The Canucks’ plan of attack for the 2015-16 season seemed contradictory because it involved both getting significantly younger and making the playoffs – goals that are often mutually exclusive.
With no real playoff success since 2011 and eight regulars over the age of 30, the Canucks cannot continue on their current course if they want to become a Western Conference power once again. But according to Canucks’ GM Jim Benning, “We want to develop our kids in a winning environment, so we want to be competitive for a playoff spot.”
The only place where this kind of rebuild has worked is Detroit, where making the playoffs is a regular occurrence because of a deep farm system. Although Benning has more of a scouting background than his predecessor, Mike Gillis, the prospect base has been bare for years. The recent push toward developing prospects would make it seem as though the Canucks’ focus should turn solely toward a rebuild.
What might stall the full rebuild, is the Canucks’ position in a weak Pacific Division. Vancouver is one of a group of six Pacific teams separated by fewer than ten points while weaving in and out of two (potentially three) playoff positions. Would selling veteran players make sense when the team has a legitimate chance at making the playoffs, where anything can happen?
Before reviewing the Canucks’ plan for the second half, let’s evaluate the Canucks over the first half of the 2015-16 season.
It’s scary to think where the Canucks would be without the Sedins. Either Daniel or Henrik leads the Canucks in goals, assists, points, and power play points. At age 35, these two franchise players are showing no signs of slowing down. Given their combined cap hit of $14 million and their desire to end their careers in Vancouver, it’s entirely possible that the twins could still be around once the Canucks are back on the upswing.
One pleasant surprise has been Jannik Hansen, who has benefitted from considerable time as the “third Sedin.” Until a back injury forced him onto injured reserve, Hansen was on his way to a career year with 22 points in 41 games, good for third in team scoring before his injury.
For the first time in many years, the Canucks have multiple rookies making valuable contributions, with two particular standouts. After being drafted late in the first round in the 2015 draft, Jared McCann has been able to stick with the club for the full season. His quick release helped him receive power-play time when numerous Canucks’ regulars were injured. Ben Hutton unexpectedly made the club out of training camp, providing the Canucks with a solid second-unit power-play quarterback and a much-needed puck-moving defenseman.
All season the Canucks have had a problem generating offense, with no players beyond the Sedins currently in the NHL’s top 100 in scoring. Their offense sits in the bottom third of the league, not even able to generate an average of 2.5 goals per game. This lack of offense hurts the power play too, which also sits in the bottom third of the league. The first power play unit with the Sedins has been capable of generating points, but the lack of a strong second unit continually hurts the Canucks.
Ryan Miller kept them in a few games early in the season. However, Miller has fallen victim to overwork with his month-by-month goals-against average increasing. While Miller has been sidelined with a groin injury, Jacob Markstrom has taken control of the crease. With Markstrom’s numbers (2.44 GAA, .920 SV%) better than Miller’s (2.74 GAA, .909 SV%), Canucks’ coach Willie Desjardins would be wise to split starts once Miller returns to keep him better rested and reward Markstrom with more playing time.
Injuries to second-line center Brandon Sutter and top-4 defenseman Dan Hamhuis have hurt the Canucks. Sutter was on pace for 40 points while providing valuable penalty killing and the best faceoffs percentage for team centers (53.6%).
Because of a freak facial injury, Vancouver is missing out on an opportunity to showcase Hamhuis if they want to, since he is an unrestricted free agent this summer and could be traded at the deadline. Although the Canucks sit in the top half of the league in man games lost, every team has injuries and must find a way to overcome them.
The Canucks currently lead the league with ten overtime or shootout losses. If the league did not award “loser points” for simply getting to overtime, they would sit at the bottom of the Pacific Division. Their total of 14 regulation and overtime wins is tied for the lowest in the Pacific Division, even though they are seven points clear of last-place Edmonton. This lack of wins stems from the inability to adapt to the new 3-on-3 system, where the Canucks simply can’t keep up. Vancouver are an awful 2-8 in games decided in 3-on-3, although they are slightly better at 3-2 in games that make it to the shootout.
Acquiring 23-year-old Emerson Etem while cutting 32-year-old Chris Higgins could be the first step in this eventual rebuild. It’s possible that trading Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata at the trade deadline could be next, with the right return. If the Canucks decide to be sellers at the deadline, making the playoffs will become difficult albeit not impossible. Brandon Prust, Matt Bartkowski, and Yannick Weber, who are also UFAs this summer, could also make intriguing trade possibilities.
The Canucks were not expected to be elite this season. But after making the playoffs last season, the Canucks weren’t expected to fall off the map either. The Canucks are not one of the NHL’s better teams, and shows in the standings.
Although being in a position to win every game is what everyone on the roster should strive for, long-term, the Canucks might not be well served from squeaking into the playoffs with a resulting early first-round exit. Rebuilding, retooling, reloading – whatever the right term is – should begin now.