These are the dog days of summer.
It’s been 101 days since the Canucks last played a game and it’ll be another 78 before they suit up for their season opener on October 3. The way free agency works now, with a one-week period allowing teams to talk to players before July 1, most of the offseason business is already done.
Even Bob McKenzie is on vacation.
All of this is to say that there’s not much going on in the world of hockey right now, except to ponder what next season will look like.
If you look at the Canucks’ payroll, they’re set. They’ve got two goalies, seven defencemen, and 12 forwards locked in on NHL contracts. When they re-sign Jake Virtanen and Troy Stecher – both restricted free agents – that’ll give them a max roster size of 23 players.
But of course, it’s not that simple. The Canucks want competition in training camp, and they’ve got some kids ready to challenge for spots.
Elias Pettersson will probably earn a spot. So could Adam Gaudette. I didn’t count Nikolay Goldobin in the above list because he’s on an entry-level contract, but he now needs waivers to be sent to the AHL.
Jonathan Dahlen has promise, as does Kole Lind, though they’re long shots to make the team.
If there are surprises in training camp, some controversial decisions will need to be made.
If you thought the great Frankie Corrado decision of 2015 got heated – get ready for Goldobin or Brendan Leipsic to be lost for nothing.
If Quinn Hughes turns pro or Olli Juolevi proves he’s ready, Ben Hutton or Derrick Pouliot could be lost on waivers.
Canucks management contends that internal competition is good for the team, and that certainly makes a lot of sense. The Canucks’ roster is filled with a number of players that need to prove themselves, and fast.
That’s the case for Goldobin, who turns 23 in October, as well as Leipsic (24), Brendan Gaunce (24), and Markus Granlund (25). If they can’t outplay some of the plugs taking up space in training camp, then what have you really lost?
I have time for that argument, provided that it’s an open competition.
While it’s time for the team’s young-ish players to prove themselves, many of the veterans they need to outplay shouldn’t be gifted roster spots either.
“We are transitioning significantly right now and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to grow,” Trevor Linden said at the Canucks’ end-of-season press conference in April. “We’re going to be very young next year.”
Can a player grow if there’s no room to spread his wings?
It’s going to be difficult for Linden to keep his promise with Loui Eriksson (33), Jay Beagle (32), Brandon Sutter (29), Sam Gagner (28), Antoine Roussel (28), Tim Schaller (27) taking up six of 13 forward spots. They won’t get younger on their back end if they trot out the same group of defensemen – who are all a year older.
If all of the one-way contract veterans make the team, the Canucks’ average age would go from 27.2 last October, to 26.8 on opening night next season. That’s not exactly going to get people excited.
Pettersson, 19, is virtually guaranteed a spot on the roster, so that will lower the average age. If Hughes (18) or Gaudette (21) make it, that will be fun to see.
And really, that’s the point.
Judging a player based on preseason can be problematic, because it’s just 12 days long.
But if guys like Goldobin or Leipsic underwhelm in training camp, the Canucks appear prepared to lose them for nothing. Will the same be true for Gagner and Schaller, or will they be gifted spots?
For this, the Canucks should keep in mind the Michael Grabner example.
The Florida Panthers lost Grabner on waivers in 2010, when he was the same age as Goldobin is now. He probably had a terrible preseason, but scored 34 goals that year after being plucked off waivers by the Islanders.
It would be one thing to lose Grabner for nothing if the team giving him up was a Stanley Cup contender, loaded with talent. But Florida had missed the playoffs in eight straight years at that time, and would miss it twice more after Grabner left town.
You know who was in the Panthers’ opening night lineup that season? Radek Dvorak, who was 33, and went on to score seven goals. Darcy Hordichuk, 30 years old at the time, was on their roster too. Sure Hordichuk only scored one goal and played 5:04 per game, but they could play him in their bottom-six, right?
Most training camp failures don’t go on to score 30+ goals, but that’s not the point. If you keep the older player, you know what he is. If you’re cutting a young player, you better know what he’s going to become.
If the Canucks want to be fun to watch next season, it’ll need to come from the kids.
They shouldn’t get caught up in common fallacies like “he needs to play in your top-six.” The Canucks need youth. They need speed, energy, and enthusiasm.
Sure they need leadership and experience too, but they can’t lose the forest for the trees.
Players with potential, provided there is at least a close race in camp, need to be kept over uninspiring veterans.
Give your players a chance to spread their wings. Maybe they’ll fall flat on their faces, but at least you’ll find out.
Imagine just for a second that these players all crack the opening night lineup and can hold down these positions. Wouldn’t this be fun?
Relatively speaking, of course.