No matter what Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning does, it seems as though defence is a key topic every offseason.
Though much improved in the 2019-20 season through the additions of Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn, the impending salary cap crunch may squeeze hardnosed blueliner Chris Tanev and local favourite Troy Stecher. Even with the salary cap projected to rise, the Canucks may be hard-pressed to keep both blueliners, especially with expiring contracts to numerous other players including All-Star goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
If Tanev and Stecher do depart, what does that leave the Canucks next season? To start, they would only have four NHL defensemen under contract:
One would expect Utica Comets’ blueliners Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty will be given a chance to earn a roster spot. Juolevi, the 2016 fifth-overall pick is hoping to make good on the potential he’s always had, while the latter is looking to build on an outstanding rookie AHL season.
For a team wanting to compete now and take advantage of entry-level contracts of Hughes and Elias Pettersson, plugging two rookies into the lineup may not be the direction the team wants to go right now.
In that case, the Canucks may be forced to dip their toes into the unrestricted free agent market once again. There are options though, especially if the team chooses not to re-sign Markstrom.
The salary numbers were made using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections model. I also took the liberty of signing Dallas Stars UFA-to-be goaltender Anton Khudobin as stated in my previous article.
With this projection, the Canucks would have just over $8.3 million in cap space (assuming an $84 million salary cap for next season). With that much space, the team has options moving into free agency.
Step One: Re-sign Stecher or Tanev
A simple start to the free agency period would be to re-sign one of Stecher or Tanev. In my mind, I see Myers filling one of the right defence slots and Benn potentially another. Otherwise, he could be the seventh blueliner while rookie Rafferty is given a chance to patrol the line. Asking a rookie to potentially play a top-four role on a team aiming for a playoff spot might be a tall order, though.
Regardless, the team will need to do something on the right side, and signing one of the current right-shot blueliners would be a start. If I were to pick one right now, I would probably lean toward bringing Stecher back. That might be a controversial choice, where he has been somewhat of a lightning rod for criticism lately. He’s made some obvious defensive gaffes that drew the ire of fans. It was bad enough that the team nearly moved him at the trade deadline.
That said, he’s still probably a better choice than the rugged Tanev. Tanev’s play has seen a decline recently – his positive results this season were likely an illusion, a direct result of playing with super-rookie Hughes.
Granted, he played tougher minutes, but Tanev generally got caved in defensively. He generated very little in the way of even-strength offence while giving up a ton of chances against. Compared to Stecher, who gave up less and generated more, the choice looks easy. Hughes likely buoyed his partner this season, which is painful to say because the former has been such a stalwart for the Canucks.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections again, we’re left with a Canucks defence that would look like this:
Signing Stecher leaves the team with about $6.3 million in cap space. With a forward group relatively set and the goaltenders in place, I would be exploring signing a left-side defenceman. Between Myers, Stecher, Benn and potentially Rafferty, the right side is a bit weak but will do while the latter develops. The Canucks could jump into free agency and splurge on a left-shot blueliner.
Step Two: Sign a Left Defenseman
The next step is to sign someone to anchor the left side. Hughes and Alex Edler form a potent top-four, but a weaker right side will need some help. Fortunately, there are numerous options available to the Canucks in free agency.
If I were Benning, I’d be targeting Calgary Flames blueliner T.J. Brodie. Brodie has been the subject of trade rumours and he may have fallen out of favour in Calgary. It’s entirely possible they would be willing to let Brodie walk and he could be available, which would likely be a mistake.
Brodie is a solid defenceman and would be an excellent addition to the Canucks’ blueline. His game would fit well with Troy Stecher and having someone of his calibre could take some of the burdens off Edler and Hughes. Using the same contract projections, Brodie would fit right into the team’s salary structure.
$5 million may be more than you’d like to pay for a third-pairing defenceman, but Brodie is more than worth it. His signing would leave the Canucks with $1.25 million in cap space. This projection also assumes the team lets current extra defenseman Oscar Fantenberg walk in free agency. If that does happen, Benn and Rafferty can combine to take his place.
Step Three: Finding the Right Pairings
A crucial and sometimes overlooked part of building a blueline is how the players will match up. Chemistry plays a big factor in how the pairing will function and if it will be successful.
Starting with an easy one, the Edler-Myers pairing fared very well in tough minutes this season. It seems natural to reunite them and see if they can continue handling the burden of tough matchups. Of the top five pairings (most five-on-five time-on-ice), Edler and Myers scored the best at controlling play and generating scoring chances.
Seeing as we already looked at the Brodie-Stecher pairing, that leaves Benn and Hughes. That duo would be very intriguing – the former could be the stay-at-home, tough partner to the latter’s roaming puck distributor style.
Admittedly, Benn had a poor season, but he was also asked to primarily play the left side while he has historically preferred the right. A change to what feels natural for him would do him good, especially in a role next to super sophomore Hughes.
It’s hard not to be excited when looking at the Canucks roster. It might be tough losing Markstrom, but the team has a chance to really shore up what proved to be a weak point as the season went on. The Fantenberg-Myers pairing was a true handicap to the team and something had to give.
Related: Bobby Orr’s Landmark Season
Losing Tanev hurts. He’s been a heart-and-soul player, constantly putting his body on the line for the team. That said, his play has been on the decline, so this may be the time to move on and look for a new partner for Hughes. The thing to consider is the chemistry in the dressing room – Tanev has taken a sort of “team dad” role and he is looked up to by some of the young stars. While his play may be declining, it may be something to consider when debating who to move on from in July.
Ideally, a revitalized Benn and the addition of Brodie would propel the defence to new heights. It’s also entirely plausible Rafferty or Juolevi are ready to play in the NHL and surprise in training camp. Regardless, it’s likely the Canucks’ blueline will look different next season, and for their playoff chances, that’s an exciting thought.