A month ago, it seemed the Vancouver Canucks had plenty of questions in terms of what to do. They were in the middle of the playoff race and playing well behind a legitimate first line and steady goaltending.
Since Bo Horvat went down with a foot injury, the Canucks have won only two of their last 15 games, plummeting to 29th in the NHL. With a handful of RFAs and UFAs and a plethora of cap space for next season, it seems like the freefalling in the standings has made things much clearer.
But has it?
The Canucks are already short a fourth-round pick from the upcoming draft thanks to the Derrick Pouliot trade, which is looking like a pretty darn good deal right about now. With Chris Tanev’s return to the lineup, the Canucks have eight healthy blueliners. With playing in the postseason all but a pipedream at this point, GM Jim Benning has to decide what to do with his assets.
The Canucks currently have six unrestricted free agents. They have the Sedin twins, Thomas Vanek, Erik Gudbranson, Nic Dowd and Alex Biega. Of those six, Daniel and Henrik have made it clear they are not going anywhere, and truthfully, Dowd is not going to get any sort of a haul in return.
That leaves Gudbranson, Biega, and Vanek.
The Canucks potentially have an advantage on other teams, as they could be one of the first teams to write off this season and become a ‘seller.’ That should inflate the interest on Gudbranson, who is an old-school coach’s dream, and Vanek, who is a dependable top-nine scorer and power play specialist.
What Is in the Canucks’ Best Interest?
Vanek, who always seems to get traded this time of year, was signed by the Canucks in the beginning of September for two reasons: to help their horrid power play and to be an exposable asset come the trade deadline.
Perhaps Vanek’s value to the Canucks is greater than the probable third-round draft pick he would likely capture in return.
Vanek is currently second on the team in scoring after a huge point surge in the latter half of December. He has the second-most power-play goals league-wide since the 2005-06 season and is one of the most gifted scorers of the generation. His wisdom and offensive ability is the best by a Canuck that doesn’t have a twin since the days of the West Coast Express.
Sure, he may take a shift off and not know his way around the defensive end. He may even disappear for a game or two. The one thing he does have, however, is a strong relationship with the Canucks’ rookie sensation, Brock Boeser. Boeser, who is the favourite for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year, started skating with Vanek in the summer in Minnesota, where they both call home in the offseason. Vanek and Boeser have some fantastic chemistry, and quite frankly, have a lot in common when it comes to being right-handed snipers.
Does That Make Vanek Worth Keeping?
Can Boeser learn more by having Vanek around for the whole season, and perhaps next year as well? How will they look when the team is healthy, when Brandon Sutter, Bo Horvat, and Sven Baertschi are back. Stating the obvious, the Canucks will not make the playoffs this season, but would having a seasoned, point-producing veteran in Vanek around benefit the overall culture more than a mid-round draft pick could? Overall, it is tough to say and is a topic of discussion that can shift both ways.
What Do the Canucks Do With Gudbranson?
The other potential big fish for the Canucks is Gudbranson. Gudbranson, at 26 years of age, is entering his prime as a stay-at-home defender. Never one to put up points or please analytic experts, Gudbranson is a big-bodied bruiser who can clear out the front of the net and be a key cog for a contending team.
The problem is, the Canucks coughed up the equivalent of a first and second-round pick to acquire him a couple summers ago. Are the Canucks willing to potentially sell themselves short by settling for anything short of that? It is unlikely the team can get that kind of return for Gudbranson, which begs the question – is he worth moving for less? Or do you re-sign him? The Canucks need to figure it out fast, because with a defensive group that is finally on the mend, there is a logjam of young bodies needing playing time, and something has got to give.
If the Canucks feel that Gudbranson is worthy of a long-term spot, that leaves another situation for the team. When healthy, there is a plethora of defenders on the roster. Alex Edler, Tanev, Michael Del Zotto and Gudbranson take up four spots, with Troy Stecher, Pouliot, Ben Hutton and Biega filling out the bottom pairing and press box. If Gudbranson is signed to a long-term deal, who does the team part with?
Who Are Other Options?
Edler and Tanev have been mainstays on the back end since the glory days of the last Cup run, while Del Zotto and Pouliot were both offseason acquisitions. Biega, who is also a UFA this summer, could potentially be shipped out as well at the deadline. If Gudbranson stays, that leaves either Hutton or Stecher to be the most likely candidate to sit out or be traded. Hutton has already been healthy-scratched a few games while Stecher has been playing well, albeit in a reduced role with the lowest ice-time among dressed defencemen.
If the Canucks wanted to make a splash and really push the throttle on the rebuild, they could look at moving Edler or Tanev. For how valuable they are, they would also bring back the greatest return and perhaps help the squad speed up their youth movement. They also both have no-trade clauses that would have to be waived (Edler’s is a full no-trade clause while Tanev’s is modified). As is, they already have two UFA defencemen on hand for whom they need to make decisions, and a scoring winger who was brought in to be a trade-deadline commodity.
Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?
Whatever they decide, they must act on it soon. The clock is ticking, and the one thing the Canucks absolutely cannot do is have a replay of what they did two deadlines ago. They were in a similar position in the standings with two UFAs in Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata. Rather than trading them for futures, they stood pat, got absolutely nothing in return, and both free agents signed elsewhere come July 1. Truthfully, I have no problem if they do that with Vanek, as he provides value on and off the ice, but the same cannot be said regarding their defence core. Something has got to give on the back end.
By deciding soon, the Canucks can set the tone and create the market for teams that are selling. Barring another plague of injuries, there is no reason for the Canucks to keep their current eight defenders on the roster. They also have a handful of intriguing names in Utica – say Phillip Holm and Jalen Chatfield – who could be worthy of a late-season audition with the parent team.
If Vanek gets moved, then there is a top-nine role with power play ice-time for the taking. Remember when fans got a preview of Boeser when he played nine games at the end of last season? That turned out to benefit all parties involved, and could perhaps be advantageous once again. I am sure Canuck fans would be happy to see Reid Boucher, Nikolay Goldobin, or even college star Adam Gaudette jump in and take on that role, and show a sign of what is potentially yet to come.