If Vancouver's first-round series loss to underdog Calgary proved anything, it's that the Canucks have some work to do if they hope to return to the upper echelons of the Western Conference. As is stands now, the franchise is in a bit of limbo, since the Canucks have a nice development pipeline going, but a lot of contracts already spoken for as well. So how fast can they re-tool?
Goaltending is the simplest situation right now; Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack are both under contract next year and that's a pretty fine tandem. Thatcher Demko is likely your future, but he can return to Boston College and what promises to be a competitive program, or there's even a slight chance he turns pro (though unless Vancouver deals Jacob Markstrom, I don't see the rush).
The defense is ripe for change, especially after the unit got strafed by the Flames in the playoffs. As ProHockeyTalk's Jason Brough pointed out, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis will both be on the last year of their contracts next season. If the Canucks are serious about rebuilding, those are two pretty decent chips to deal at some point – assuming GM Jim Benning can convince the pair to waive their no-trade clauses.
There's also Alex Edler to make a decision on, but his contract – which runs until 2019 with a $5 million cap hit – is not exactly trade-friendly. He also has a no-trade clause.
Of course, it's important to realize that Vancouver can't just pop in a couple blue-chip youngsters on the back end and turn things around on a dime. First of all, because they don't have any blue-chippers on the back end just yet.
The best option right now is Harvard's Patrick McNally, who missed time due to a knee injury this season but was a huge catalyst for the Crimson when he was in the lineup. But he is just one man. I love 6-foot-7 Nikita Tryamkin's potential, but I'd also like to see the big Russian play in the American League first before his NHL ceiling can be determined. Frankie Corrado and Adam Clendening can give you depth minutes now and beyond.
Vancouver's best prospects are all up front. Cole Cassels is having an outstanding campaign for Oshawa in the OHL, while Hunter Shinkaruk is off to a great start in the playoffs with AHL Utica. Then there's 2014 first-rounders Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, both of whom are having excellent playoff runs with WHL Calgary and OHL Sault Ste. Marie, respectively. Both had great regular seasons too, while Virtanen was a force for golden Canada at the world juniors.
And the Canucks already have Bo Horvat emerging as a potent NHLer, not to mention surprising find Ronalds Kenins.
Herein lies the problem: The Canucks have some pretty big veteran forwards and many of them are under contract with no-trade or no-movement clauses. Perhaps it will all work out, where the kids need a few more years to develop in either junior or the minors and players such as Chris Higgins and the Sedins are kept on to provide leadership and scoring until the youngsters are ready to take over.
But that pre-supposes that the Canucks basically stay the course for the next two years at least. Is that the best path, or should the team be stripped down more, to pump new blood into the body?
I don't think you can go wrong with having a pair of leaders such as the Sedins around, especially with how they carry themselves as pros. But I tend to be conservative on such matters. Eventually this will be Horvat's team and it's just a matter of the timeline.
Pragmatically speaking, Vancouver would be better served by stripping down and giving the kids a lot of rope. Sure, the Canucks will likely miss the playoffs for a couple years, but the higher draft picks and hope that comes with them will be worth it (and they might miss the playoffs by standing pat anyway).
Otherwise, the Canucks are going to be stuck in the middle of a Pacific Division that may have been more wide open this season than it ever will be again – and that window just got shut by a Calgary team with young players in some very important positions.