Canucks Rebuild Proceeding With Skill

The rebuild has begun in earnest in Vancouver. By trading veterans Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen in advance of the NHL’s trade deadline, Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has announced to the league that he’s officially looking to the future.

Whether Canucks’ management defines their current situation as a ‘rebuild’, ‘re-tool’ or ‘rebuild on the fly’ is mostly irrelevant. Actions speak louder than words and by flipping two legitimate top-nine NHL forwards for what essentially amounts to nothing more than potential it’s clear that the Canucks are finally embracing the rebuild .

Don’t get me wrong, both Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin are exactly what the franchise needs moving forward. While their projected roster for 2017-18 looks even more woeful than their current roster, the Canucks need to take a step backward in the short term in order to take a step forward in the long term. Burrows and Hansen have had admirable careers in Vancouver, but their effectiveness is on the decline. By the time the Canucks are ready to compete for a Stanley Cup again it’s entirely likely that both players will be fringe NHLers whereas Dahlen and Goldobin could develop into contributors.

Meat, Potatoes and…Skill?

When Benning and team president Trevor Linden took over the reigns from former president and general manager Mike Gillis they stressed the need for the team to add size, toughness and determination. They’ve remained true to their word by drafting Jake Virtanen and Nikita Tryamkin while also acquiring Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa, Erik Gudbranson and the departed Brandon Prust.

There’s no doubt that Benning and Linden have been successful in their quest to add grit, but they’ve also stocked the team with some skill as well. The relatively high profile additions of Dahlen and Goldobin slot in nicely alongside the team’s more stealthy skill additions like Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, Anton Rodin, Reid Boucher and Troy Stecher.

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Both Baertschi and Granlund have gone from being fringe-NHLers on the Calgary Flames to legitimate offensive contributors on the Canucks. Rodin and Boucher are still both intriguing talents despite having played limited minutes. Stecher is perhaps the most impressive of the group. He’s muscled his way into the team’s top four defence corps after having turned a routine minor-league call-up into an NHL career. If Dahlen and Goldobin can follow the lead and the team’s more high profile skill additions like Loui Eriksson, Brock Boeser and Olli Juolevi can contribute moving forward then the Canucks could be surprisingly well-balanced.

Ifs and Buts or a Bunch of Mutts?

Benning and Linden have done a tremendous job of re-stocking their team’s prospect pool during their tenure. Let’s not forget that they inherited a team whose top prospects included Hunter Shinkaruk, Frank Corrado and Niklas Jensen. Still, just because the Canucks boast the best collection of prospects they’ve had in years it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll crawl out from the bottom of the league’s standings just by virtue.
The Edmonton Oilers were the class of the NHL’s prospect pool of years, yet remained a bottom feeder year after year. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov represented an embarrassment of riches. Yet it took a superstar in Connor McDavid to finally drag them from the depths.

Ditto for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Do they experience the success their having this season without superstar Auston Matthews? Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been sensational, but Matthews is without a doubt the biggest factor in their turnaround as a franchise. Like McDavid, Matthews is a pivotal player.

The Canucks do not and may not ever have a superstar in the likes of McDavid or Matthews in their near future. They’re unlikely to get that ‘before and after’ pivotal player like the Oilers or Leafs possess. What they do have, however, is an impressive stable of young players and a head coach who has the willingness and patience to foster their development.

Free Wheeling Willie

For all the criticism he receives, Willie Desjardins has done a masterful job of slowly bringing along his team’s young players. He’s helped develop Bo Horvat from a rookie with third-line checking potential to an NHL all-star. He’s spoon fed minutes to NHL long-shots Ben Hutton and Stecher and turned them into 20+ minute NHL defencemen. His hard stance with Nikita Tryamkin is finally bearing fruit and Sven Baertschi has excelled since earning healthy scratch honours in December.

Credit given where credit’s due: Willie Desjardins has shown more patience with his young players than any other Canucks head coach in the past decade.

Redefining Success

So, if the Canucks are indeed moving forward with a rebuild, short of re-drafting McDavid and Matthews what can they do to make progress next season? Well unfortunately, because they lack a true game changing prospect in their system they’re likely to repeat or even fall short of their performance this season.

Metrics for success may not come in the way of wins and losses, but rather in usage statistics for the team’s emerging core. Will Horvat and Baertschi continue their progression and establish themselves as potential successors for the team’s top line? Will Hutton and Stecher find a way to take minutes away from Alex Edler and Chris Tanev? Can Granlund supplant Brandon Sutter as a viable second line option? Can Virtanen find a role and fulfill it with consistency? Can Boeser, Goldobin and Boucher score at the NHL level? Does Rodin get another shot? There are literally dozens of questions surrounding the Canucks’ future…and that’s without even a mention of their goaltending.

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Whatever results come from the balance of this season and next season should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Bo Horvat’s head. The path from mediocrity back to relevancy may be long and difficult for the team and its fans, but at least the Canucks finally seem to have a sense of self-awareness and direction.