In many ways, it’s been a refreshing season so far from the Vancouver Canucks.
After two seasons toiling in the basement of the NHL standings, they’re in the playoff conversation through 31 games. With Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat (currently injured), and some other young players leading the way, they’ve been fun to watch too.
There’s been years of missteps, but management deserves credit for many of the moves they’ve made over the last number of months.
We’re still a long way away from the March 1 trade deadline, but if the team remains competitive, they could have a difficult decision on their hands.
If the Canucks are in a playoff spot, or close to one, will they trade for future assets at the deadline? Would the team risk falling out of playoff contention by trading a veteran player on an expiring contract?
The case for trading Vanek and Gudbranson
The most tradable players the Canucks have are Thomas Vanek and Erik Gudbranson, with each player set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
Vanek, who’s on a one-year, $2 million contract has been a nice offseason addition to the Canucks. He’s tied for third in team scoring, right behind Boeser and Horvat. And if the Canucks want to make the playoffs, he’d be a huge loss.
But weighing that against a potential draft pick he could garner – he fetched a third-rounder at last year’s deadline – this should be a no-brainer. He’s making just $2 million, which means he’s affordable too.
No Canucks blueliner brings the physicality that Gudbranson does, but management will need to figure out what that’s worth.
By all accounts, the 25-year-old ticks a number of boxes in the intangibles category. The problem is he doesn’t seem to do much when it comes to tangibles.
Gudbranson has one goal and five assists in 51 games with the Canucks over the last two seasons. So he doesn’t bring much offence.
Problem is, he doesn’t do much defensively either, considering his $3.5 million price tag. And that number could go up.
He hasn’t played like a top-four defenceman since his arrival to the west coast, and consistently underwhelms when it comes to advanced stats. He has the worst Corsi-For percentage of all Canucks defencemen this season.
Furthermore, the analytics match the eye test – at least where I sit.
But if you know anything about the NHL, you know that despite his underlying numbers, he’s bound to catch the eye of another general manager. Twenty-five-year-old right-shot defencemen that are 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds always do.
Trading Gudbranson could get awkward for Benning, because it would be an admission of a mistake. The Canucks gave up a recent first round pick in Jared McCann (who has eight points in 19 games this year, by the way), as well as a high second-rounder to get him just 19 months ago.
Benning would need to cast a voodoo spell on another GM to get close to that kind of return for Gudbranson this time around. Maybe he can do that with Florida’s Dale Tallon.
No matter where they sit in the standings, Jim Benning and Trevor Linden need to stay the course. The rebuild course.
While we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s important to realize that the team still has a long way to go. Though many of their prospects are enjoying nice seasons overseas and in junior hockey, it’ll likely take years before they’re making a real impact at the NHL level – if they don’t become busts. This isn’t a team that’s close to contending for a Cup, which ought to be the lone goal for the franchise.
While Vanek and Gudbranson might not fetch home run returns, every little bit helps.
Hopefully Benning and Linden have learned their lesson.
Learning from history
At the 2015 deadline, with the Canucks fighting for a playoff spot, management chose to stand pat. Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson, two players who had no future with the team as pending unrestricted free agents, were held on to rather than traded for draft picks.
They made the playoffs, but missed a chance to restock the cupboard by trading Matthias or Richardson – or other players on non-expiring deals.
In 2016, the Canucks were well back of a playoff spot but were unable to offload Dan Hamhuis or Radim Vrbata. Each player left in the offseason as UFAs.
Last season was a different story, with Benning dealing Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen before the deadline.
Those moves already look like huge wins for the team, as Burrows has just six points in 28 games with the Sens this season, averaging just 12:35 of ice time. Hansen is stuck as just two points in 20 games with San Jose, and has been healthy scratched by his new team.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Dahlen (currently ripping it up in Sweden) looks like he has a bright future, as does Nikolay Goldobin – who has shown promise on his recent Canucks call up.
Those two trades have made Vancouver’s future look infinitely brighter.
The additions of Michael Del Zotto and Derrick Pouliot would certainly seem to make Gudbranson more expendable. Same with Vanek, if the team is serious about giving young players like Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin and increased role.
Signing value free agents, offloading veterans for futures, and promoting prospects from within seems like a pretty good way to build a team to me.