The Canucks have an issue on the right side of their defence. When you look at their long-term future on the right side, there are some major concerns.
Chris Tanev is on the top pairing, but his game has declined and his body keeps breaking. Alex Biega might be able to play consistently on the third pairing, but he’s about to turn 31 and likely to experience a decline of his own. In the prospect system, Jalen Chatfield and Mitch Elliot are long shots to make the NHL.
That leaves Troy Stecher and newly-signed prospect Jett Woo as the only two right-side defencemen that could reasonably be expected to have a long-term future with the Canucks. That means there's a big gap on the right side, specifically on the top pairing. That’s one of the biggest holes The Athletic’s Harman Dayal identified in his piece on how to build the Canucks into a contender: they simply don’t have anyone in the system capable of playing that role in the future.
That’s why, when Elliotte Friedman suggested the Canucks will be looking to acquire a “youngish defenceman” in his most recent 31 Thoughts column, my mind immediately jumped to that gap on the right side. Friedman mentioned Stecher as an example of the kind of player he was thinking of and also brought up Brandon Montour of the Buffalo Sabres; both players are 24 years old and right-hand shots.
Finding a right-side defenceman on the younger side — “early to mid-20s” according to Friedman — would certainly fit the Canucks’ needs for the present and the future, but those kinds of defencemen aren’t particularly easy to acquire.
If you’re looking for a young right-side defenceman in free agency, you’re out of luck. The players that fit that particular bill are universally Not Very Good™, and includes first-round draft busts like Dylan McIlrath and Ryan Murphy, along with Alex Petrovic, or as he’s also known, The Defenceman the Panthers Chose to Protect Instead of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, Before Eventually Trading Him to the Edmonton Oilers for Chris Wideman and a Third-Round Pick.
“Petrovic” is easier to fit on the back of his jersey.
Among those defencemen, maybe the Canucks could take a gamble on Murphy as a reclamation project, but it seems safe to say he’s a career AHLer at this point.
The Canucks aren’t going to find anyone in unrestricted free agency, but restricted free agency would be an option, assuming any NHL GM actually used offer sheets. Right-side defencemen hitting restricted free agency include Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Neal Pionk, and Anthony Deangelo. Let’s be realistic, however: those defencemen will be re-signing with their current teams. As much as offer sheets are fun to imagine, they may as well not exist in the real world.
Maybe the Canucks could find someone in free agency from outside the NHL, like they did with Josh Teves from the NCAA. It’s hard to find a true difference maker that way, but 23-year-old Oliwer Kaski, who just put up 51 points in 59 games in the Finnish Liiga, seems like a good bet. Other options could be 26-year-old Jani Hakanpää, who is 6’5” and praised for his physical defensive game, or 24-year-old Nick Ebert, who was once considered a top prospect in the NHL and has been finding his game again in the SHL.
Apart from Kaski, the European free agents aren’t particularly inspiring, and even Kaski is far from a guarantee to even be an NHLer.
That leaves trades.
Here’s the issue: any difference-making defenceman, particularly a “youngish” one that shoots right, is going to come at a hefty cost. Just look at Montour himself: he was traded in February from the Anaheim Ducks to the Buffalo Sabres.
The return from the Sabres was a first-round pick — the higher of two picks the Sabres had previously acquired — and 21-year-old prospect defenceman Brendan Guhle, who was ranked fifth on the Sabres’ prospect rankings by NHL.com heading into the season.
If that’s the going rate for a top-four, right-side defenceman, the Canucks are in trouble. Their only first-round pick could be in the top ten if not top three if they win at the draft lottery. They can’t really afford to move that pick. In addition, it would likely cost them a good prospect: Olli Juolevi, perhaps, or Adam Gaudette.
For the right player, maybe that would make sense, but it’s more likely that the Canucks would aim a little lower, perhaps moving a second-round pick for a player that hasn’t quite reached their potential yet. That would fit GM Jim Benning’s M.O. a little bit better.
So, let’s look at the defencemen that fit the bill: I’ve interpreted “early to mid-20’s” as 22-26 and pulled up all the right-handed defencemen in the NHL.
Not going to happen:
Aaron Ekblad, Matt Dumba, Dougie Hamilton, Jacob Trouba, Colton Parayko, Seth Jones
Never say never, I suppose. After all, both Dougie Hamilton and Seth Jones from this list have been traded in the past — Hamilton twice! — but their new teams seem extremely unlikely to move them now. There were rumours earlier in the season that the Hurricanes were shopping Hamilton, but he’s turned it on the back half of the season and is leading the Hurricanes back to the playoffs.
These are all legitimate top-pairing right-handed defencemen — all except Hamilton are averaging over 22 minutes per game — and it would likely cost a fortune in assets to even get the other team’s attention in a trade proposal. The type of assets it would take, the Canucks can’t really afford to spend.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Cody Ceci
Here are two defencemen that the Canucks might be able to acquire. They just probably shouldn’t.
Know who has a worse on-ice goal differential at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons than Erik Gudbranson? Cody Ceci. Guess who’s right behind Gudbranson? Rasmus Ristolainen. The two also have the worst shot attempt differential of any NHL defenceman over the last four seasons. They’re both very, very bad at pushing puck possession into the offensive zone, though it certainly hasn’t helped that their respective teams have also been terrible.
Ceci has been a lightning rod for criticism in Ottawa, some of it deserved, and could be a likely candidate to be traded. The Canucks should not even inquire about him.
Meanwhile, the addition of Montour in Buffalo has arguably made Ristolainen expendable. Perhaps in a second-pairing role on a different team, Ristolainen could be useful, but it would be a big risks and he’ll likely demand a significant return on the trade market thanks to several 40+ point seasons under his belt. He won’t be worth it.
Maybe could happen:
Damon Severson, Brett Pesce, Ryan Pulock, Neal Pionk, Anthony Deangelo, Brandon Carlo, Connor Clifton, Dylan Demelo, Mackenzie Weegar, Connor Murphy, Rasmus Andersson
I’m not saying any of these players are actually available from their respective teams, but they are a little more realistic than the names in the “not going to happen” category. It would be painful to acquire any one of these players — good roster players or prospects would need to be packaged with picks — but perhaps not as painful as other possible deals.
Realistically, among these names, I’d look to acquire Mackenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers. While not an exciting defenceman, he has a significant impact at the defensive end, and could potentially thrive with more minutes. At the right price, he’d be worth a look.
Connor Clifton from the Boston Bruins would be intriguing as well; if not him, his progression in Boston might make Brandon Carlo available.
Again, it’s entirely possible that none of these players would be made available. It’s tough to find young, right-handed defencemen, and teams like to hang onto ones with legitimate top-four or top-pairing upside when they find them.
Julius Honka, Madison Bowey, Jordan Schmaltz
Here’s where things get interesting. These three were once highly-touted prospects, but the shine has worn off in recent years.
Julius Honka was the Dallas Stars’ 14th-overall pick in 2014, but he’s struggled to find a consistent spot in the Stars’ lineup. He’s been injured at times, but has also been a frequent healthy scratch this season. The Stars acquired Ben Lovejoy at the trade deadline, and that was basically the end of Honka’s chance to play.
Here’s the thing about Honka: he’s still good. While he’s prone to mistakes defensively at times, his overall impact in the defensive zone has been above average and his underlying metrics offensively have been very good. In the right situation, the 23-year-old seems like a good bet to still be a top-four defenceman at the NHL level.
The Stars’ risk aversion has led to them barely playing Honka and, since he’s not exempt from waivers, he hasn’t played in the AHL. That means he’s lost a lot of trade value and that might make him relatively inexpensive to acquire.
Madison Bowey wasn’t a first-round pick, but he had a great Junior career and last year played 51 games with the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, though he didn’t play in the playoffs. He wasn’t great in Washington this season and was traded at the deadline to the Detroit Red Wings, who likely hoped a change of scenery would help.
It hasn’t. Still, there’s some tantalizing talent in the 23-year-old Bowey. He’s not the player I would target, but I could see the Canucks taking a look at him.
Then there’s Jordan Schmaltz, a former first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues. He’s been an AHL All Star, but hasn’t been able to consistently crack the Blues lineup in the NHL. At 25, he’s not really a prospect anymore, and is about as buy-low as he’s going to get.
Would he be worth acquiring? Maybe. Up until this year he’s been a point producer in the AHL, but his inability to stick in the NHL with numerous chances is a red flag. Also, he went on waivers in January and nobody claimed him. That said, he can move the puck, he’s a very good skater, and he’s got some offensive upside. The downsides are why he’s a reclamation project and not a blue-chip prospect.
Mentions, neither honourable nor dishonourable:
Christian Jaros, Sean Walker, Matthew Benning, Ilya Libushkin, Connor Carrick, Joshua Brown, Jake Dotchin
Here are some other right-handed defencemen in the right age range that I just don’t see as trade targets. Either they’re not any better than what the Canucks currently have, haven’t played enough to properly judge, or are directly related to Jim Benning, which just seems really awkward.
Maybe I’m wrong to dismiss these players. We’ll see.