The Vancouver Canucks have hit the All-Star break in a better spot in the standings than anyone predicted.
That’s a low bar of course, because most pundits predicted doom and gloom for a Canucks squad missing Henrik and Daniel Sedin this season.
But they haven’t been a disaster. Instead, they’re in the thick of a playoff race.
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That may not say as much about them as you think either though, because this is an unusual season in the Western Conference.
Seven teams in the playoff bubble are currently separated by just three points, with the Canucks narrowly on the outside looking in.
And while that’s unfamiliar territory for the Canucks at this time of year, it’s important to note that the playoff bar is a low bar this season.
The Colorado Avalanche, who currently hold down the last playoff spot, are on pace for 85 points this season. That would be the lowest point total to make the playoffs in the Western Conference since the shootout was adopted in 2005. The average point total for the worst playoff team in the West since then is 93.8.
While the team is certainly playing a more exciting brand of hockey than past years, the Canucks after 51 games actually have the same point total (52) as the Willie Desjardins coached teams in 2016-17 and 2015-16.
Canucks at the break- 51 games, 52 pts…
2018- 51 games, 48 pts…
2017- 51 games, 52 pts…
2016- 51 games, 52 pts…
It certainly "looks" different than the past few years, but the results aren't
— Blake Price (@BlakePriceTSN) January 24, 2019
That’s why some fans are rightly worried that Canucks management will get a false sense of where they’re at. This team has taken steps in the right direction, steps that they need to keep taking.
They need to remain patient with their young players and make moves for the long term future in mind.
Not mortgaging the future
Speaking with Scott Rintoul and Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 650 on Wednesday, Canucks GM Jim Benning was saying all the right things.
While he was hopeful that the team could make the playoffs, he didn’t sound like a man desperate for his team to make it in this year.
“I’m not going to mortgage the future just to try to make a run and make the playoffs,” said Benning
“We set a plan in place at the start of the year. It’s going to be about the long term growth of our players and of our group. Our young players have developed over the course of the year.
“We traded Nilsson to make room for Thatcher Demko and we want to get a good look at him and give him the experience in the second part of the year. We traded Michael Del Zotto, we got some young defencemen here. Some of them are hurt, but once they get back and playing, we want to take a look at them.”
On Edler and the team’s trade deadline strategy
Unprompted, Benning shared some thoughts on how his plan would affect Alex Edler. Mentioning that the 32-year-old was the only pending unrestricted free agent they had, presumably because UFAs are trade chips at the deadline, he said they will have discussions soon.
“I want to try to sit down with [Edler] and his agent and see where they’re at. Try to figure out going forward the strategy there.”
Edler has a no-trade clause, so ultimately he holds the cards before the February 25 trade deadline. But it was interesting that Benning used the term “strategy.” That sounds like a word someone would use to describe asking a player to waive a no-trade clause, not a word to describe offering a contract extension.
“I want to sit down and talk to the agent and Alex first, and then from there we’ll decide in what direction we’re going to go.”
As for other deals that could be made, Benning hinted that a swap of young players could be in the cards.
“If there’s a hockey deal to do for one of our younger players, I’m not going to say our prospects, but a player we have on our team for a different look, a player on another team that we think is going to help us, we’ll look at something like that.”
He may be alluding to Nikolay Goldobin. The 23-year-old doesn’t qualify as a “prospect” anymore, and the head coach doesn’t seem fond of the way he plays. If there’s a player of a similar age available for Goldobin, particularly one with a more well-rounded game, based on those comments, Benning may be considering pulling the trigger.
Draft picks are going nowhere
There’s a significant number of fans worried about the Canucks making the playoffs this season, given it would mean a worse draft pick. The worst team to make the playoffs will be 16th overall.
But Benning feels comfortable picking in that spot.
“We’re going to get a good player in the first round again. There’s enough good players in the first round where if we’re lucky enough and we do make the playoffs, we’re still going to get a good player at 16, 17, 18.
“Our plan stays the same.”
One of the criticisms Benning has continually faced in his time in Vancouver has been his unwillingness to acquire additional draft picks.
With the draft at Rogers Arena in June, don’t expect picks to leave town with the same regularity as the past.
“We want to keep our draft picks because we have the draft in Vancouver this year.”
That’s the right strategy, for the wrong reason. It shouldn’t matter if the draft is taking place in Vancouver or on the moon, the team needs to build for the future.
Benning sounds motivated to acquire more picks. The Canucks currently have two additional selections at their disposal, but they’re both in the sixth round.
Splashes at the draft are made in the first round and it wouldn’t be surprising if netting another first-rounder is a goal.
You know who might be able to fetch a first-rounder? Edler.