“It’s nice to have two good goalies,” Benning said. “We’re going to sit down as a group and we’re going to talk some more about that this week. I talked to Jacob’s agent (Pat Morris) yesterday. Jacob’s an important guy in our group because he’s a leader, and he was our MVP over the course of the regular season. We want him back and we’re going to start working on that this week.”

But a couple of minutes later, Benning added: “We’re seeing younger players now make a bigger impact earlier on in their careers. We have got a lot of good young players here. . . and we’ve got to make sure we have room to sign them going forward. Those are going to be what the conversations are going to be like for us as a (hockey-operations) group this week. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, maybe even on some young players, to make sure that we give ourselves the best chance next year to be competitive and to keep growing as a franchise.”

He didn’t name names, but the young players who may be unaffordable given their roles and potential salaries include restricted free agents Troy Stecher, 26, and Jake Virtanen, 24. There is a trickle-down effect economically from Markstrom to unrestricted free agent Tyler Toffoli to UFA defenceman Chris Tanev, and so on.

For all the radio rancour about the pre-playoffs trade conjecture involving Brock Boeser, the 23-year-old driver of offence is due two more seasons at $5.9 million US but isn’t one of Vancouver’s three best forwards.

These aren’t hard decisions; they’re excruciating. Losing significant lineup pieces, with limited cap-space to replace them, increases the risk of regression.

The good news is that franchise cornerstones Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, are still learning the game and should continue to get better as their stardom grows. Bo Horvat, 25, and J.T. Miller, 27, are young enough to maintain their peak levels, and other good prospects will be coming into the NHL lineup soon: possibly forward Nils Hoglander and one or more of defencemen Olli Juolevi, Jack Rathbone and Brogan Rafferty next season, very likely Vasili Podkolzin the year after.

Green said Canucks players are driven to be better year over year.

“You don’t just manufacture that; you have to have that within your group, within your culture,” the coach said. “We’ve talked about that a lot – a burning desire to win. Getting close (to the Stanley Cup), almost halfway through, is a good experience. We’ve got players that are younger that are still are going to get better and improve. It’s important for those young players to continue to develop.

“They’ve got a strong desire to win. They’ll do whatever it takes to win; they’ve shown that. And they’re going to continue to develop and get better.”

If Benning is allowed to spend to the $81.5-million limit next season – he needs approval from ownership to do so – the Canucks will have about $17-20-million in cap space pending the health of Micheal Ferland (concussion) and Benning’s ability to shed any of the onerous contracts carried by veteran depth players.

“We have a lot of money to work with,” Benning insisted. “We’re going to just have to decide what players we want to sign here going forward and other players maybe we can move on and recover draft picks. That’s the circle of life in our business. We’re going to be the same as every other team.”

But on the ice, the Canucks are more promising than most.

“I think they did an amazing job,” Green said of his players. “Put a lot of life back into the city. Just being back for a few days, I can really see how excited people are around town about our group. And that’s exciting; that’s what you want in a city as passionate as Vancouver. And not just the city, but the province. I think it’s a sign of a lot of great things to come for the organization.”

It is. As long as the Canucks keep improving.

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