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Heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, the idea that the Canucks might be buyers at the trade deadline would have been laughable. It didn’t matter if you were an old-school hockey man, a gambling expert, or an analytical nerd: there was a general consensus that the Canucks were going to finish last place in the Pacific Division and near the bottom of the NHL standings.
It was completely understandable: the Canucks had just lost the two best players in franchise history to retirement and the only potential replacement was a skinny 19-year-old kid. In free agency, they spent money and term to upgrade the bottom of the roster with three bottom-six forwards, and didn’t change anything on defence or in net, despite allowing the sixth most goals against last season.
There was every reason that the Canucks would be worse than last season. Teams en route to the NHL basement and a potential top pick in the draft are very clearly sellers at the trade deadline. The expectation was that the Canucks would look to move some of their veterans for draft picks and/or prospects — preferably picks, as the 2019 NHL Entry Draft is in Vancouver, so the more picks they can make in front of their home fans, the better.
Instead of plummeting to the basement, however, the Canucks find themselves in an unusual situation: in a playoff race.
That skinny 19-year-old kid shocked everyone by immediately establishing himself as one of the best young stars in the NHL. Elias Pettersson, now 20, leads the Canucks in goals and points, providing the offensive boost they needed with the Sedins gone.
Meanwhile, Jacob Markstrom has gone from a borderline backup to a legitimate number one goaltender this season. Where he once had a tendency to allow early, backbreaking goals, Markstrom has started stealing games for the Canucks and consistently gives his team a chance to win.
Those two developments, more than any other, have fueled the Canucks rise into playoff contention. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, the Canucks were sitting in the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, albeit having played more games than the teams chasing them.
Teams in the playoff picture don’t generally sell at the trade deadline and doing so is tantamount to an admission to your team that management doesn’t believe in them.
The Canucks are unlikely to be buyers either. There are several reasons why: they lack depth at both forward and defence, every advanced statistic suggests they’re currently over-achieving and not ready for a true Stanley Cup run, and Alex Edler’s injury on Monday could be devastating to their defence corps.
There’s one big reason, however, that overshadows them all: even if they wanted to be buyers, the Canucks couldn’t afford to be.
The currency at the trade deadline is simple: prospects and picks. If you want to acquire a roster player to help you make a playoff run, you’re going to have to sacrifice some of your future for present gain.
While the Canucks have some great prospects in their system — Quinn Hughes, Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen, Tyler Madden, and Michael DiPietro, to name a few — what they lack is any sort of surplus of prospects at any one position. It’s best to trade from a position of strength, and they don’t have one in their prospect pool.
As for picks, Jim Benning has explicitly stated that he won’t trade any picks from the upcoming draft. That could be because the draft will be held in Vancouver or because he recognizes the Canucks still need more youth in the system to be competitive in future years; either way, the Canucks won’t be parting with picks.
In other words, the Canucks are coming to the deadline with an empty wallet. They literally can’t afford to be buyers. Neither will they be sellers. There is a third option, however: barter. Benning has expressed an interest in making “hockey trades” that exchange roster players, hoping to find a better fit or small upgrade around the fringes of the roster. Just don’t expect a blockbuster deal.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
I’m dropping the gloves with the hockey gods, specifically whichever deity oversees injuries. The Canucks were finally healthy, then Sven Baertschi was sent home from their road trip with a vague medical issue, Alex Edler suffered a concussion, and Thatcher Demko tweaked his knee, necessitating an emergency call-up of Michael DiPietro.
A tap of the stick to Jacob Markstrom and Elias Pettersson, who prevented fans in Philadelphia from taking pictures of Alex Edler’s gruesome-looking injury. They made their way around the glass, politely asking fans to put their phones away out of respect.
11,634,000 - Auston Matthews signed a five-year contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs with an average annual value of 11.634 million dollars. In a couple years, you can expect that to be the starting point in negotiations with Elias Pettersson.
0 - Zero teams made the playoffs last season with a negative goal differential. The Canucks currently have a goal differential of minus-12, so that’s an area of concern.