Sven Baertschi

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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.

Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook

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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?

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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

Canucks stay busy, ink Baertschi to one-year, one-way deal (Update: $900K)

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Just hours after trading Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening to Pittsburgh for Brandon Sutter, the Canucks signed forward Sven Baertschi to a one-year, one-way deal.

UPDATE: Per Sportsnet, it’s worth $900,000 — up from the $894,166 cap hit he carried from his entry-level deal.

Baertschi, 22, was originally Calgary’s first-round pick (13th overall) at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, only to be flipped to Vancouver at last season’s trade deadline in a much-needed change of scenery. The skillfull Swiss winger struggled to find his niche with the Flames but showed well within the Canucks organization following the trade — he scored 15 points in 15 games for AHL Utica during the regular season, and another 15 in 21 games en route to the Calder Cup Final.

Baertschi also played in three regular-season games for the Canucks — scoring twice — and got called up for a pair of games in Vancouver’s opening-round playoff loss to Calgary.

The one-way deal suggests Baertschi should start next year in Vancouver.

Canucks assign Virtanen, McCann to AHL Utica

The Vancouver Canucks have reassigned forwards Jake Virtanen (Calgary Hitmen) and Jared McCann (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) to the AHL’s Utica Comets.

Both Virtanen (sixth overall) and McCann (24th) were first-round draft picks last summer, and both recently saw their junior clubs eliminated from the playoffs.

The Comets kick off the Western Conference semifinals Thursday at home versus Oklahoma City.

It’s not clear if Virtanen, 18, or McCann, 18, will actually suit up for the Comets, who already feature a number of young Vancouver prospects, including Sven Baertschi, Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce, Frank Corrado, and Adam Clendening.