Remember when the Vancouver Canucks were in the Stanley Cup Final just four years ago? So does the Vancouver Police Department. In all seriousness, the Canucks’ stretch of Western Conference dominance has effectively ended, leaving the franchise now staring down the fickle scenario of rebuilding a team in a Canadian market.
It’s no secret that Vancouver is one of the toughest media markets in the entire league (just ask Roberto Luongo). The fans, like the media, demand excellence at every turn, making Vancouver an awesome place to be when the wins are adding up, and a downright sullen place to be when those wins are few and far between (think Toronto west). Thanks to that culture, a full tear-down of the team a la Buffalo Sabres is almost impossible to even fathom. Which leaves Cancucks’ general manager Jim Benning in a precarious position: remaining a playoff team year after year while also building towards contention.
It’s a difficult double to pull off. Taking a look at a team like the Sabres or the Edmonton Oilers, who were only terrible for a few years and now look locked and loaded for the future, the thought of tearing it all down must be an attractive one. Benning appears set on steering away from that approach though, as he told Sportsnet back in July that, “We want to be competitive. We want to develop our kids in a winning environment, so we want to be competitive for a playoff spot”.
It’s commendable that Benning wants his young players to come up in the right culture. After all, what have the youngsters in Edmonton learned in all these years of coaching carousels and lost hockey games? Sure, Connor McDavid is obviously a gift from the heavens for the Oilers. Bringing in guys like Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan was just as important though, as they bring with them a culture of excellence.
From that narrow lens, Benning seems to have his mind in the right place. However, is the strategy of “growing from the middle” one that can win in the National Hockey League? Let’s not forget that the Chicago Blackhawks, for all their current success, got to where they are now largely by being absolutely terrible and (literally) un-watchable for a good chunk of time.
There’s not a clear-cut example of a team around the league jumping out of mediocrity and into elite status. The Montreal Canadiens are close, but even then, they had to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2012 to nab Alex Galchenyuk in the draft. On top of that, they’ve absolutely nailed picks later in the first round and beyond, drafting players like Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, Brendan Gallagher, and Andrei Markov well outside of the lottery.
So Mr. Benning, how exactly does one rebuild while staying competitive? If this summer’s moves are any indication, Vancouver’s front office might not be quite sure either. Eddie Lack was shipped off to Carolina on draft day for a pair of draft picks. Lack, coming off a career year with a shiny .921 save percentage, didn’t figure into Vancouver’s long term plans largely because the Canucks are paying 35-year old Ryan Miller six million dollars a year to be an elite starter.
The problem is, Miller’s best days are largely behind him. Since winning the Vezina Trophy in 2010, the former Olympian’s save percentage has only touched .920 once. That’s an alarming sign, especially when the guy is getting paid to produce at a level that he simply might not be able to reach anymore. It’s not impossible that Miller can have one last brilliant season, but the last five years suggest that it’s highly unlikely. The young and promising Jacob Markstrom looks primed for a crack at full-time NHL duty thanks to Lack’s departure and an impressive .934 for the Utica Comets last year. Looking at both goaltenders’ career arcs and Vancouver’s desire to make the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Markstrom ends up starting by the end of the season. How wild would it be to have a six-million dollar man sitting on the bench come playoff time (that is, if they make it that far)?
The Brandon Sutter trade also brings a lot of intrigue to the roster. Sutter’s offensive limitations are well documented, but the Canucks clearly value his defensive reputation to the tune of $4.375 million per year through 2021 (starting after this coming season). Vancouver smartly turned Kevin Bieksa into a second round pick which they then flipped for Sutter. Turning a declining defenseman into an excellent defensive pivot in his prime is smart management any way you look at it. However, Sutter is so limited offensively that he won’t have much of an impact as a second line center. He’d be a much more natural fit on the third line, something that might happen if Bo Horvat can take a major step forward offensively.
Vancouver has some quality youth coming down the pipeline with Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Jake Virtanen. Shipping out Zack Kassian for the older Brandon Prust might seem questionable at face value, but he’ll bring a feisty attitude to the locker room that’ll set a nice example for the younger players. Prust had a strong influence on Montreal’s youngsters, all of whom were extremely sad to see him go. In terms of establishing a culture like Benning alluded to, Prust is the perfect fit.
Is the Canucks’ goal of making the playoffs a realistic one though? They benefitted from down years from Los Angeles and San Jose last year, something that won’t happen two years in a row. The Western Wild Card spots have essentially become an extension of the Central Division, leaving one to wonder where Vancouver fits in the playoff race. They still have some pop in their top-six with the Sedin twins and some quality puck movers in Yannick Weber and Alex Edler. With Miller playing most of the games (presumably), the Canucks won’t be getting the big saves they need to atone for their poor possession game. Vancouver just doesn’t look like a playoff team this year, which will justifiably put Benning’s rebuilding plan into serious doubt.