The Canucks’ Brandon Sutter acquisition continues a bizarre summer of mixed messaging. What is this franchise’s identity?
If I could sit down with Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning right this second, the conversation might sound like Skyler probing Walter in season 2, episode 1 of Breaking Bad:
“Will you talk to me, please?”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
Where would Benning begin if asked to describe his team’s off-season? Summer 2015 makes summer 2014, which was wacky and contradictory in its own right, look like a confident vision by comparison.
A brief timeline of Benning and team president Trevor Linden’s key moves since Benning took over as Canucks GM in May 2014:
– Trade Jason Garrison, Jeff Costello and a 2015th seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for a 2014 second-round pick. Trade Ryan Kesler and a 2015 third-round pick to Anaheim for a 2014 first-rounder, a 2014 third-rounder, Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa. Draft Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann and Thatcher Demko within the top 36 picks of 2014. OK, the rebuild has begun. This team is getting younger.
– Sign Radim Vrbata for two years at $5 million per. Sign Ryan Miller for three years at $6 million per. What, what? Wasn’t this a rebuild?
– Top 100 points in the standings, largely thanks to a fantastic year by Vrbata. Silence critics who thought Canucks were silly to push for the playoffs with a hybrid young-old roster.
– Re-sign Derek Dorsett and Luca Sbisa to chew up $6.25 million in cap space on multi-year deals, all but maxing out cap space for 2015-16. Wave goodbye to Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson in free agency.
– Trade Eddie Lack, who was Vancouver’s best goalie at the NHL level last season, and roll with Miller and Jacob Markstrom in net next season. Trade Kevin Bieksa. Cue the youth movement?
– Scratch that. Ship out big Zack Kassian, 24, for Brandon Prust, 31.
– Fire assistant GMs Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning and director of player personnel Eric Crawford.
– Tuesday’s big move: trade No. 2 center Nick Bonino, a second-round pick and defenseman Adam Clendening for Brandon Sutter, who is Pittsburgh’s No. 3 center and makes $1.4 million more than Bonino, plus a third-round draft pick.
Does that list of moves confuse you? Don’t feel bad. It would baffle most quantum physicists. The Canucks appear caught in some strange netherworld between rebuilding and contending, spinning around like Ozzie Smith after he entered the photo booth in the softball episode of The Simpsons.
Recall that, after Vancouver fell in six games to the Calgary Flames in round 1 of the playoffs in April, Benning and Canucks president Trevor Linden went on record about their future intentions for the team. Linden insisted, “We don’t plan on taking any steps backwards.”
Curious. The Canucks’ notable subtractions this off-season:
…and the fan base is supposed to believe the franchise refuses to move backward. Not only that, but the Canucks will compete in a Pacific Division that has added Milan Lucic, Connor McDavid, Dougie Hamilton, Carl Hagelin, Paul Martin, Joel Ward, Michael Frolik and Cam Talbot, among others, as opponents.
There’s nothing wrong with a season of struggle in theory. Thinking long-term would make perfect sense. The Canucks have done a nice job adding prospects in recent seasons. Virtanen projects to be a top-line NHL sniper, McCann a shifty two-way pivot, Demko a No. 1 goaltender, Brock Boeser a heart-and-soul power forward. Virtanen has an outside shot to make the Canucks this season. Young Frankie Corrado may finally get an extended look on defense with Clendening out of town, and Markstrom will get something between a backup and a 1A workload, which should really give us an idea of whether he’ll ever be a full-time NHL goalie.
Bo Horvat showed plenty of promise as a rookie center and looks poised to climb the depth chart in coming years, eventually ascending to the No. 1 center spot as Henrik Sedin ages out. And while the Canucks lost a better point-getter in Bonino, they gained a goal scorer in Sutter, who was a No. 3 in Pittsburgh largely because he had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ahead of him. Sutter is strong on faceoffs and can at least keep the No. 2 center spot warm in 2015-16 until Horvat is ready.
Nothing wrong with the state of affairs from that angle, right? The problem lies in this team’s messaging. Linden has promised to push forward. Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alexandre Burrows, Dorsett, Alexander Edler, Sbisa and Miller are all signed two or more seasons for significant money. So the veteran core is thinned out yet has plenty of expensive leftovers. What on earth is this team’s identity?
Maybe the truth is that Benning and Linden eye a rebuild after all. Vrbata, Sutter, Prust, Dan Hamhuis, Bartkowski and Yannick Weber will be unrestricted free agents next summer and would command nice returns at the 2016 trade deadline should the Canucks slide out of contention. There would be nothing wrong with tearing the operation down and maybe even seeing in another year or two if the Sedins want to join a contender after they finish mentoring the young forwards.
It’s just a shame Vancouver’s front office isn’t being more forthcoming. How can the fans look at this off-season’s moves and expect a team as remotely as competitive as last year’s? They have a right to feel cheated.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin