Vasili Podkolzin

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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.

Canucks risk ‘Russian Factor’ with Podkolzin at No. 10

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Hockey fans learned some answers to some interesting questions during the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft on Friday.

  • Big players seemingly were valued more than small, as big center Kirby Dach surpassed his projections to go third overall to the Blackhawks, while spritely sniper Cole Caulfield slipped to the Canadiens at No. 15.
  • Spencer Knight did, indeed, become an increasingly rare first-round goalie when the Panthers snapped him up at 13.
  • The Red Wings answered the question of biggest reach, at least perception-wise, in shocking the crowd by getting Moritz Seider as early as sixth. Biggest steal is a matter of perception, as well, though Caulfield is in the conversation.
  • And, yes, a boatload of Americans – actually, the boat needs to be reasonably big – went in the first round. A record-breaking boat.

One lingering, annual question for draft is: how will “The Russian Factor” influence where a prospect goes. In the case of Vasili Podkolzin, the intriguing Russian forward went to the Vancouver Canucks at 10th overall.

As you can see from the video above, some Canucks fans were thrilled:

Others maybe had mixed feelings:

While plenty adorably chanted “Da,” as in yes, in welcoming Podkolzin.

Some fans might be concerned about “The Russian Factor.” In a nutshell, the concern with drafting some Russian players is that it can sometimes be difficult to control their development process, particularly when it comes to the threat of KHL contracts. It’s not just about the current CBA severely limiting what a player can make on entry-level deals, but that’s a factor when you consider the much stronger chances that a Russian player may eye the KHL.

That’s absolutely relevant with Podkolzin, who’s actually already on a KHL contract, and is expected to honor it for two more seasons.

Canucks GM Jim Benning didn’t seem too worried about that situation in discussing the pick with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman shortly after it was made. Benning explained that, in the 10th spot, the player the Canucks picked would probably need two years of development, anyway.

Maybe that’s not true – NBC’s Pierre McGuire stated that an immediate leap wasn’t that far fetched if there weren’t restrictions – but overall, the Canucks have a point.

And they also have a tantalizing situation, as Podkolzin is often described as an explosive talent, setting the stage for Vancouver to have a dynamic talent base including Podkolzin, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. That must be exciting for Canucks fans, and fans of exciting hockey as a whole.

Interestingly, though, Podkolzin isn’t just a test case for whether teams should be worried about “The Russian Factor” of struggling to get a prospect to the NHL. This could also be a litmus test regarding scouts seeing big skills and potential, versus those who believe that teams are too quick to overlook the numbers.

In a June 12 column about prospects to avoid, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler voiced some concern about Podkolzin’s spotty production (sub required), at least when it came to him landing in the top 10:

Podkolzin, as I’ve written since my preliminary ranking last fall, is a player who catches your eye because he appears heavily involved in games physically and heavily involved in the offence through the way he attacks with the puck, but doesn’t often enough make plays that result in positive outcomes. There’s a difference between catching your eye and winning hockey games. And instincts can only take you so far. I’m all for players who attempt to make plays but there’s a level of awareness required to become a great player at the next level and I fear that Podkolzin may be limited to an energizing third-line role without a steep development of that skill in the next few seasons.

Now, it’s important to realize that Wheeler still penciled in Podkolzin as being worth picking in the 13-20 range, so even those with some mild misgivings believe in him as a prospect.

Overall, there are enough wrinkles to make the Podkolzin pick very interesting.

Frankly, the Canucks have made a lot of puzzling decisions over the years, from a slew of shaky signings in free agency, to the disconcerting notion of adding Peter Chiarelli to a front office that already seems to march the beat of the wrong drummer. Yet, the one area where they’ve had some big recent successes is the draft. Calling Elias Pettersson at fifth overall a steal might feel weird, but you can bet that the Flyers wish they could have gotten him at second instead of Nolan Patrick. (Sorry Nolan.) Brock Boeser was a heist at 23rd in 2015, and Quinn Hughes sure looks like the right call at seventh overall from last year.

Considering that the Canucks got relatively weak draft lottery luck in landing the 10th pick this year, fans have to be absolutely delighted that Vancouver selected Podkolzin. Especially with some of the peculiar decisions that were made before and after they selected at No. 10.

There are ways this can go wrong, however, making Podkolzin’s development very interesting to watch.

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.