VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks do not know if Matthew Highmore will turn into a player who can help them. But Monday’s trade was proof the National Hockey League team is confident Adam Gaudette will never be the player they wanted him to be.
On a surprisingly active trade deadline day for Vancouver, Canucks general manager Jim Benning started to position the team for next season with three minor deals, including a giveaway of Gaudette to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hawks acquired the former Hobey Baker Trophy winner and last season’s 33-point forward for spare forward Highmore, an undrafted free agent out of junior hockey who had a good playoff in the Edmonton bubble last summer but was a healthy scratch in nine of his final 12 games in Chicago. He has two assists in 24 games this season.
A year younger than Highmore and more established at the NHL level, Gaudette, 24, has just four goals and seven points in 33 games, a season after the forward from Braintree, Mass., had 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games.
But his “breakthrough season” ended with 10 pointless games in the playoffs, where Gaudette became a healthy scratch. The Canucks were convinced the defensive holes in his game were not going to allow him to be a reliable bottom-six contributor.
“To be quite honest, we expected him to take another step this year,” Benning told reporters during an online press conference. “He has played alright for us, but we were expecting after the season he had last year, we were expecting him to come in and take another step (and) we didn’t really feel like he did that. Now, maybe a change of scenery, he can get that back.
“He’s a guy that we drafted, we spent a lot of time with him in development, we gave him a chance (and) he scored some big goals for us. The thing, you know, that I think we may miss from him is he’s got a good release on his shot and he can score from the outside. But I think overall, looking at his two-way game and stuff, we just felt like Matthew Highmore plays a more complete two-way game. Both players get a fresh start, and we’ll see where it goes.”
The trade looked lopsided enough that conspiracists on social media linked the deal to Gaudette’s status as Patient Zero in the COVID-19 outbreak that has decimated the Canucks, who are scheduled to end three weeks of inactivity Friday against the Edmonton Oilers.
But the mission to move Gaudette actually began late last season, and was ramped up this winter when the winger was linked in stories to the Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins. After talking to numerous teams in the last few days, the Canucks made the best deal they could.
The Blackhawks gave the Canucks a few depth options, and Vancouver chose Highmore. Benning had interest in the winger from Halifax when Highmore was coming out of junior in Saint John, N.B., four years ago.
A Canucks official emphatically denied the COVID-19 crisis had any bearing on the decision to move on from Gaudette.
“I think it was just the right time for both parties to move on,” Benning said.
Minutes before the noon Pacific deadline, the Canucks acquired a sixth-round pick by sending defenceman Jordie Benn and his expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets, and Benning circled back to the Blackhawks to make a deal for depth defenceman Madison Bowey, a 2013 second-round pick who has been unable to parlay his speed and power into regular NHL duty.
Bowey, a 25-year-old from Winnipeg, has spent all but two games this season on the Blackhawks’ taxi squad. Chicago surrendered the defenceman for the slightest of draft upgrades: giving Vancouver a fifth-round pick this summer for the Canucks’ fourth-rounder.
Bowey provides Vancouver some flexibility for the Seattle expansion draft in July — Benning could choose to expose defenceman Tyler Myers and his $6-million-US annual salary — and organizational insurance with Canucks depth blue-liners Brogan Rafferty, Ashton Sautner and Guillaume Brisebois all eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.
Highmore and Bowey also provide some cost certainty, with each signed through next season at a low cap hit of $725,000. Gaudette is making $950,000 and becomes a restricted free agent on July 28.
In the short-term, the new Canucks will have a chance to prove they belong in the NHL by providing some health, speed and enthusiasm as the organization limps out of its COVID-19 shutdown. Trading Benn, who was not going to be re-signed in Vancouver after this season, gives rookie Olli Juolevi an extended NHL audition over the next month.
There were still 18 players from the Canucks’ NHL roster on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list on Monday, and Juolevi is believed to be among three taxi-squad players in protocol.
Benning said 10 players were able to skate Monday as Rogers Arena re-opened. This included injured star Elias Pettersson, who will see a specialist for his wrist injury on Wednesday and could be available to play this weekend, Benning said.
The Canucks’ first team practice is scheduled for Wednesday. Highmore and Bowey will serve one-week travel quarantines before playing. Vancouver is supposed to open its revised 56-game schedule with five games in seven nights, starting Friday.