Vancouver Canucks

It’s official: Top-ranked ’16 draft prospect Matthews will play in Switzerland


Auston Matthews is off to the Swiss League.

On Friday, National League A club ZSC (Zurich) Lions tweeted out that Matthews, the Arizona-bred phenom projected to go No. 1 overall at next year’s draft, will suit up for them next year rather than play junior hockey for WHL Everett.

The news comes after months of speculation and bureaucratic red tape. While Matthews has long been tied to a move to Switzerland, work permit issues prevented the Lions from making the signing official; per Swiss Hockey News, Matthews will have to wait until he turns 18 (in mid-September) before playing.

It promises to be worth the wait.

Matthews had a banner campaign for the U.S. National Team Development Program last year, setting single-season records with 55 goals and 117 points. He broke the previous scoring mark led by Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who also happens to be the last American-born player to go No. 1 overall.

In Zurich, Matthews will play professionally and against men, which should be a good test — at 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds, he’s expected to handle himself physically.

He’ll also get an opportunity to work under an experienced head coach in Marc Crawford.

Crawford brings plenty to the table, having racked up over 500 wins during a 16-year coaching career with stops in Quebec, Colorado, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Dallas. He captured the Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach in 1995 and, a year later, helped the Avalanche win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Following his last stop with the Stars in 2011, Crawford took the Zurich job and has achieved a high level of success. The Lions captured the league championship in 2014 and were largely credited for the development of Ronalds Kenins, an undrafted Latvian forward than caught on with the Canucks last season, scoring 12 points in 30 games.

“Matthews is an outstanding young hockey player and everyone involved with the ZSC Lions is so excited about seeing him play in Zurich,” Crawford told Today’s Slapshot back in May. “I believe [the Swiss National League A] is the the perfect training ground for young athletes.”

With the Lions, Matthews will also skate with a slew of ex-NHLers: Robert Nilsson, Ryan Shannon, Dan Fritsche and Marc-Andre Bergeron, to name a few.

Pens sign veteran center Cullen: one year, $800,000


In an interesting move, Pittsburgh added even more depth up front on Thursday by signing veteran center Matt Cullen.

Cullen, who turns 39 in November, inked a one-year deal worth $800,000, re-uniting him with Pens GM Jim Rutherford — Cullen’s GM in Carolina in 2006, when the ‘Canes won the Stanley Cup.

“He has good leadership qualities,” Rutherford said of Cullen, per the Pens’ Twitter account. “He will play an important role on our 4th line.

“I know personally how good he is with other players. He has always been a guy that takes time to help his teammates.”

The 11th-oldest skater in the league last season, Cullen just wrapped a two-year, $7 million deal with the Preds, scoring seven goals and 25 points in 62 games. While he struggled early, Cullen eventually found his niche as Peter Laviolette’s “versatility guy,” flipping between the middle and wing, jumping up into the No. 2 center spot when Mike Fisher was injured during the playoffs.

Cullen is just the latest addition to Pittsburgh’s revamped forward group. The biggest splash came with the acquisition of Phil Kessel from Toronto, but Rutherford made other savvy moves as well — Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr were acquired in late July, while Sergei Plotnokov and Dominik Simon were signed out of the KHL and Czech League, respectively.

Cullen also provides the Pens with even more depth down the middle, as the club now has him, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bonino and Fehr at the center position. Rutherford did say, however, that Fehr may be shifted to the wing.

Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook


It was another eventful offseason in Vancouver, the second under GM Jim Benning, and it left both fans and media asking the same question:

What exactly are the Canucks doing?

To hear Benning explain it, the plan is simple in theory, yet difficult to execute — rebuild while staying competitive, giving young players a winning environment in which to grow.

“From the time I took the job (14 months ago) until 10 days ago, I went at it hard,” Benning explained, per the Vancouver Sun. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit it — it’s been hard. I’ve had to make hard decisions to try to remain competitive while building for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“But for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that this summer.”

Some will argue with that last remark.

This summer, Benning took heat for a variety of his moves, most notably his trade of popular (and relatively successful) backup goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina for a third-round pick, which many saw as a middling return. After tiring of the Zack Kassian experiment, the Canucks cut bait and got what they could in exchange — 31-year-old Habs tough guy Brandon Prust — then paid a tidy sum to acquire third-line Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter, paying him an even tidier sum to be their second-line center ($21.875 million over five years, specifically).

In the end, it’s tough to say the Canucks got any better this summer. It’s tough to say they stayed even. Most say they got worse.

And that makes next year’s outlook kinda bleak.

Sure, the same old suspects remain — the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler — but they’re all a year older, and now surrounded by kids. Bo Horvat, 20, projects to be the No. 3 center while winger Sven Baertschi, 22, will get a shot at the top-six. Former first-round pick Jake Virtanen (18) figures to get a long look in training camp, and Frank Corrado (22) will likely be in on defense. Other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann could all get looks, too.

Which makes for an odd dynamic, especially since the Canucks were competitive last year, registering 101 points and a playoff spot. But their opening-round loss to Calgary only confirmed what most suspected — Vancouver was a flawed team, nowhere close to contending.

Now, the club heads into this season minus the services of veteran contributors like Kevin Bieksa, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson — jobs that will be filled by (the aforementioned) inexperienced players. And should injuries strike the team’s aging core, it could be grim; at no position is this more concerning than in goal, where 35-year-old Ryan Miller, who missed extensive time with a knee injury last season, is backed up by a total wildcard in Jacob Markstrom.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Canucks play in a tough Pacific Division in which the Ducks, Kings, Flames and Oilers all made significant upgrades this summer.

If you believe Benning, though, his moves weren’t designed to make the Canucks less competitive.

The way he sees it, the club is more versatile than ever.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can play whatever style the game dictates,” he explained. “So we’ve made some changes this summer. I thought maybe in the playoffs we didn’t play with the intensity and emotion to step up in a playoff series and win.

“We’ve got some good, young, skill players coming up. But we want to surround them with players who fit.”

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

Looking to make the leap: Jacob Markstrom


Canucks GM Jim Benning cleared a path for Jacob Markstrom to start the 2015-16 campaign with Vancouver by trading Eddie Lack, but this is far from the first time Markstrom has been given a good opportunity to establish himself in the NHL. The question is, will things be different this time around?

There certainly is the potential for that after the season he had in the minors. He was dominant with the AHL’s Utica Comets, posting a 1.88 GAA and .934 save percentage in 32 regular season contests. From there Markstrom led Utica to the Calder Cup Finals with a 2.11 GAA and .925 save percentage in 23 playoff games.

“I think if you look at the history of, whether it be Corey Crawford or Ben Bishop, or these types of players and how they perform at the American Hockey League level, and look at stats and numbers, you can put Jacob in that category,” Canucks president Trevor Linden argued in June.

“He’s had an excellent year. He needs to continue to develop at the National Hockey League level, and we’re going to give him that opportunity.”

Markstrom still has a 3.19 GAA and .896 save percentage in 50 NHL contests, but to be fair to him, he’s just 25 years old and goaltenders can take longer to find their games than forwards or defensemen.

To that end, Linden didn’t simply use those goaltenders as examples because they were the competing netminders in this year’s Stanley Cup Final. Crawford was 25 years old (26 on Dec. 31) in his first full campaign with Chicago while Bishop didn’t participate in more than 22 games in a single season until 2013-14 when he was 27 years old (as of Nov. 21 of that campaign).

So it would be premature to dismiss Markstrom just because he hasn’t developed as quickly as some anticipated. This time — as the backup to Ryan Miller — he might be ready to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.