As each NHL team is eliminated from playoff contention — either mathematically or by losing in the postseason — we’ll take a look at why its quest for the Stanley Cup fell short in 2017-18, along with three keys to its offseason and a way-too-early prediction on what 2018-19 will hold.
What went wrong
The Canucks found out what happens when you cling to a false hope of playoff contention by the last millimeters of alpha-keratin in your fingernails, instead of committing to a true rebuild.
Vancouver fired Willie Desjardins and finally promoted Travis Green to the head-coaching position he’d been groomed to take over. He took over a team that didn’t have the horses to contend in the Western Conference, and then really couldn’t keep up when injuries slammed a significant portion of the team’s significant players; when Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Chris Tanev and Alexander Edler all miss that much time, the Canucks were going to be a non-factor.
That’s especially true when they’re bottom five in team defense and barely out of the bottom five in scoring.
Keys to the offseason
1. Implement a top-to-bottom plan, and stay consistent with it.
Team president Trevor Linden and GM Jim Benning are still selling the notion that the Canucks can go young and yet still dabble in free agency to augment that young core to be “competitive.” Which, essentially, is taking away ice time and opportunities from the younger players that the team needs to evaluate in a sink-or-swim manner.
But the bigger issue is on the player development side. Benning took his eye off the prize after that playoff berth in 2015. The Canucks made three picks combined in the first 140 selections in the 2015 and 2016 drafts — inexcusable for a team that clearly needed to transition to its next phase. They figured it out in 2017, drafting as many players in the top 140 as they did in the previous two seasons combined, but they have only three picks in the first four rounds this season. Benning hasn’t acquired a draft pick this season. That’s nuts.
Here’s one way to get this done: Utilize the $22 million-plus of cap space they’ll have this summer to do what other teams have done, which is take on problem contracts from other teams in exchange for draft pick incentives. This cap space, however, is a luxury that is afforded to Vancouver as long as they make another rather important decision. …
2. Dictate terms to the Sedins — or say goodbye.
Linden and Benning are in a hockey Kobayashi Maru with the Sedins. They remain viable top-six forwards who can anchor a scoring line, and should be compensated as such. They’re franchise icons, who have earned the right to play out their careers with Vancouver, and the fans would no doubt love to see that happen. But it can’t happen for contracts with long terms, and it can’t happen for $7 million apiece from Vancouver’s standpoint.
What Benning and the Canucks need is for the Sedins to take a cue from their country-mate Mats Sundin, who signed a couple of one-year deals toward the end of his career. But what Vancouver really needs is a little more cap breathing room to implement the plan listed above. This could come down to how desirous the Sedins are to finish their careers in Vancouver, if the compensation (in money or term) drops.
3. The blue line is the key.
The Canucks have some young players to build around in the flowing locks of Brock Boeser, Horvat, Jake Virtanen and Elias Pettersson, who is breaking records that Peter Forsberg set in the Swedish league. There’s also Thatcher Demko, the goalie of the future. The problem: None of these people are defensemen.
The Canucks have a critical need for additional help on the blue line. Some of these problems could be addressed through signings and trades — the aforementioned “cap space is your friend” road to rebuilding — but the prospect pool is arid outside of Olli Juolevi, the 19-year-old excelling in Finland after being selected No. 5 overall in 2016. The good news is they own their first-round pick, and one lucky bounce of the lottery balls could mean they can throw Rasmas Dahlin at the problem.
Realistic expectation for 2018-19
The Sedins are back for one-year deals as a hometown discount, but otherwise it’s the kids’ team. And despite the market being called toxic by some, the Canucks find that fans and media are on board for a rebuild provided (A) there’s a clear plan in place and (B) a little bit of hope is used to chum the water through the continued maturation of Boeser and Horvat, the arrival of Pettersson and, god willing, the crowing of Rasmas Dahlin as king of a post-Sedins landscape.