Todays SlapShot

09 Apr 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Michael Zalewski (40) and forward Markus Granlund (60) and defenceman Ben Hutton (27) and forward Emerson Etem (26) and forward Jake Virtanen (18) and defenceman Alex Biega (55) and forward Brendan Gaunce (50) against the Edmonton Oilers during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)
Vancouver Canucks

Canucks offseason preview: Focus on the frontline

Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire

This is the third in a three-part off-season preview for the Vancouver Canucks. Today, we focus on the team’s fading, fragmented forward group.

There was a time — not too long ago, either — where you could invariably count on the Canucks to be in the top 10 in league scoring. Assuming that a group with the high-flying Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and co. would be near the tops in the Goals For department was a given.

Which is perhaps what makes their unceremonious crash to 29th in league scoring this year all the more jarring  — the fact that it was so spectacular, and so sudden.

Tasked with the difficult (one might say, unreasonable) task of squeezing an extra 50-60 goals out of a lean forward corps that is in its twilight, Canucks General Manger Jim Benning will nonetheless scour that stone for a trace of blood.

But it won’t be easy . Beyond the obvious candidate, the forward options available on the free agent market this summer are more of the second-line, 20-25 goal (at-best) variety. Which leaves a team that has inexplicably elected to trade away its young offensive talent  left questioning if they have any candidates to step in now and be that catalyst.

FORWARD DEPTH CHART

Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Jannik Hansen

Sven Baertschi – Bo Horvat – Jake Virtanen

Alex Burrows – Brandon Sutter – Anton Rodin

Emerson Etem – Markus Granlund – Derek Dorsett

Chris Higgins

Brendan Gaunce

Gone from last year’s group is the meteoric, controversial Radim Vrbata, whose 31 goals earned Team MVP in 2015, but who saw misery and confusion in a muddled middle-6 role and a 13-goal campaign this past season.

This opens up a massive chasm on the right side of the Canucks forward group — of the four right-wingers currently charted, Jannik Hansen accounts for 22 of 34 goals from the 2016 campaign.

09 Apr 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen (18) against the Edmonton Oilers during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. Vancouver won 4-3 in a shootout. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

09 Apr 2016; Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen (18) against the Edmonton Oilers during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

Canucks fans are surely expecting a great leap from energetic 20-year old Jake Virtanen, and there is hope that Swedish Elite League leading scorer Anton Rodin, a Canucks 2010 draft pick who signed back with the club on a one-year deal, can provide some punch — but this is clearly a hole in desperate need of plugging.

Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat showed real chemistry last year, with both seeing a boost in production as the year went on. There is realistic hope that both can crane to reach the 20-goal plateau this year.

The team will also benefit from a full-year of Brandon Sutter, whose 5 goals in just 20 games sure made the Nick Bonino trade look lopsided.

And there is a chance, that a guy like Emerson Etem or Markus Granlund could chip in with a surprise 10-15 goals. Though, admittedly, that is probably an abuse of the word ‘chance’.

So, it’s clear that, as with the defense, the Canucks are going to need to be active players in the trade and free agency market if they are going to fill the holes that are quickly sinking their ship. And while their $10 million-plus in cap space could allow a damn-the-boats approach to the ‘rebuild’ philosophy, there is real reason to believe that temperance may be the order of the day for the club.

Here are some realistic options to plug the (many) holes in that forward corps:

Loui Eriksson 

While the Boston Bruins continue to have ‘good discussions’ with the pending UFA right winger, their continuing cap constraints and penchant for throwing out ridiculous deals could mean that the high-scoring Swede finds himself on the market come July 1.

Eriksson represents an intriguing option for the Canucks for a few reasons.

First, his 30 goals last season would’ve put him on top of team scoring, and were his highest since 2008-09. He is a player who threw off the yoke of a few bad years with Boston, to emerge as an offensive catalyst on the Bruin’s attack.

What’s more, Eriksson has shown wonderful chemistry with the Sedins in the past, lining up beside them in Sweden’s 2013 Gold medal-winning World Championship performance. Since then, he has been the object of much Canucks fan fantasy. While he may not have the size and snarl that Benning has gravitated towards of late, he would be an immediate scoring boon for the club.

The catch?

He’ll be heavily sought after in this year’s light free agent-winger class. Eriksson is likely looking at somewhere close to $6 million per season — and for a team that is (theoretically) in the throes of a rebuild, that annual on a four-or-five year deal may prove a touch rich for the blood.

Troy Brouwer 

11 MAY 2016: Troy Brouwer (36) of the St. Louis Blues chases a puck with Patrick Eaves (18) of the Dallas Stars during game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup 2nd round playoffs between the St. Louis Blue and the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX. St. Louis advances after defeating Dallas 6-1. (Photo by: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

11 MAY 2016: Troy Brouwer (36) of the St. Louis Blues chases a puck with Patrick Eaves (18) of the Dallas Stars. (Photo by: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

While the Vancouver-born Brouwer’s offensive stats don’t situate him in quite the same class as Eriksson, his snarl and powerful playoff performance with St. Louis this past year has elevated his stature — to the point where he has generated real chatter in Vancouver.

While not exactly an offensive driver, Brouwer does much to elevate the production of those around him. He is a net-front presence with a fearless demeanor and a tireless work ethic, which is something a group that is trending towards youth could do well to demonstrate.

What’s more, his Vancouver connections make him an appealing candidate — Brouwer himself said  that he has given serious thought to the idea of playing for his hometown team.

And at a price-point that will likely sit $1-1.5 million below Eriksson’s, he represents a fiscally, as well as statistically, viable option on the wing.

Milan Lucic 

Speaking of Vancouver born-and-bred, Canucks fans have been clamoring for the acquisition of the gritty East Vancouver native since the day Milan Lucic was drafted in 2006 — and perhaps before. And while Lucic has distanced and even disavowed himself of the city of Vancouver in the past, there is still a romantic notion to bringing the Giants product home.

Setting aside the obvious Benning-archetype that Lucic represents, there are statistically significant reasons to consider him as an option on wing.

Beside the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, he hasn’t dipped below 18-goals since 2010. His 59.0 percent Corsi For percentage in 2015-16 was miles ahead of any Canucks regular. And, like Brouwer, his penchant for net-front antics is something that is desperately needed on a Canucks team that is far too easy to play against.

So it all makes sense, right?

But like Eriksson, the dollars are going to be huge — think north-of-$6.5 million per on a 6-7 year deal. That puts him in his mid-30’s upon expiry. Does it make sense for the Canucks where they’re currently situated? It’s tough to say.

Oh, and he’s not exactly BFF’s with some current fan favorites.

There are some other realistic, if less-supplicating, options hitting the market.

Kris Versteeg is good for 15-20 goals a season, and could be had a bargain rate. Jiri Hudler should also reach the market, is just one-year removed from a 76-point season, and doesn’t appear to be getting much run in UFA hype-circles. A low-cost stopgap like David Perron or Sam Gagner may intrigue or, at worst, be an okay back-up option for the group.

What’s apparent, however, is that there is no ready-made, obvious solution to the sinking quagmire of goal-scoring.

There may have been in the event that the lottery balls had been a bit kinder to the Canucks on April 30th — but then, if they had, we would never have gotten this.

One thing’s for sure: it’s bound to be a busy summer for Benning and Co. One that could make, or irreconcilably break, the front-line of this roster for years to come.

Canucks offseason preview: Focus on the frontline

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