Trent Leith / July 10, 2021
The regular season is long over, the Cinderella run has come to an end and the Stanley Cup has been awarded. As hockey fans around North America take their eyes off the Montréal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning and shift their focus back to their local markets.
The Canucks are poised to have a busy off-season in their need to sign key RFAs, fill holes on the back end and middle six, navigate an expansion and entry draft, and explore the trade market, free agency and buyouts. As fans put away their Habs hats and turn their attention back to their local disappointing Canadian team, here is the scoop on what the Vancouver Canucks need to take the next step to competitiveness.
Finding a Middle-Six Skater
The Canucks need to acquire either one third-line centre and a second-line winger or two wingers depending on how the team decides to move forward with JT Miller’s deployment. There has been a large swelling of support from fans to move Miller to a full-time third-line centre. JT Miller has said in the past that he feels more engaged in the middle of the ice, but his performance in Elias Pettersson’s absence was not anything to write home about. While Miller can play centre, he brings more value to the team on the Lotto Line wing. If Miller is to remain a winger, that leaves Benning to find a middle-six winger and a third-line centre somehow between now, and early October.
The age-old question once again rears its ugly head, “who is going to play on Horvat’s wing?” Could it be Nils Höglander? Nils did spend the majority of the 2020/21 season on the second line, but it has been questioned if that was best for his development. On the second-line Höglander is playing a matchup role alongside Horvat most shifts. While Höglander didn’t look out of place, it would likely be better for his development to get some sheltered minutes where he could focus on scoring rather than shutting down elite talent. Putting Höglander on a third line also adds some solid forechecking, and an offensive touch to the bottom six while allowing him to grow as a player in less vital minutes. But, that leaves that infamous vacancy on Bo’s wing, again.
A lot of the same arguments about Höglander’s role are just as applicable when it comes to discussing Vasily Podkolzin’s role next season. The thing about Podkolzin is he is even less of a proven asset, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s pencil him alongside Höglander on the third line. If Podkolzin shapes up to be half the player some of Canucks’ media expect him to be, with Höglander on the opposite flank they start to be a third line with a high upside.
Benning is going to have to get creative to try and find players to fill these holes in the middle six. With rumours of Nate Schmidt asking for a trade swirling, moving Schmidt out could be an opportunity to fill one of these holes via trade.
Patching Up The Back End
As mentioned, Nate Schmidt is rumoured to be wanting out of Vancouver, which leaves half of their six best defencemen either unsigned or asking to be moved. With Alex Edler and Travis Hamonic expiring, defence is the most important aspect of the team that will require fixing, In our previous coverage of the team’s defence, we concluded it would be in the team’s best interest to sign Edler to an evergreen contract for one year and sign Hamonic for as many as three years. The issue is the team would be returning with the same defence that was simply not good enough last year. The x-factor here is if Schmidt’s trade request is granted and he is moved out of Vancouver. How the team will fill that place leaves a lot of intrigue.
It wouldn’t be an offseason under Jim Benning without some Oliver Ekman-Larsson rumours. With OEL reportedly back on the trade market along with Schmidt, it’s easy to see why Canucks fans might be nervous. OEL is not a good defender anymore, with a huge cap hit and six more years under contract this is not something the Canucks should be touching with a ten-foot pole. While there is a need to build the defence back up, OEL is not the solution. Thankfully, this trade talk appears to be largely being pushed by the Arizona Coyotes to drum up interest in the player.
It will be worth watching how the Canucks start to build up their blueline and how creative Benning can become leveraging the expansion draft, free agency and trade market. This may be the key to the Canucks’ success next season.
Nevermind the Netminders
The last question mark is the backup goaltender. If the Canucks find a way to move on from Holtby via trade or buyout, they are left without a number two to play behind Thatcher Demko. This doesn’t sound like a big issue, however, Demko is still relatively unproven as a starting goaltender having played only 72 games in the NHL to date. Establishing a reliable backup plan is a must, at least for the short term.
If Holtby were to leave the team, the Canucks would have to acquire a new second-string goalie, likely from free agency. If a buyout is used on Holtby he will remain on the salary cap, as well as the new goalie. This doesn’t leave tons of cap savings to be used elsewhere. A buyout of Holtby’s contract would give the Canucks $3.8M in cap savings this season, which sounds ideal until you need to take a sizable portion of that to give a new backup goaltender this year. Sure, at the end of the day there may still be savings in 2021-22, but the following season still comes with a $1.9M cap in a year where Holtby would normally be off the books. A buyout for Holtby is a long-term solution for a short-term problem.
If the Canucks move on from Holtby, it would be less than ideal to do so via a buyout. Holtby’s contract is not long enough to effectively use a buyout without harming the team in 2022-23. With so many inefficient contracts coming off the books next year, it would be in the team’s best interest to sit through the last of the pain and allow for a clean slate one year from now.
Benning clearly has his work cut out for him, especially if he hopes to make the playoffs next spring. With so much uncertainty it will surely be an exciting off-season, with huge stakes for the long-term health of the club.
Keep it locked in to StadiumChinatown.ca for all the latest on the off-season as we approach free agency and the drafts. Be sure to never miss an article by subscribing to our newsletter on the right side of the homepage and getting our articles right to your inbox, once a week!