As we watch the NHL’s elite compete in the Conference Finals, that once again do not feature the Vancouver Canucks, I can’t help but wonder: is it time for a rebuild?
I know I’m not alone in wondering this. Basically every year the Canucks get bounced from the playoffs, talk radio in Vancouver is filled with people demanding “blow it up!”
Easier said than done of course.
Not many playoff-calibre teams in the history of the NHL have chosen to dismantle their team and begin a rebuild.
But making trades with an eye on the future seems to make a lot of sense.
An aging core
The Canucks are in an interesting position heading into this summer. They have nine NHL defencemen that would require waivers to be sent to the AHL. They have three goalies that would require the same. And they have 13 forwards penciled into their lineup, not counting Brandon McMillan, Jake Virtanen or their unrestricted free agents. Something’s got to give.
They’re at a critical point with a lot of their players (player salaries courtesy of nhlnumbers.com):
|Sedin, Daniel||$7 Million|
|Sedin, Henrik||$7 Million|
|Vrbata, Radim||$5 Million|
|Burrows, Alexandre||$4.5 Million|
|Dorsett, Derek||$2.65 Million|
|Hansen, Jannik||$2.5 Million|
|Higgins, Chris||$2.5 Million|
|Bonino, Nick||$1.9 Million|
|Kassian, Zack||$1.75 Million|
|Horvat, Bo||$1.744 Million|
|Edler, Alexander||$5 Million|
|Bieksa, Kevin||$4.6 Million|
|Hamhuis, Dan||$4.5 Million|
|Tanev, Christopher||$4.45 Million|
|Sbisa, Luca||$3.6 Million|
|Miller, Ryan||$6 Million|
|Lack, Eddie||$1.15 Million|
Vancouver has nine players scheduled to carry a cap hit of over $4 million next season. That’s not worrisome, but the age of those players is. Ryan Miller, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin will be 35-years-old at the start of next season. Radim Vrbata, Alex Burrows and Kevin Bieksa will be 34. Dan Hamhuis turns 33 in December.
While these players are still effective NHL players and can help the team win today, their best years are behind them and a significant drop in performance is likely not far away.
Rebuilding on the fly
So far, at least publicly, Trevor Linden and Jim Benning have been clear that they want to rebuild on the fly. The team wants to win now while adding young players along the way.
Sounds great, but is that the most effective way to build a championship team?
The short answer is: probably not.
Championship teams typically have great goaltending, a top-10 defenceman and top-10 centre. History has proven that great goaltenders can be found in unusual places, so drafting high in the draft probably isn’t necessary to find a good one. But to find a stud #1 centre or a Norris Trophy defenceman is hard to find. The last team to win a Stanley Cup with a #1 centre that they didn’t draft was the New Jersey Devils with Jason Arnott in 2000. Most of Cup winners find their #1 defenceman in the draft as well.
In short, when teams find a cornerstone player, they don’t like to let go.
So how do the Canucks find the next Drew Doughty or Anze Kopitar? This year they will try to find that player with the #23 pick in the draft. At the moment, the Canucks do not have a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick.
In the last 20 years, the best centre drafted at #23 was Ryan Kesler. The best defenceman was Scott Hannan. The best goalie was Semyon Varlamov. The rest is a collection of journeymen and busts.
The odds are stacked against you when you’re picking late in the draft, and they’re doubly against you when you don’t have a lot of draft picks. Beyond the top-10 picks, the NHL Draft usually becomes a lottery of sorts. And if you want to win the lottery, you can increase your chances with more tickets.
Can “rebuilding on the fly” work? Yes it can.
The 2007 Anaheim Ducks were not built with top-10 draft picks. They got Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with late round picks in the deepest draft of all-time. They acquired Chris Pronger in exchange for a collection of young players that they drafted and of course they signed Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer as free agents.
The 2008 Detroit Red Wings are an example of rebuilding on the fly. With Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Chris Chelios no longer leading the charge, a collection of late round picks filled-in. The Wings core in 2008 included Pavel Datsyuk (6th round), Henrik Zetterberg (7th round), Johan Franzen (3rd round) and Nicklas Kronwall (late 1st round).
The 2011 Boston Bruins were built with a mid-to-late 2nd round picks like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Milan Lucic. Zdeno Chara was one of the best free agent signings in NHL history and journeyman goaltender Tim Thomas became a Vezina Trophy winner.
In the pipeline
The Canucks have some good young forwards in the pipeline that should be ready for prime time in 2-3 years. Bo Horvat is 20-years-old and has already arrived. Sven Baertschi will play with the big club next season. Jake Virtanen turns 19 in August and is 1-2 years away from cracking the lineup. The rest of their prized prospects (Hunter Shinkaruk, Jared McCann, Cole Cassels, etc.) are still likely 2-3 years away from becoming NHL regulars.
On defence, the Canucks’ prospect pool is somewhat suspect. Adam Clendening and Frank Corrado are both 22-years-old and will play in the NHL next season, but how good they will become is unclear.
Last year’s 2nd round pick, Thatcher Demko, is the future in goal but he is far from a sure thing and goaltenders can take close to a decade to become bonafide starters in the NHL.
So the Canucks have players coming. What they don’t have is a player projected to be a star #1 centre or a #1 defenceman.
Surprises can happen, as we saw with the 2011 core group. The Sedins developed into premiere first line players and Ryan Kesler developed into a great two-way second line centre. As late as 2008, not many pundits in Vancouver thought that would ever happen.
So Bo Horvat could become a #1 centre on a championship team and Jake Virtanen might become a 40-goal scorer. Late first round picks Hunter Shinkaruk, Jared McCann and Adam Clendening might become stars too, though you can’t hang your hat on that.
The plan ahead
The Canucks had a surprise season in 2014-15, making the playoffs and giving fans some entertaining hockey. But was it worth it?
Vancouver was never realistically in the Stanley Cup conversation this year and were bounced from the playoffs in six games. With a veteran team, the future isn’t brighter next season, it’s bleaker.
The Stanley Cup blueprint has to be 3+ years away when Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen and company are difference makers. At that point the Sedins, Radim Vrbata, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Miller will be in their late 30s and could all be retired. Dan Hamhuis will be 35 and Chris Higgins 34.
Jim Benning needs to increase his chances of finding franchise building blocks through the draft and moving some veteran players now would be a good way to do it.
That’s easier said than done, given the full no-trade clauses held by the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. Ryan Miller, Radim Vrbata and Chris Higgins have limited no-trade clauses.
Trading the Sedins isn’t likely given their no-trade clauses and their stature within the organization. It would also qualify as “blowing it up”, so let’s move on from that. Trading Radim Vrbata or Dan Hamhuis would significantly hurt their playoff chances, but they would fetch a high return.
Benning hasn’t given an indication that he would move a player like Vrbata, but if the price is right (let’s say a 1st round pick in a deep draft), it makes a lot of sense for the organization given his age.
Moving one of Burrows or Bieksa makes sense given their age, though convincing them to waive their no-trade is likely to be a challenge.
Given the Canucks’ depth in goal and on the wing, trading Ryan Miller and Chris Higgins should be no-brainers.
Jim Benning has some tough decisions to make and when they involve loyal soldiers, they are that much tougher. He doesn’t need to ‘blow it up’ or even trade half of the players listed above. But if he refuses to move any veteran players with an eye on the future, he won’t be rebuilding on the fly, he will be delaying the inevitable.