Author: Jason Brough

Slovakia v Canada - Semifinal - 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship

Canucks’ biggest question: Where’s the upside?


Not long after Trevor Linden was named the Canucks’ president of hockey operations in 2014, he bemoaned the lack of young players making an impact for the team.

“I like the people we have in [our] core positions, but they need support from the bottom,” Linden said. “There’s a gap between the core players and what’s coming from below them. There hasn’t been a real push from the bottom and that’s created issues.”

That narrative still applies a year later. Even if 20-year-old center Bo Horvat can build on his impressive rookie season, the Canucks will likely need more from their youngsters in order to remain a playoff team.

Jacob Markstrom is one player that could make a significant impact. The 25-year-old goalie, coming off a stellar season in the AHL, will be Ryan Miller’s backup in 2015-16. For a bubble team like Vancouver, goaltending could very well be the difference between making and missing the postseason.

There’s also Jake Virtanen, the sixth overall pick in the 2014 draft. The Canucks are hoping the 18-year-old winger can be the power forward they once hoped Zack Kassian could be for them.

“[Virtanen] can play the skill game and the physical game,” said director of player personnel Stan Smyl, per the Times Colonist. “He can go through people. He can hit people, and he doesn’t care who he hits.”

Virtanen still has to make the team, but he should be given every opportunity to do so. Otherwise, it’s back to junior.

Then there’s Frank Corrado, the 22-year-old, right-shot defenseman who will try to help replace Kevin Bieksa.

And Sven Baertschi, the 22-year-old winger who’s shown promising signs since being traded to the Canucks from Calgary.

And Linden Vey, the 24-year-old forward who conceded that his “preparation last summer wasn’t what it needed to be.”

Ronalds Kenins, Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen, Jared McCann, Cole Cassels, and Alexandre Grenier are among the other prospects to watch.

It’s no secret that the Canucks have an aging core. The Sedin twins are 34. So are Alex Burrows and Radim Vrbata. Dan Hamhuis and Chris Higgins are 32. Miller is 35.

It’s also no secret that the Canucks did not draft well for a number of years. From 2006 to 2012, the only players they selected that have played in the NHL and remain in the organization are Corrado and Jensen.

Hence, Vancouver’s failure to remain an elite team, and hence, the need to become better at identifying and developing talent.

Related: Vote on whether the Canucks will make the playoffs

Poll: Will the Canucks make the playoffs in 2015-16?

Daniel Sedin, Radim Vrbata, Henrik Sedin,

The Vancouver Canucks made a somewhat unexpected return to the playoffs last season, putting up 101 points to finish second behind Anaheim in the Pacific Division.

But there’s a widespread belief that the Canucks will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance in 2015-16. While Vancouver’s roster isn’t significantly different than the one that ended up losing to Calgary in the first round, the competition in the Western Conference hasn’t gotten any easier.

Consider five of the six teams that missed the playoffs last year:

— The Kings obviously have the roster to make the postseason.
— The Sharks are eyeing a “big bounce-back”.
— The Stars should win more, assuming they get halfway decent goaltending.
— The Avalanche can’t be counted out, given what they did in 2013-14.
— Even the Oilers, with Connor McDavid, could make a push.

About the only team that nobody’s expecting much from is Arizona.

The reason there’s pressure on Jim Benning and the Canucks to make the playoffs is because management has resisted the calls from a growing segment of the fan-base for a more aggressive rebuild.

“We want to draft and develop well, but we want our young kids to learn how to play in a winning environment, so they learn the right way to play,” Benning said in April.

OK, time to vote:

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

2015 NHL Draft - Round One

For the last four months or so, it’s hard to find a Jim Benning move that wasn’t met with criticism.

It started in April when the Canucks signed Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett to hefty contract extensions and didn’t let up as the likes of Eddie Lack, Zack Kassian and Kevin Bieksa were traded.

Benning was even booed at an event for season ticket-holders when it was revealed that starting goalie Ryan Miller could’ve been traded instead of Lack, a fan favorite who’s not only younger and less expensive but had a higher save percentage than Miller last season.

Most recently, Benning’s claim that Brandon Sutter, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, would be a “foundation piece” for the Canucks was mocked by many. The five-year extension that Sutter proceeded to sign got the same treatment.

Suffice to say, the honeymoon is over for Vancouver’s general manager, who’s only been on the job since May of last year.

Benning, throughout it all, has not wavered.

“Sitting in my shoes, and when I talk to my management team, we have to make the decision that’s best for the organization going forward,” he said at the draft when asked about trading a fan favorite like Lack.

“I know if that’s the way we decide to go, I could get criticized. But that’s part of the job. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Hired in large part for his experience as a scout, it won’t be entirely fair to judge Benning until his draft picks pan out, or don’t.

But there’s no doubt his recent moves have put him under increasing pressure. If Vancouver takes a step back next season — and many expect that to happen — that pressure will only build.

Blackhawks agree to terms with Svedberg on one-year deal

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks have agreed to terms with towering defenseman Viktor Svedberg on a one-year contract.

From the press release:

Svedberg, 24, recorded 14 points (3G, 11A) in 49 regular-season games in his second season with Rockford. His four assists in eight postseason appearances tied for the most among Rockford defensemen. Svedberg has totaled 23 points (5G, 18A) in 84 professional games in North America, all with the IceHogs. The Gothenburg, Sweden, native was originally signed as a free agent on Oct. 19, 2013.

Svedberg is likely looking at more games in the minors next season, though it’s possible the 6-foot-9 defender could see some time with the big club.

Svedberg was a restricted free agent. No financial terms of his contract have been reported.

The Blackhawks still need to sign RFAs Marcus Kruger and Joakim Nordstrom.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition

When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf