Even though it ended with a Game 7 shutout loss, the Vancouver Canucks just finished their most successful season in close to a decade.
They not only ended what had been a four-year playoff drought, they also won their first playoff series since the 2010-11 season (defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues) and took one of the best teams in the league to a winner-take-all game in the Second Round.
Along with those results, there are plenty of reasons for optimism on the roster thanks to a stunning core that boasts some of the games best young players in Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser. Add in-their-prime veterans Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller to the mix and that is a group that could one day be the foundation of a championship level team. All of them are fantastic.
That is the good news.
The concerning news is that it takes more than five players to be a championship level team, and there is a pretty noticeable drop-off in talent with the rest of the roster once you dig below that top group. That lack of depth was on display against an elite team like Vegas. Even though their Second Round series was pushed to a seventh game, it was obvious which team had the superior talent and depth. It was Vegas, and by a pretty healthy margin. Had it not been for a superhuman goaltending performance from Thatcher Demko, who was only in the lineup to replace an injured Jacob Markstrom, that series would have probably been over in five games.
There are still some significant holes here on the bottom half of the roster, and the Canucks have three fairly significant unrestricted free agents to deal with this offseason in trade deadline acquisition Tyler Toffoli, defenseman Chris Tanev, and Markstrom. Add in the other improvements that need to be made on the roster to help the team take the next step in its development, and general manager Jim Benning and his staff have a lot of work here.
It is not going to be easy.
The Canucks have already spent the past two offseasons operating like a team that thinks it is a contender, even if it did not yet seem to be one. They have invested HEAVILY in veteran free agents (Tyler Myers, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle) and traded significant assets (their first two picks in the 2020 draft class) for Miller and Toffoli.
Given their playoff success these past few weeks there is no reason to believe that mindset is going to change this offseason. Especially given how great their young core is. You have to take advantage of that group.
The issue the Canucks are going to have is with the salary cap. Specifically the flat salary cap they are going to have to deal with this offseason. Heck, even if the cap increased they would still be facing a significant crunch over the next couple of years.
One of the more baffling aspects of this team is just how close to the cap they were this season (they had one of the largest salary cap numbers in the league) despite the fact they had…
- A roster that had not made the playoffs in four years
- Two of their best players (Pettersson and Hughes) on entry-level contracts, and…
- Did not have a single player carrying a salary cap hit of more than $6 million this season. Their highest salary cap hit was the 98th highest cap hit in the league.
But because they had more than $26 million tied up in Myers, Eriksson, Beagle, Roussel, Brandon Sutter, and Michael Ferland they ran out of salary cap space in a hurry. On their own, some of those moves could be defensible, and maybe even understandable (Eriksson was coming off a 30-goal season when he signed a few years ago; Ferland had injury issues this season that robbed him of his season). But there were also a lot of deals that were head-scratchers at the time (Beagle, Roussel, Myers) that are only looking worse now, and will continue to cause problems in the near future when the Canucks have to find room for new deals for Pettersson and Hughes after next season.
It creates a lot of questions and challenges for the offseason. Are they as good as they think they are? Do they have the salary cap space to bring back Toffoli, Tanev, and Markstrom, while still also finding much-needed upgrades elsewhere on the roster? If they can not bring back Markstrom, how much stock do they put in the three playoff games that Demko played going forward, because he is still a very unproven commodity (he did not play at that level in the regular season)?
It is going to be a fascinating offseason to see how they make this all work.
The Canucks have the most important and most difficult pieces to find for a championship puzzle, and their core has already drawn comparisons to the early days of the Jonathan Toews–Patrick Kane–Duncan Keith era Blackhawks. Maybe at the top of the lineup that comparison is valid. They have the stars. But the Canucks are still missing their Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Dustin Byfuglien to complement them to become that type of Stanley Cup team.
Given the salary cap situation and current roster makeup, they might have difficulty finding them.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.