Cap-strapped Canucks have lengthy to-do list after unfortunate season

Dan Murphy & Satiar Shah discuss which players the Canucks would hate to lose at the upcoming Expansion Draft and other potential moves as a busy offseason begins.

Summertime and the living ain’t easy for the Vancouver Canucks. Of course, winter wasn’t exactly a holiday, either.

They have a pile of work to do and not much salary-cap space in which to do it after a season when just about everything went wrong for the National Hockey League team.

They need to figure out who’s their third-line centre – and if it’s J.T. Miller, then who’s their first-line left winger? The bottom-six forwards need to be better, faster and younger. The defence wasn’t good enough, and is there any way for the team to create some cap flexibility by offloading a bad contract or two? Can they take advantage of their favourable protection position before the Seattle expansion-draft on July 21? Will they ever find a winger for Bo Horvat?

Summer holidays? Maybe in late August. Before then, general manager Jim Benning has a lengthy to-do list.

BUILDING BRIDGES

Negotiations on second contracts for centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, the 2019 Calder Trophy winner and 2020 rookie runner up, have narrowed towards short-term bridge deals. Given the uncertain economic landscape of the NHL and possibility of an indefinitely flat salary cap as teams recover losses from the pandemic season, there is an obvious logic to shorter deals for both the players and the team.

The Canucks have little salary-cap wriggle room, and if they can save a few million dollars next season by not committing long-term to Pettersson and Hughes, the team may actually be able to add a couple of handy players to its lineup. As Benning embarks on a challenging summer program to upgrade his forward depth and improve team speed and skill, financial clarity on Pettersson and Hughes would be helpful as soon as possible. These deals can’t wait until training camp if the Canucks want to know how much they have to spend elsewhere.

DRAFT OR TRADE?

With scouting in his DNA and a lot of drafting success in Vancouver, Benning doesn’t seem like the kind of general manager who would spend a top-10 draft pick for immediate help in trade, especially since the Canucks didn’t have a first-rounder in 2020 and Benning’s 10th-overall pick from two years ago, Russian winger Vasily Podkolzin, is already ready for the NHL.

But Benning has vowed to upgrade the Canucks immediately as cornerstones Hughes and Pettersson graduate from their entry-level contracts and key veterans like Horvat and Miller are still under contract at manageable rates. If the GM is to fulfill his pledge to “be aggressive” in improving the roster after last season’s regression, trading the ninth pick of the July 23 draft is one of the few ways he can do it.

Surrendering a top-10 pick is heavy with risk, of course, especially since Benning declared after the draft lottery in June that it was important for his team to stay at No. 9 because the organization had identified nine top-tier prospects. But the Canucks may feel they can’t wait two to four years for another top prospect to develop to the point where he can support the Canucks’ core. There is also a potential trade bonus: being able to package a bad contract as part of a deal, which would not only give Vancouver a player who can help next season but create some cap flexibility to make additional moves.

But those benefits are theoretical, not guaranteed, and Benning has a mixed record on trades. The safest thing for the Canucks to do is select one of those nine players atop their draft list and be patient. Because nobody of sound mind is picking Benning’s team to challenge for a Stanley Cup next season no matter what improvements occur this summer.

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WHAT ABOUT SCHMIDT?

There is always chatter in the Canucks market, but recent speculation about the future of defenceman Nate Schmidt appears to include a fair bit of fire among all the talk-radio smoke. Whether Schmidt has asked out or he and club have simply agreed that the relationship hasn’t worked for either party, the Canucks are exploring potential trade partners for the 29-year-old whose first season in Vancouver was nearly as disappointing for him as it was for his team.

Forget about the difficulty of the American emotionally and physically adjusting during a global pandemic to his new Canadian team after a shock trade to Vancouver from the Vegas Golden Knights gutted Schmidt last October. Under Canucks coach Travis Green, Schmidt averaged just 20:06 of ice time last season, nearly two minutes less that what he was entrusted with over three seasons in Vegas, where his team was much stronger than one he joined in Vancouver. He had a smaller role with the Canucks than he did with the Knights.

If Schmidt really wants out of Vancouver – and maybe Canada – that’s disappointing. The 2021 season was hard on everyone and shouldn’t be seen as a fair gauge of his fit (and happiness) with a new team. But if the Canucks aren’t going to use Schmidt any higher than third or fourth on the blue-line depth chart and Vancouver can make a good trade that offloads the final four years and $23.8 million of his contract, a divorce makes sense. It could also, however, exacerbate a serious problem: the Canucks’ defence wasn’t good enough even with Schmidt.

BUY OUT VIRTANEN

Benning noted at his season-ending media availability that he has been authorized by ownership to execute buyouts, a mechanism he was believed to have been denied last fall when the organization began a drastic downsizing and to save every dollar it could during a COVID-19 season without ticket revenue. But there is little cost-saving to buying out the most obvious deadweight contracts for Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel or Jay Beagle.

Paying off winger Jake Virtanen, however, is a possibility as the post-Stanley Cup buyout window opens. It’s not only that the 24-year-old is a pariah, subject to a civil lawsuit in B.C. and ongoing criminal and club investigations over an alleged 2017 sexual assault that he denies. But the sixth-overall pick from 2014 has stagnated as a player, contributing only five goals – and no assists – in 38 games last season while getting healthy-scratched six times before the club ordered him on May 1 to take an indefinite leave of absence.

With Virtanen due $3 million in salary next year on a cap hit of $2.55 million, the Canucks could generate a whopping $2.5 million of cap savings next season by taking advantage of the winger’s age with a one-third buyout spread over two years.

REBUILD AN NHL ORGANIZATION

Hockey operations was the department least affected by last season’s budget-slashing, and already Benning’s staff has been boosted by the addition in June of special assistants Henrik and Daniel Sedin. But the rest of the Canucks organization, trimmed to as few as 30-something full-time employees last season outside of hockey-ops, needs to be rebuilt. Actually, it needs to be more than rebuilt since the franchise has just relocated its farm team to nearby Abbotsford, B.C., and is now responsible for its entire American League operation. The Seattle Kraken have had two-and-a-half years to get ready for their first NHL season. The Canucks have left themselves about two-and-a-half months to prepare for their 51st.

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