The 2017-18 Canucks had a major malfunction on the backend. Not only did the Canucks give up a ton of goals against — only five other teams allowed more goals — but they provided very little at the other end of the ice. Only one team got fewer primary points from their defencemen that season.
That made it surprising when the Canucks entered the 2018-19 season with the exact same defence corps as 2017-18: Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, Erik Gudbranson, Michael Del Zotto, Derrick Pouliot, and Alex Biega. A crew badly in need of an upgrade instead stayed stagnant.
The Canucks backend did see some turnover as the season progressed, though not as often as Canucks fans saw turnovers from the backend. Del Zotto was the first domino to fall, sent to the Anaheim Ducks in January for Luke Schenn and a 7th-round pick. Del Zotto ended up getting traded to the St. Louis Blues, with whom he sort of won the Stanley Cup.
A month later, Erik Gudbranson was gone as well, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Tanner Pearson. Gudbranson got positive reviews in Pittsburgh, particularly in the playoffs, but Pearson was a hit in Vancouver as well, scoring 8 goals in his final 12 games.
Before the season ended, Quinn Hughes made his Canucks debut, providing some hope for the future of the defence corps. A couple college free agents also made their debut: Josh Teves and Brogan Rafferty.
The cuts continued after the season ended, as reports came out that they would not be giving Derrick Pouliot a qualifying offer.
With that, just five of the eight core defencemen from the last two seasons remain. Alex Edler has re-signed and Ben Hutton will likely be re-signed in the coming weeks. Is that enough turnover? Should the Canucks be satisfied with moving Del Zotto, Gudbranson, and Pouliot out and bringing in Hughes, Schenn, and possibly Olli Juolevi?
Not according to Canucks GM Jim Benning.
“We still want to try to keep working at it to try to add, if we can, another player through trades or free agency to shore up our backend,” said Benning after re-signing Edler.
“We need to add to the depth of our blueline,” he added. “He plays a lot of minutes for us every year. He plays in all situations, he ran our power play, he’s our best penalty-killing defenceman. He can play in a matchup role against the other team’s top lines. But our goal is to try to help support him and to add some depth to our blue line so he doesn’t have to play as many hard minutes.”
The Canucks are reportedly interested in Jake Gardiner in free agency, a defenceman capable of playing on a top pairing and on the power play. Gardiner will come at a heavy price — Erik Karlsson and Edler being taken off the market make him the top defenceman available in free agency — but his impact at even-strength would be a boon to a defence corps that struggles to move the puck up ice.
The worry is that if the Canucks don’t get Gardiner that they might overpay the likes of Tyler Myers, a player whose defensive struggles might not make the Canucks much better overall, even if he can put up points.
Another option would be the trade market, where rumours persist the Canucks are interested in Nikita Zaitsev (they shouldn’t be), but other defencemen are also available.
The Buffalo Sabres might trade Rasmus Ristolainen, the Philadelphia Flyers are shopping Shayne Gostisbehere, the Vegas Golden Knights may need to move Colin Miller to free up cap space, and even big names like P.K. Subban and Kris Letang have been bandied about. The Canucks could also target a young reclamation project like Julius Honka.
The short-term contract for Edler gives the Canucks a little more freedom in free agency and the trade market, as they currently don’t have any defencemen signed past 2021. One long-term deal shouldn’t cause too much trouble for their salary cap future in a few years, even as they’ll need to re-sign many of their young core.
“[Two years is] what we wanted,” said Benning. “We wanted that because in a couple years, we have [Elias Pettersson] up for a contract, Quinn Hughes, [Thatcher} Demko, so that worked better for us. At the end of the day, he wanted to be here, so he worked with us to get that done.”
While Benning avoided a third year on Edler’s contract, he also avoided a no-movement clause that would force Edler to be protected in the Seattle expansion draft. While Edler does have a no-movement clause, it comes with a minor modification.
“We put in a provision that in case the expansion draft was to happen earlier, that no-move protection goes away and it’s just his no-trade, so he’s eligible for the expansion draft,” said Benning. “And that’s all it was, just the wording, in case, for whatever reason, the expansion date was before July 1st, that it’s not a no-move for expansion. He’ll be eligible.”
“We have some young defencemen that we’ll need to protect for expansion,” he added, “and so we talked it out with him and he understands it, so that’s why we put the language in.”
It seems likely, at this point, that Edler will wrap up his career with the Canucks on a series of short-term contracts as long as he continues to play at a high level. Benning talked about continuing to work something out with Edler as long as he wants to keep playing. The hope would be that Edler mentors the youth and then is around for when that youth carries the Canucks back to contention.
“I think he had fun playing again last year,” said Benning. “He sees our young players, that youthful enthusiasm that they bring to the rink every year. He wants to be here when we get good again, that was the plan, and he’s confident in the direction of the team and wants to be a part of it.”