The Canucks have a promising core of young players. Elias Pettersson looks like a legitimate superstar, dominating the rookie scoring race while breaking franchise records in the process. Brock Boeser is a sniper, tallying 58 goals in the first 135 games of his career. Bo Horvat is a heart-and-soul two-way sniper, putting up 28 goals and 58 points with a rotating cast of mediocre wingers.
Then there’s Quinn Hughes, who’s set to make his Canucks debut Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings. Hughes has the potential to be an elite, point-producing defenceman, the likes of which the Canucks haven’t seen since Paul Reinhart in the late-80’s.
That’s a solid core for the Canucks to build around for the future. When you look around the rest of the NHL, however, it might not be enough.
As proof of that, just look at the top scorers in the NHL. Two of the top-four scorers in the NHL this season play for the Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid has a whopping 112 points in 72 games, second only to Nikita Kucherov’s monstrous 121 points this season. Not far behind is Leon Draisaitl, with 46 goals and 99 points.
Also in the top-four scorers? Patrick Kane. But the Blackhawks are on the opposite end of things — just beginning a rebuild — so are less useful as a comparison for the Canucks.
If you cast your gaze a little further down the list, you’ll find Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, who is one of the most valuable players in the NHL according to Evolving Hockey’s WAR metric. That’s a combination of his ability to rack up points — 34 goals and 88 points in 77 games — and his nearly unparalleled ability to draw penalties without taking many of his own. The Panthers also boast Jonathan Huberdeau, just four points behind Barkov with 84 points in 77 games.
Those are some of the best young forwards in the NHL, playing for two of the most sad sack organizations in the NHL.
The Oilers also boast a great young two-way centre in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has 28 goals and 64 points in 76 games this season. Oscar Klefbom is a great young top-pairing defenceman, and they have a couple other good young defenceman in Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse.
The Panthers have an elite number one defenceman in Aaron Ekblad, 35 goals from Mike Hoffman, and solid secondary scoring in Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck, and Frank Vatrano. Defenceman Keith Yandle has 58 points this season. That doesn’t sounds like a team that should be missing the playoffs.
Both the Oilers and Panthers have excellent young cores. McDavid is arguably the best player on the planet, but the Oilers also have Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Klefbom. Barkov is one of the most impactful players in the NHL, but the Panthers also have Huberdeau, Ekblad, and Trocheck, not to mention Hoffman and Dadonov.
So, how does that compare to what the Canucks will be sending out onto the ice next season and beyond?
Pettersson could be comparable to McDavid or Barkov — he’s already not far behind by Evolving Hockey’s WAR metric — Horvat is a little ways behind the likes of Draisaitl or Huberdeau, while Boeser could be compared to Nugent-Hopkins or Trocheck. Hughes could maybe be the Canucks’ Ekblad or Klefbom.
The comparisons aren’t going to be exact, but you can start to see where this might be headed: the Canucks could have an elite young core, but still be a mediocre team that continually misses the playoffs. How can they avoid this fate? Let’s take a look at a few ways.
Don’t treat scoring forwards flippantly
Both the Oilers and Panthers made this mistake.
Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers made the infamous one-for-one trade of Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Perhaps “flippant” is the wrong word for that particular trade, but it still shows an undervaluing of Hall’s elite offensive skill set and an overvaluing of a defensive defenceman like Larsson.
Beyond that, Chiarelli played the inverse of the Bigger, Better game with Jordan Eberle. First, he traded Eberle to the Islanders for Ryan Strome: Eberle scored 25 goals the next season for the Islanders. Then he traded Strome to the Rangers for Ryan Spooner: Strome has 15 goals in 57 games in New York since the trade. Finally, he waived Spooner, getting no takers, then traded him to the Canucks for Sam Gagner.
Shockingly, the Oilers have struggled to find wingers for McDavid to play with. I can’t imagine why.
Meanwhile, Dale Tallon and the Panthers handed the Vegas Golden Knights two-thirds of their first line: Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. They did this in order to protect a young defenceman, Alex Petrovic, who they ended up trading this season to the Edmonton Oilers for Chris Wideman and a third-round pick.
The Canucks don’t really have anyone equivalent to the above forwards that they might trade away. If the Canucks had a 30-goal scorer like Marchessault, fans would be doing backflips and nominating him for the Ring of Honour and would, in all likelihood, lose their minds if they had left that caliber of player available in the expansion draft.
On the other hand, the Canucks have been a bit cavalier with skilled young forwards with potential. You can look at the Jared McCann (plus a 2nd-round pick) for Erik Gudbranson trade or moving Jonathan Dahlen for Linus Karlsson, a player that wasn’t even on their draft list last year.
But really, the Canucks can only hope they have an opportunity to avoid this mistake in the future, as it will mean they have some offensive talent to complement their core.
Depth, depth, depth
This is more of an issue for the Oilers than the Panthers. The Oilers have just three players with more than 40 points and just five with more than 30 points. They simply don’t get enough production outside of their top players.
Troublingly, that’s also the case for the Canucks: three players with more than 40 points and five with 30 or more. Can they do better next season? Perhaps.
Hughes has the potential to put up 30+ points or more from the blue line. Josh Leivo and/or Tanner Pearson could manage 30+ points, as could Sven Baertschi if he can remain healthy. Is that enough secondary scoring?
It wasn’t enough for the Panthers, who have fewer issues with depth. The Panthers have five players with 40+ points and eight with 30+ points. Their issues lie elsewhere.
Don’t neglect goaltending
This is the biggest issue for the Panthers, who have had the overall worst save percentage in the NHL this season. It’s a combination of Roberto Luongo being in decline (and frequently injured) in his late 30’s, with an .897 save percentage this season, and James Reimer being thoroughly mediocre in relief, with a .900 save percentage.
The Panthers have a few goaltending prospects, but no guarantees. Sam Montembeault had an .896 save percentage in the AHL last season and .901 this season. Chris Driedger has been good in the AHL this season, but is 24 and untested at the NHL level. Ryan Bednard is a project, but playing well in the NCAA.
None of those three are ready to be NHL starters and the Panthers clearly weren’t adequately prepared for Luongo and Reimer to falter.
Meanwhile, the Oilers figure they’ve finally found their number one goaltender in Mikko Koskinen, signing him to a three-year extension worth $4.5 million after he had played just 27 games for them. He had a .911 save percentage at the time and has a .904 save percentage since signing the contract.
The goalie they previously thought was going to be their number one, Cam Talbot, had an .893 save percentage this season, and they traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz.
As for the Canucks, they’re hoping goaltending won’t be a problem. Jacob Markstrom has been a revelation this season and a worthy nominee for the Masterton Trophy. He has one more year left on his contract. Waiting in the wings is Thatcher Demko, who should split starts with Markstrom next season. After that, the Canucks have the promising Michael DiPietro in the system, along with wild card Matthew Thiessen.
That sounds good, but there are no guarantees with goaltenders and they may need to change course in the future. It may not be an issue for the Canucks, but they still need to stay aware.
Every contract counts
What makes the Oilers struggles all the more stark is how cap-strapped they are. They’re right up against the salary cap and there isn’t much relief coming next season.
Part of that is the hefty contracts for their top players. Connor McDavid has a $12.5 million cap hit, while Draisaitl is at $8.5 million. Those are the players you need to pay, however. The bigger issue is the players getting paid far more than they’re worth.
Milan Lucic’s $6 million cap hit through 2023 is a big problem. Kris Russell getting $4 million through 2021 doesn’t help either. You have to wonder if they’ll regret Koskinen’s $4.5 million cap hit sometime in the next three years.
The Panthers have fewer issues, thanks to signing Barkov and Huberdeau to sweetheart deals worth $5.9 million each through 2022 and 2023, respectively. That gives them a lot of wiggle room. And yet, they’re closer to the salary cap than you might expect.
Paying Jamie McGinn $3.33 million isn’t great, but at least he’s a UFA at season’s end. He had back surgery before the season that kept him out until February, but even before that he wasn’t worth his contract, nor was he worth Jason Demers, who the Panthers traded to the Arizona Coyotes to acquire him.
Then there’s Michael Matheson, who I’m skeptical will be worth his $4.875 million cap hit through 2026.
The bigger issue might be the combined $7.933 million cap hit of Luongo and Reimer in net. That could make it a little tougher for the Panthers to supplement their current depth in the near future.
For the moment, the Canucks are safe as houses. They have plenty of cap space both currently and in the near future. That cap space will start to disappear pretty quickly as their young stars reach the end of their current contracts.
Horvat is signed to a great contract through 2023, but Boeser needs a new contract for next year. Pettersson and Hughes won’t need new contracts until 2021, but will command hefty raises at that time. The Canucks need to keep cap space open for their new contracts, as well as keeping space open to trade for or sign players to complement their young stars.
The contracts for Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle will still be on the books when Pettersson and Hughes need their new deals. What other contracts will still be on the books? For how much and for how long will Alex Edler be signed? If the Canucks dip into free agency this off-season, will they make mistakes similar to Eriksson’s signing?
If the Canucks want to avoid Edmonton’s fate, they need to be careful about the money they spend on the bottom of the roster so they have an easier time building the top of their roster.
Those are just a few of the issues plaguing the Oilers and Panthers that the Canucks need to avoid, but there are certainly others. For example, the draft.
The Oilers have had limited success at the draft outside the first round, though Erik Gustafsson has been great this season, with 53 points in 73 games as a defenceman. Unfortunately for the Oilers, he’s tallied those points with the Chicago Blackhawks, as the Oilers didn’t sign Gustafsson after drafting him in the fourth round in 2012.
The Canucks have a couple post-first-round players in Adam Gaudette and Thatcher Demko, but a couple of the players they’ve found outside the first round Nikita Tryamkin and Gustav Forsling, are no longer playing for them. If Tryamkin comes back, that will help, as will prospects like Will Lockwood, Jett Woo, Tyler Madden, Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, and Jack Rathbone panning out.
There’s certainly hope that the Canucks can avoid the fate of the Panthers and Oilers; there’s still some pitfalls they need to avoid.