The Vancouver Canucks trading from strength is the only real option to change the team.
“The most shocking thing that can happen in the draft is that nothing happens in the draft.”
-Various Canucks pundits, prior to July 7.
Canucks need trades
The current iteration of the Vancouver Canucks can start the 2022-23 season. They have a full contingent of signed players, and while they are currently above the salary cap, it will be fairly easy to get back below. The players are decent enough to compete for a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division. But that’s not what they want, is it?
After several years of trying to get back to that 2011 high, a second big change in direction should mean new direction. Indeed, when asked about general manager Patrik Allvin, he talked about changes in the roster and salaries of the players. None of these have really happened so far. They didn’t do nothingsure, but the changes aren’t dramatic so far.
Free agency has been very productive for the Canucks. They signed the WHL’s leading scorer, changed minor parts of the defense and replaced the fourth line. The last six have been a serious problem for Vancouver, so improving depth among forwards helps. And given the contracts they’ve been struggling with, next season has always been the most realistic time for change. As we mentioned, it’s been a long time since there’s been a plan beyond a single season. Vancouver has used one first, one second, two third and two fourth draft picks over the past three seasons. It’s six choices out of twelve intended to build the future.
Again: new direction, new goals, right?
Hopes and dreams and rolling up the sleeves
The problem is that it remains to be proven what the objective is. It will be a matter of time – and a BIG deal or two – before the target is irrevocably selected. For now, we can only take them at their word. What Allvin said his goals are to get faster, free up space and improve defense. Looking at what’s left in free agency, one finds some very slim pickings, especially for the money available.
While realistic, the free agent signings the Canucks have made have made the team quicker. They also improved the defense, but thanks to responsible attackers rather than a closed defense. All of this is good. The attackers seem deeper and more talented than the previous season, certainly. Almost as if they expected to lose a top striker to bolster their defence. Weird, that.
Report: Canucks to name Patrik Allvin as general manager https://t.co/bm6taQdXYP pic.twitter.com/b4wsWy325v
— theScore NHL (@theScoreNHL) January 26, 2022
It’s not that the switch is new to other Canucks forwards. Only one line has played more than 200 minutes together in 2021-22, and none of Tyler Motte, Matthew Highmore or Juho Lammikko remain. After them, the most common line was a duet. Tanner Pearson and JT Miller played over 350 minutes with either Conor Garland or Brock Boeser on the right side. Very effective too, with an expected goals rating for either combination just under 60%.
Now, for people watching the team, that’s an interesting puzzle. Three of the four players mentioned are also the subject of commercial speculation. Boeser’s new contract means he’s probably not going anywhere yet. Which leaves everyone.
Gain overall value from each transaction
That is to say the other three attackers. The best trades can be surprising, but the best chance of getting a good deal is for the Canucks to trade hard. Their body of blue lines is obviously not. And with my apologies to Thatcher Demko, the goalkeeper can hardly be considered a strength right now. Beyond the starter are question marks and maybe and that’s it. So any deal made must be done with the attackers as bait.
Each of the mentioned players can move on their own or as part of a bigger deal. If they are used as a sweetener to convince another team to take a cap hit, the return obviously decreases. This should be avoided simply because the Canucks will want as much of it as possible. That being said, saving ceiling space has its own value. But if the team doesn’t have a real plan for that, it won’t help much. “Losing” a deal – even a small one – can help beyond the skill of the players involved.
The main reason there is little temptation in the free agent market is what Vancouver already has. Anyone who comes with what they can afford bumps someone – who may or may not be better. If Tucker Poolman returns, the Canucks have four or five players who are a good match for the bottom pair. How is getting another one useful? Especially when they are already 30 or older. Whoever arrives on the already crowded left side is just going to get in the way of Jack Rathbone.
A trade that gains this space is going to be good, or can be, anyway. Get a mid-range pick and consider the small amount of space in return the main benefit. Then return to the attackers.
Gain per loss
The Canucks trade in strength means one – or more – of their forwards is going the other way. Jason Dickinson’s terrible season means his value is at rock bottom. Justin Dowling is highly unlikely to start in Vancouver. Nils Höglander has potential, but most buyers will want to see more before paying anything substantial for him.* Which striker gets moved will have different effects on the squad. Whether or not a deal is good depends A LOT on not just what comes back, but how well they fill that space.
When you look at Pearson’s boxcars — 14 goals and 34 points in 68 games — he’s a mid-range player. Not hard to replace, and likely scratching the minimum value of its $3.25 million cap. However, he also improved every line he was on last season, and he was mostly with JT Miller. The ability to play with a star isn’t the most highly regarded skill, but it’s harder than you might think. Pearson is a physical presence and someone every player wants on their wing.
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Replacing: Andrei Kuzmenko has a good defensive game to go along with his scoring touch – KHL. Starting him in the last six sets him up for failure, and the team will be very unhappy if that happens. It’s the Great Unknown, but costs less than a million dollars.
Garland drives games. Like everyone else, he hasn’t had much luck finding chemistry between the coaching change and coaches loving their mixers. But even through that, he still had 19 goals and 52 points in his 16:24 average ice time. He and Höglander briefly flanked Elias Pettersson with great results, but it’s hard to imagine that as a permanent line. Vancouver has talked about wanting speed and driving, and it has both. He’s also paid nearly $5 million per season for another four years. He’s worth the pain.
Replacing: Ironically enough, Höglander could take his place admirably. It doesn’t have Garland’s experience yet, but its engine doesn’t have a low gear either.
Hmm. There’s very little left to say that we haven’t done yet – what about Dog Days in August? There is little chance of adding more. Until a deal is reached, the Canucks’ new management group will have an “Incomplete” on their report card. The conflict here is that he wants to be paid as the Canucks’ best player, and the Canucks don’t want him to be their best player. Certainly not for eight more seasons, anyway.
Replacing: Well no. Miller scored 99 points last season. The Canucks haven’t seen this level of production in a decade, and Miller is also killing penalties.
Let’s entertain the thought. Bo Horvat needs a new contract, and while he’s not asking for Miller’s money, he’s worth every penny of his $5.5 million cap. However, he wasn’t worth much more than that, so how much he asks for things. And for how long, of course. If he asks for a full extension, this ceiling must remain low. That being said, he has been an excellent captain for the team in a demanding market. He can earn almost as much as Miller due to his lower paycheck.
Replacing: Ilya Mikheyev is not going to replicate Horvat’s 30 goals. He can hit 20s well on a regular basis, though, and he brings more speed and more defensive acumen. His shooting percentage is unlikely to stay at his 2021-22 level of 14%, but after just three seasons in the NHL, it’s a bit difficult to judge what his “par” will be. With Vancouver, the winger will be given defensive responsibilities. This can seriously limit its opportunities. But at $4.75 million a season, he’s guaranteed not to play ONLY shorthanded.
*And Vancouver would be crazy to trade Höglander so soon. The Canucks trading from strength also means knowing what you have.