After a dismal season, one in which they finished near the bottom of the NHL standings, the Vancouver Canucks did something curious with their defence this season.
They brought everyone back.
While the Canucks have been a nice surprise so far, jumping out to an 8-6-0 record to top the Pacific Division standings, there are clear signs this run isn’t sustainable.
That’s not meant to burst anyone’s bubble – enjoy the wins while they last – but the rebuild isn’t anywhere near complete.
Nowhere is that more true than on the blue line, where Vancouver still has glaring holes.
Their top two defencemen – Alex Edler and Chris Tanev – have been buried in shot-attempt differential so far this season. Their Corsi-for percentages at five-on-five rank Edler dead-last (33.33% Corsi-For) and Tanev fourth-last (35.04%) among all defencemen that have played 100+ minutes this season.
That’s not to suggest that they’re bad defencemen – indeed they’re still the Canucks’ best blueliners – but they’re not top pairing guys on most teams.
Ben Hutton has shown signs of improvement this season, which has included taking over as the team’s No. 1 defenceman in the absence of Edler and Tanev.
The Canucks are giving up slightly more shots against this year (32.4) compared to last season (32.2). They’re getting better goaltending, so that’s helped, but there’s reason for concern.
In terms of shot-attempt differential, they rank fourth-last, traditionally an indication of future decline.
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The Canucks appear content to make due with the group they’ve got for now, and that’s not a bad strategy for a rebuilding team.
But in the summer (it not before at the trade deadline), they’ll need to make decisions on guys like Alex Edler, Michael Del Zotto, Ben Hutton, and Derrick Pouliot. All four of those players are free agents at the end of the year, and in the case of Edler and Del Zotto, they’re UFAs.
None are a shoo-in to return, not even Hutton, who will need to continue his strong play to earn a qualifying offer on his $2.8 million salary.
First-round pick Quinn Hughes is expected to jump into the Canucks’ lineup as soon as his college season ends at the University of Michigan, and that will bolster the back end. If all goes according to plan, defenceman Olli Juolevi will also join the defence corps, after spending this season in Utica.
Both Hughes and Juolevi play the left side, which means at least two of the aforementioned free agent blueliners (they’re all left-side d-men as well) are unlikely to return.
On the right side, the Canucks have work to do.
There aren’t a lot of big name pending UFA defencemen available under the age of 30. Just two players – Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner – currently average over 20 minutes of ice time are set to become UFAs.
An intriguing player from a Canucks perspective is 28-year-old Winnipeg Jets defenceman Tyler Myers, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
A lot of mistakes are made by teams in unrestricted free agency – we don’t need to look further than Loui Eriksson and his $36 million contract for evidence of that. Rebuilding teams like the Canucks need to be patient and wise with their money, though at some point they need to start thinking about winning again.
With Hughes and Juolevi on their way, the Canucks don’t have much else in the way of sure-fire NHL defencemen in the pipeline. They still need to draft and develop, but adding a young-enough defenceman like Myers might not be a bad idea.
Myers is a polarizing player, but consider this: he has a Corsi-for percentage of 51.39 in his last four seasons in Winnipeg. That ranks him behind only Dustin Byfuglien among Jets defencemen with more than 25 games played in that span.
Ok great, but can they get him?
The 6-foot-8, 229-pound blueliner is a good bet to hit the open market given Winnipeg’s impending cap crunch.
The Jets need to re-sign pending restricted free agents Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Jacob Trouba – and none of them will be cheap. There’s not likely to be much money left over for Myers, who is a luxury Winnipeg will no longer be able to afford.
The right-shot rearguard is essentially under-utilized as a third-pairing defenceman for Winnipeg, with Byfuglien and Trouba ahead of him on the depth chart on the right side. On most any other team, Myers is a top-four defenceman who can play bigger minutes than the 18:12 he’s currently averaging.
He’s also a player that has been linked to the Canucks before.
For those asking what Pierre said, he suggested that the Canucks space may be used on another defenceman, maybe Tyler Myers.
— Blake Price (@BlakePriceTSN) June 27, 2014
Growing up in Calgary, Myers has numerous ties to British Columbia. He played four seasons of junior hockey in Kelowna, which is where his wife is from, and his father-in-law is a skills coach with the Kelowna Rockets.
So a move to Vancouver would represent a move close to home.
Myers is in the last year of a seven-year contract worth an annual average value of $5.5 million that he signed while with the Sabres in 2011.
A lot has changed between now and then, but the Canucks would be smart to jump at signing him to a five-year deal in the $5-6 million AAV range, which would keep him in Vancouver until age 33.
Where he’d fit
While Myers isn’t the No. 1 defenceman the Sabres thought he would become after he broke into the NHL at 19 and won the Calder Trophy, he’s still a very useful player.
His size is obvious, but he can also skate, move the puck, and contribute offensively. He scored 36 points last season in Winnipeg, contributing both at even strength and on the power play.
With the Canucks, he’d instantly become their top minute-muncher, taking over from Edler – who may or may not return. With Edler getting up in years (he turns 33 in April), it makes sense to shift the responsibility – whether he’s re-signed or not.
Given he plays the right side, Myers could be a fit with one of Hughes or Juolevi too.
To make room for Myers on the right side, the Canucks could move on from Erik Gudbranson, who still holds value among the many old school general managers around the league.
Assuming he continues his solid play, Hutton is a player the Canucks should retain. Here’s a look at what their top six could look like next season:
That group might struggle in the near term, as ultimately the future of the defence relies a lot on Hughes and Juolevi. But there’s potential for that group to blossom over the next few years.
Looking ahead one more season, the Canucks could get Nikita Tryamkin back, given his KHL contract expires in 2020. Tryamkin, who is capable of playing both the left and the right side, will be entering his prime years at age 26.
With the Canucks’ young forwards taking steps this season, if they can fix their defence, suddenly the playoffs don’t seem so far away.