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There were some raised eyebrows heading into the 2018-19 season when the Canucks came back with the exact same defence corps that had struggled so much in the previous season. It was the exact same group, right down to their seventh and eighth defencemen.
That won’t be the case next season. Thanks to mid-season trades, Michael Del Zotto and Erik Gudbranson are already gone. Derrick Pouliot’s contract is expiring and he will be a restricted free agent (RFA), but it’s unclear whether the Canucks will bring him back given his struggles with consistency.
Ben Hutton will also be an RFA, but after his resurgence this season, he’ll surely be re-signed. The Canucks are also intent on re-signing unrestricted free agent — and longest-tenured Canuck — Alex Edler. Assuming no issues with their contract negotiations, they’ll join Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, and Alex Biega as the returning defence for next season.
That leaves some gaps to fill. Quinn Hughes, the Canucks’ first-round pick from 2018, is a safe bet to fill one of the open spots on the left side. If the Canucks continue to run with eight defencemen, as they have done for the past several season, that leaves two other spots up in the air.
The Canucks have some options already in the organization. Their other top prospect on defence, Olli Juolevi, might not be ready to make the jump directly to the NHL after losing the bulk of this season to a knee injury, but they could turn to Ashton Sautner, Guillaume Brisebois, or Josh Teves to fill out their roster on the left side.
On the right side, the Canucks could simply bring back Luke Schenn, who came back to the Canucks as part of the Del Zotto trade. He will be a UFA at the end of the year, but has provided some solid depth minutes for the Canucks.
Those options, however, don’t represent much of an upgrade or overhaul. The addition of Hughes should improve the defence corps, but the Canucks need to do more, particularly when you consider that the injury woes of Edler and Tanev aren’t likely to subside in the coming season. That could mean looking to the trade market, but it more likely means the Canucks will add a defenceman in free agency.
Either way, it’s troubling, as the Canucks’ biggest issue under the tenure of GM Jim Benning has been the evaluation of defencemen in the professional ranks.
Of the defencemen returning for next season, four of the five were already with the Canucks organization when Benning arrived, though he’ll have re-signed all of them to new contracts once Edler signs. The only defenceman he’s added to the core group is Troy Stecher, who was an undrafted free agent out of the NCAA.
The NHL defencemen Benning has acquired are a cavalcade of mediocrity: Luca Sbisa, Matt Bartkowski, Erik Gudbranson, Michael Del Zotto, Patrick Wiercioch, and Derrick Pouliot. While a couple of those acquisitions can be justified as worth taking a chance, none of them really worked out. Perhaps Schenn can be an exception, but there’s a reason the Canucks are his fifth franchise in the last three years and he was in the AHL when he was acquired. At best, he’s a third-pairing defenceman.
The free agents Benning has added out of the AHL and Europe aren't much better: Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, Philip Larsen, and Philip Holm. It’s hard to find a win for Benning in the Canucks’ scouting of pro defencemen under his tenure.
Will Benning find a win in that area this off-season? It’s possible, but he’ll have to avoid several pitfalls. Free agency is an opportunity to add some incredible talent, but it is frequently the source of NHL GMs’ biggest mistakes. Benning should be well aware of this, given how Loui Eriksson’s six-year, $36 million contract has proven to be an anchor around the Canucks’ neck.
Defencemen like Tyler Myers, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi, if signed to the wrong contract, could be similar anchors for the Canucks. Benning and the Canucks can't afford to make a mistake in free agency this year.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
A tap of the stick to Quinn Hughes, who should be making his Canucks debut on Thursday and was also named a top-ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which honours the best player in college hockey.
I’m dropping the gloves with the Utica Comets, who have lost 12 of their last 14 games and slid right out of playoff position. With the Canucks already out of the playoffs, is it too much to ask for success elsewhere in the organization?
8,520,373 - As Roberto Luongo considers his future, his decision on when to retire could have a heavy impact on the Canucks’ salary cap. If he retires this off-season, the Canucks will be hit with a $2.8 million cap hit for three years. Worst case scenario, if he retires in 2021, the Canucks would be hit with an $8.5 million cap hit for 2021-22 under the cap recapture rule the NHL added after he signed his contract.
10 - Heading into Thursday's game against the Los Angeles Kings, the Canucks had been shutout 10 times this season. They could threaten the franchise record of being shutout 12 times in one season back in 1971-72.