As early as last season, the Canucks’ biggest weakness was viewed by many as their depth on defence.
They began training camp with Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and Dan Hamhuis as their only established top-four defencemen. Matt Bartkowski, who is now out of the league, played in their top-four on opening night in 2015. Also in the lineup was the much maligned Luca Sbisa and unproven rookie Ben Hutton.
Fast forward 15 months and their back-end is now their deepest position.
Nikita Tryamkin made the jump to North America late last season and has looked promising this season. They signed college free agent Troy Stecher in April, and he has exceeded everyone’s expectation. They also acquired an established defenceman in Erik Gudbranson in May.
Hamhuis left in the offseason, but not before they drafted Olli Juolevi with the fifth overall selection in the June draft.
With Hutton now a proven commodity and Sbisa much improved, head coach Willie Desjardins will have a very difficult decision to make if these seven d-men could be healthy at the same time.
This begs the question: what happens to the Canucks’ defence this offseason?
The team could lose Sbisa in the expansion draft, but they will keep him if a forward is selected by the Vegas Golden Knights instead. Philip Larsen is an unrestricted free agent, while Gudbranson and Tryamkin are restricted and will be re-signed. Otherwise, every d-man is under contract for next season.
Juolevi, who is ineligible to play in the AHL next season due to his age, could further complicate things as well if the club sees him as ready to make the jump to the NHL.
GM Jim Benning has gone on the record before with his interest in acquiring a top-six winger. It’s becoming obvious that if a trade is going to happen, it will come in exchange for one of their defencemen.
“That’s the one area (defence) where we have some depth now,” Benning told TSN Radio last week.
“If we decide we’re going to do something, teams when they call us, they look at our depth on defence and they ask about defencemen. If we are going to try to make a move to improve up front, it would be maybe with one of our defencemen.”
So who is the best candidate to be traded?
Edler is the oldest, but he also plays the most minutes of any defenceman. He also has a no-trade clause in his contract, something that Benning has indicated that he’s reluctant to move.
Tanev would probably fetch the highest return in a trade, but he’s still just 27 and in the prime of his career. If you want to win, keeping Tanev is a good idea.
Troy Stecher is a local boy, getting big minutes in his rookie season, and is only 22. He’s not going anywhere.
Benning had this to say when speaking about Tryamkin on TSN 1040:
“He’s got all the physical tools. As he gets more confidence, it’s going to be up to him. With his size and reach he’s good defensively, he could turn out to be a #1 pairing matchup defenceman as he gets more experience.”
That doesn’t sound like someone the general manager is willing to part with.
If we assume that trading Juolevi is a non-starter, that leaves us with three defencemen that the Canucks could afford to trade: Gudbranson, Hutton (stop yelling at me), and Sbisa.
Of the three, Hutton is the player fans would hate to see go. Quite frankly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to move him either, unless the return is too good to refuse. He’s just 23, has good size, makes good decisions with the puck, and is mobile.
Sbisa’s stock surely has risen considerably in the last year, despite his $3.6 million cap hit. He’s just 26 though, which should wet the appetite of a few GMs.
But the most expendable player from where I sit, is Gudbranson.
Benning gave up a lot to get him eight months ago, so moving Gudbranson again so soon is probably not in the cards. But the development of Tryamkin and Sbisa, both physical d-men, really makes Gudbranson more expendable.
Gudbranson was supposed to be a tough-as-nails leader for the Canucks, as well as a top-four defenceman. While his character has been said to be second to none, and he’s certainly tough, the jury is out on his ability to play in a prominent role.
Given that he doesn’t generate offence, his defensive game needs to be strong. While he’s certainly not the worst defenceman on the team, the fact that his status as a top-four is in doubt at age 25 is a cause for concern.
He’s played just 30 games with Vancouver, but he’s in his sixth NHL season. There aren’t many years left where we can use the word “potential” to describe him.
If Gudbranson could fetch a nice return – and it would certainly be higher than Sbisa – I think the Canucks could feel quite comfortable entering 2017-18 with a defensive group looks like this:
Even if Sbisa is the player nabbed in the expansion draft, the Canucks would be replacing a bottom pairing defender. And if Juolevi is ready to play, they would need to make room anyway.
While Benning’s hands aren’t completely handcuffed in this situation, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the move to make is defenceman for forward. He’ll need to read the market well because big decisions lie ahead.