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Long-term outlook for Vancouver Canucks

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Vancouver Canucks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Canucks must lock down some key players (and make important decisions) soon.

Most importantly, both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes see their entry-level contracts expire after 2020-21. The Canucks’ long-term flexibility may hinge on how much each player costs. It will be interesting to monitor those situations. Could Vancouver convince either of them to sign extensions as early as the 2020 offseason? Either way, how much of the salary cap will each rising star take up?

While the Canucks have Brock Boeser signed to a team-friendly deal, that will also be up after 2021-22.

So, while there are core pieces in place, we haven’t fully understood the cost of many pieces.

There are some players locked down to medium term, however. Both Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are signed through 2022-23, and quite affordable at a combined AAV of $10.75M. Tyler Myers ($6M AAV through 2023-24) seems like less of a positive, but for better or worse, he’s slated to be a part of the core.

Myers presents a neat transition to the bad news: Vancouver has some flab on its salary structure. There’s dead money devoted to the Roberto Luongo salary recapture, Ryan Spooner buyout, and to some extent, Sven Baertschi.

Yet, the brighter side is that the Canucks can transition shaky money to rising stars. Brandon Sutter‘s $4.375M AAV can be put toward Pettersson and Hughes after 2020-21. A whopping $12M (Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel) comes off the books in time to re-up Brock Boeser … and so on.

So, it’s pretty easy to see a solid situation getting better.

[PHT Power Rankings: Where do Canucks rank among best and worst long-term outlooks?]

Long-term needs for Canucks

That said, it’s crucial for GM Jim Benning to have more success in free agency — even if it means simply abstaining from spending.

Will the Canucks feel the urge to break the bank to make Tyler Toffoli more than a rental? Will they give 30-year-old defenseman Christopher Tanev a risky contract?

In particular, key decisions await in net. Jacob Markstrom is a pending UFA, while intriguing 24-year-old goalie Thatcher Demko is only covered through 2020-21. Should the Canucks keep one or both around?

It will be crucial to surround Pettersson, Hughes, and Boeser with supporting talent. So far, it seems more likely that Benning will find some help in the draft and via trades than in free agent spending.

Whether things worked out (Miller) or didn’t (Myers), it seems like Benning was impatient when it came to pushing this team along its winning curve. The Canucks will be without either their 2020 or 2021 first-rounder, and also don’t have their second-rounder for 2020.

The Canucks need a lot of help on defense, and are also pretty top-heavy on offense. Addressing those needs will be key to take the right step. In that regard, Benning’s mixed leaps with stumbles.

Long-term strengths for Canucks

Trading away Tyler Madden in the Toffoli deal hurts the Canucks’ prospect depth, but there’s some definite intrigue, particularly in Nils Hoglander and Vasili Podkolzin.

If any of those prospects really blossom — Olli Juolevi, anytime now — then the Canucks could really be onto something.

That’s because they already boast an enviable assortment of young talent. Elias Pettersson keeps setting the bar higher, and he’s only 21. Quinn Hughes is tantalizing at 20. Boeser (23) and Bo Horvat (25) both stand in the meat of their prime years. Miller isn’t ancient by any means, either, at 27.

We’ve seen a Canucks offense that can be explosive at times, and Markstrom’s hovered around elite quite a bit.

If you want to be a downer, you might focus on the Oilers boasting an even better top end with young stars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Beyond that, though, the Canucks also seem likely to be a fixture in a Pacific Division that could feature some rough teams at the bottom.

There’s a lot to like with the Canucks. We’ll see if Benning can push the right buttons to bring them up yet another level.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Biggest Vancouver Canucks surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Vancouver Canucks.

“Even better than expected” surprises for the Canucks

With the Canucks, good players often turned out very good in 2019-20. Delightfully very good players sure looked truly great.

Take, for instance, J.T. Miller leading the Canucks in scoring with 72 points. Many of us believed that Miller was a very, very nice winger with the Rangers and Lightning, but he exceeded just about all expectations.

Quinn Hughes managed similar feats. If you want to start a weird fight on Twitter, argue about Hughes vs. Cale Makar for the Calder Trophy. Simply put, though, Hughes being this good this fast was a pleasant surprise. Yes, we were expecting big things, but Hughes escalated that conversation.

Pettersson deserves his own section

Most of all, Elias Pettersson isn’t just a star. It’s fair to call him a superstar. You might not get that right away from good-but-not-top-level scoring this season (66 points in 68 games), but he’s a huge catalyst for Canucks success.

Take, for instance, the gap between Pettersson and every other Canuck on this xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

But, this isn’t about damning with faint praise, because Pettersson ranks among the best in the NHL if you look at the league overall by that same metric:

Impressive stuff, especially since Pettersson ranks second overall if you look at GAR, instead of its expected counterpart. Translation: he’s fantastic, and worthy of at least some Hart Trophy rumblings.

Pettersson wasn’t the only Canucks player who played a huge role in keeping the team in playoff contention, even with a flawed roster, and Brock Boeser missing time with injuries. Jacob Markstrom‘s .918 save percentage only tells part of the story about his value as the Canucks’ last line of defense.

But from propelling teammates such as Miller and powering a potent power play, Pettersson’s further ascent ranked as the most pleasant surprise for the Canucks.

Canucks disappointments revolve around free agency

Over time, Jim Benning’s looked like a more capable GM than we first realized. Certainly more than funny facial expressions and early memes suggested.

Really, it makes you wonder where the Canucks would be if they hid the checkbook from Benning around July.

Scroll back up to that first chart, and you’ll see plenty of regrettable signings ranked toward the bottom. Signing Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel ranked as perplexing to many of us when the moves happened, and those decisions don’t seem much wiser today. It sure doesn’t look like Tyler Myers was worth the big money, either.

(And making more than a passing mention of Loui Eriksson just feels cruel.)

With Markstrom headed for a raise as a UFA, and that unfair $3M+ per year Roberto Luongo recapture penalty on the books through 2021-22, it’s fair to wonder how much year-to-year room the Canucks will enjoy to make a solid team something truly outstanding.

Pettersson and others are so good that they can create more Canucks surprises, but it would be better if they had more help.

MORE ON THE CANUCKS:
2019-20 season summary
Long-term outlook

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes set up fascinating Calder race

The Colorado Avalanche get Cale Makar back on Friday, providing a worthy excuse to consider his exceptional rookie season. Remarkably, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes presents a worthy argument for the Calder Trophy, as well.

Back in 2018-19, Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin blessed hockey fans with their stupendous seasons, yet Makar and Hughes seem primed to set the bar even higher.

Fittingly, forward Elias Pettersson won the 2018-19 Calder, while Buffalo Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson cannot be ignored for 2019-20. For the sake of simplicity, this post’s deeper discussion will mostly focus on Makar and Hughes, though.

Makar, Hughes both light up scoreboards

First, the part you likely already know: both of these smaller defensemen can score.

With eight goals and 28 points in just 29 games, Makar dazzles the most. That said, Hughes is no slouch, generating 27 points in 37 games. Hughes managed 15 power-play points already, which earns a tie for second-best among all NHL defensemen. (Makar looms not all that far behind with 12 PPP, tying the likes of Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi despite missing time with injuries.)

Nathan MacKinnon already ranks Makar among the best — not just among the best rookies.

“I am surprised,” MacKinnon said, via the Canadian Press in early December. “In the playoffs he was so amazing, but I think he’s the most dynamic defenceman in the league.”

Expect Makar’s production to settle down — even electric defensemen don’t steadily shoot at 13.8 percent — but not to an extent that he won’t remain dangerous for the Avs.

Makar and Hughes: more than just scorers

Look, there’s no denying that Makar and Hughes are being played to their biggest strengths. While both average more than 20 minutes of ice time per game (Hughes’ average: 21:20; Makar: 20:10), they’re both logging less than 10 seconds of penalty kill time each night.

Penalizing them too much for that can be silly, particularly since such decisions sometimes boil down to coaches being too timid.

Either way, their overall play is remarkable.

Consider this side-by-side RAPM chart comparison of their even-strength play, via Evolving Hockey:

Both excel by any standards, not just “rookie defensemen” standards.

Hughes recently achieved the rare goal of surviving a game against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with his dignity intact, drawing praise.

“For sure, he surprises me,” Jay Beagle said of Hughes on Monday, via Sportsnet. “I knew he was a great skater coming in. You could tell that from Day 1. Great with the puck. But there are obviously things that you learn about a guy just from playing more games with him, (and) his play away from the puck and his reads, it takes a long time for some guys to get that. He has it right away, which is good for us.”

Hughes and Makar aren’t making many big mistakes

Neither Hughes nor Makar are giving their coaches many excuses to plant them on the bench. (Hockey coaches almost trip over their feet to chastise a young player for a bad penalty or turnover.)

You could argue that Makar’s most impressive stat so far isn’t his wild 28 points in 29 games. Instead, “200 Hockey Men” might lean on Makar’s zero penalty minutes so far. Hughes rarely makes trips to the box, either, with a mere eight PIM in 37 games.

Olofsson also shines

Olofsson deserves credit for making this more than just a race between Makar and Hughes.

People might have been too quick to dismiss Olofsson because of just how hot his shooting start was, as he remains extremely impressive. His 16 goals easily leads all rookies, as Dominik Kubalik is the only other in double digits with 10. Olofsson also leads all rookies with 34 points in 38 games. Olofsson ties Makar with a rookies-leading three game-winning goals.

Makar and Hughes stand above Olofsson from an all-around standpoint, in my opinion. Olofsson’s Evolving Hockey RAPM charts provide some context:

Regardless, if Hughes, Makar, and Olofsson stay in the ballparks of their current play, they’d make for a formidable trio of Calder Trophy finalists. Hockey fans — not just Canucks, Sabres, and Avs fans — should consider themselves lucky.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ biggest question: What exactly is the plan here?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

Three big questions for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks.

1. Seriously, what is the plan here?

There is really no other way to ask it. I spent five minutes looking at this roster and this is the only question that kept entering my head.

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are dynamite. Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are pretty good. Quinn Hughes has the potential to be a cornerstone player on defense. But then what? What else is happening here that should make Canucks fans feel good about the direction of the team for this season and beyond?

Jim Benning is entering his sixth season running this ship as the team’s general manager and after a playoff appearance in year one is in danger of giving the Canucks the first ever five-year playoff drought in franchise history. Outside of the five players mentioned above, the roster is full of veteran depth players that aren’t difference-makers and are for some reason signed to long-term contracts (bad idea!).

The highest paid players on the team are a 34-year-old Loui Eriksson, a 33-year-old Alex Edler, and Tyler Myers.

For all of this, the Canucks just rewarded Benning with a three-year contract extension earlier this month.

Given the moves over the past two offseasons (long-term contracts for Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Myers; trading a first-round pick for Miller) it almost looks like Benning and the front office is simply in a job-saving mode and trying to luck their way into a playoff spot instead of putting together a coherent long-term plan that can result in sustained success.

The result instead is a team that is not anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs and not anywhere near bad enough to get the best draft lottery odds. That is a brutal cycle to try and get out of.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Brock Boeser’s contract 

This is kind of related to the first question, but the Canucks are one of the many teams in the league dealing with a big-time restricted free agent that remains unsigned.

The problem is the Canucks, as currently situated against the cap, probably do not have enough salary cap space to actually sign him at the moment.

Because they have so much money invested in depth players on long-term deals they are now in a position where they have just a little more than $5 million in salary cap space remaining and will probably have to do one of two things to get him under contract for this season. Either play hardball and attempt to short-change their second best player, or try to make a desperation trade to create a little more salary cap space to sign him.

Boeser averaged more than .42 goals per game so far in his career (35 goals per 82 games) and is almost certainly deserving of a contract worth more than $5 million per season.

3. Will any other young players make an impact?

Other than Pettersson and Boeser there really isn’t a lot to be excited about up front in the short-term (2019 top pick Vasily Podkolzin is probably two years away from making his NHL debut), so that leaves the blue line where the Canucks have top prospect Quinn Hughes and 2016 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) Olli Juolevi. Hughes seems to be a lock for the roster, while Juolevi, coming off an injury-shortened and losing out on a numbers game on the depth chart will probably have to start the season in the American Hockey League.

The other intriguing player is goalie Thatcher Demko. Jacob Markstrom has been solid, but is probably only a stop-gap solution for right now. Demko only appeared in nine NHL games this past season but handled himself well and has a strong track record of performing at both the NCAA and AHL levels. He is still only 23 years old and should be considered a strong prospect with a chance to eventually take over the position.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canucks give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

Update: The Canucks made it official … on Tuesday. OK, then.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.