It’s been seven years — and counting — since Rogers Arena last hosted a Vancouver Canucks playoff home date.
That sordid streak will persist for at least another season now, following the club’s official elimination from Stanley Cup playoff contention on Tuesday night.
Despite this, the Canucks don’t enter the offseason devoid of optimism. Quite the opposite.
For 55 games following the club’s fateful decision to make wholesale — and long overdue — leadership changes in early December, including installing Bruce Boudreau as head coach, the Canucks have performed like a playoff team. Three players scored 30 goals or more, Thatcher Demko cemented himself as a franchise-level netminder and Quinn Hughes began to rewrite Vancouver’s record books.
The best players on the next great Canucks team may already be plying their trade for the organization. The power play should be lethal for the next half decade. Unequivocally, that’s a good start.
It’s insufficient though.
As well as Vancouver performed in the latter stages of the season, the club’s true talent doesn’t measure up in the near term to Pacific Division heavyweights like the Calgary Flames and even the Vegas Golden Knights — despite the hash that Vegas made of their season.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl still stalk the division on an Edmonton Oilers team that’s a goaltender and an above average top-four defender away from being an absolute buzzsaw. And perhaps most painfully, the Los Angeles Kings — who most recently won a Stanley Cup in 2014 — have already surpassed Vancouver’s rebuilding effort, boasting both a more complete roster today and a far greater arsenal of prospects and cap flexibility with which to utilize in the years to come.
Performing like a playoff team for 55 games is good. Having blue-chip young talent is great. Getting over the hump, however, out of the mushy middle, and building a truly elite team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup? Well, the Canucks have a good deal of distance to travel to get there.
Luckily, as any Canucks fan can tell you, “There’s always next year.” So as we fitfully enter yet another extended Canucks offseason, let’s spell out the to-do list of big-ticket items that Vancouver’s new-look management team will have to navigate in the days, weeks and months to come.
Extend Bruce Boudreau
The first order of business for the Canucks front office is to extend a head coach who has resonated among Canucks fans unlike just about any other bench boss in recent memory.
Boudreau’s success in Vancouver has been astounding, particularly given the quality of the roster. He’s won games in bunches, overseen the improvement the club’s historically inept penalty kill and brought an improbable dash of genuine optimism to the organization.
One of the winningest regular season coaches in the history of the sport, Boudreau signed a two-year deal when he took the job in early December. The second year of that contract is a mutual option year, according to multiple reports. And you can be sure the club’s unlikely midseason turnaround under Boudreau’s watch has strengthened his leverage significantly.
That could add a layer of complication to contract talks, as could the lengthy list of coaching vacancies around the NHL, but for a Canucks organization that has lacked any convincing sense of stability for much of the past five years and has a fair bit of work to do rebuilding trust with casual fans, returning Boudreau next season — on a multi-year extension — is a must.
Make the decision to extend J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat (or not)
J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat are both 30 goal scorers. They were both primarily used as centremen this season and contributed on both sides of special teams. They both wear letters on their jerseys.
And in perhaps the most important bit of symmetry between them, they’re both signed to contracts that expire following the 2022-23 campaign – which makes them eligible to sign extensions beginning this offseason, on July 13, 2022.
The Canucks don’t necessarily need to extend either player this summer. There’s plenty of time remaining before the market opens following the 2022-23 league year, and big deals for pending unrestricted free agents in their late 20s are expensive, often a bit risky and rather complicated to negotiate as a result.
This might not be an urgent matter, but what the club does need to have a sense of this offseason is what it will take to get one or both of these deals done. And whether or not the Canucks ultimately want to do those deals, considering the prices involved.
It comes down to a basic cost-benefit analysis. Market value for both Horvat and Miller is likely to start at $7 million+, with realistic comparables for both players extending well into the $8- to $9-million range.
That’s a fair bit of cap space to tie up in two forwards, even if those concerns are allayed significantly by the fact both players slot into a premium position down the middle.
On the other hand, both Horvat and Miller would be highly coveted trade chips on the market, given they’re both excellent players on team-friendly contracts that provide surplus value through 2023.
If the numbers in extension talks aren’t to the club’s liking, then the Canucks have to be mindful that both players’ trade value is going to be highest this offseason and act accordingly.
Vancouver would be best served by making a decision one way or the other with both players, and must be prepared to act — on either an extension, or a trade.
Navigate Brock Boeser’s weighty qualifying offer
Pending restricted free agent Brock Boeser’s qualifying offer is likely to dominate a lot of the discussion and speculation about Vancouver’s offseason over the next two months.
As well it should. Boeser is an exceptional talent, and the situation is extremely complex.
Boeser’s current bridge deal, which carries a cap hit just below $6 million, expires following the current league year. The deal is backloaded, however, and carries a sky-high platform year salary of $7.5 million, which requires that Boeser — whose contract is governed by the old CBA rules — be extended a qualifying offer worth one year, $7.5 million by 2 p.m. PT on July 11, 2022, in order for the Canucks to retain Boeser’s rights as a restricted free agent.
Now, $7.5 million is a significant chunk of both salary and cap space. There were only 36 forwards in the NHL this past season with a cap hit above $7.5 million, and none of those players contributed fewer than Boeser’s 44 points, save for a small handful of players that missed significant time with injury (Jack Eichel, Nicklas Backstrom, Mark Stone, Evgeni Malkin).
There’s a real risk that if the Canucks tender Boeser a one-year qualifying offer worth $7.5 million, which is well above market value given his platform-year production, that Boeser and his camp would just accept the deal. And that’s far from optimal from Vancouver’s perspective, given the club’s already limited cap flexibility.
The alternatives aren’t great either, however.
The club could file for club-elected arbitration on July 2, and in so doing would be able to seek to reduce Boeser’s compensation by a maximum amount of 15 percent (to $6.375 million). That might sound good, but this route has a ton of drawbacks, among them that an attempt to reduce Boeser’s salary might not work, that Boeser’s camp would be permitted to select a one- or two-year term for the award, that the club would never again be permitted to use the club-elected arbitration device against Boeser again, that Boeser would still be entitled to sign an offer sheet before July 17 and that this approach would surely damage the relationship between team and player irrevocably.
Or perhaps the club could leave Boeser untendered, making Boeser one of the top unrestricted free agents available on the market. A 25-year-old scoring winger who has averaged over 30 goals and 60 points on an 82-game basis in his career is an asset unlike any we’ve ever seen hit the open market as a UFA in the cap era.
There’s also the possibility of a trade, but considering the significant headache that Boeser’s qualifying offer poses to the Canucks — or any team acquiring him — you’re likely looking at cents on the dollar in any return.
All of which leaves the Canucks with only one good option: the two sides find common ground on a contract extension before the various deadlines begin to impact talks on July 2.
Jim Rutherford, Patrik Allvin and company have inherited a very hot potato where Boeser is concerned. The club can’t afford to lose a player of his calibre for nothing, the arbitration process is extremely risky, the qualifying offer is prohibitive and until the situation is resolved his trade value is limited.
This is probably the single biggest test of new Canucks management’s ingenuity entering a crucial 2022 offseason.
Actually make a first-round pick for the first time since 2019
The Canucks haven’t selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft since Vancouver hosted the draft in late June of 2019.
It shows. The club’s prospect pipeline has atrophied, boasting less quality and depth than just about any system in the league.
Vancouver is entirely bereft of high-end talent in their system and the bill will come due for this gap smack dab in the middle of Demko, Pettersson and Hughes’ primes.
So while the Canucks can expect to benefit from the surplus value of having a pair of top-nine calibre forwards in Vasili Podkolzin and Nils Höglander on entry-level deals for another year (in Höglander’s case) or two (in Podkolzin’s), the party ends thereafter. And make no mistake, the club is going to need more efficient deals of this sort in the years to come. Particularly given that Boeser, Miller, Horvat and Pettersson will all be looking at raises — perhaps substantial ones — over the next two seasons, just as Podkolzin and Höglander become eligible for second contracts.
So, there can be no trading the club’s 2022 first-round draft pick, which is overwhelmingly likely to fall in the mid-teens barring the type of fortunate bounce at the draft lottery on May 10 that has always eluded this club. Although since changes in the NHL draft lottery rules will, for the first time in over a decade, restrict teams from jumping up the draft order any more than 10 slots, it would fit with the Canucks’ history of bad lottery luck that they might win their first ever draft lottery in a year when the reward wouldn’t be a top-three draft pick anyway.
In any event, the Canucks need to make their first-round pick this year. The club cannot justify trading the pick, unless the club trades back in the draft order to gain additional draft-pick weaponry in the process.
The club isn’t close enough to contending to keep accumulating credit card debt to be paid off in the future. The time has become to start making deposits.
Mine top European leagues for depth talent
Allvin and Rutherford have cited the NCAA and European free agent routes as key fishing holes in seeking to add depth.
To this point, however, all we’ve seen Canucks management add is a CHL free agent in WHL leading scorer Arshdeep Bains.
The club was close to landing several high-profile NCAA free agents this spring, but ultimately finished as finalists in the pursuit of some of their top targets. With the end of the NCAA signing season, the Canucks must turn their attention to Europe and land a couple of pieces to help flesh out their organizational depth, speed and bottom-six scoring punch.
The big name out there is Andrei Kuzmenko, the second-leading scorer in the KHL this season. The Canucks have heavy interest in Kuzmenko and he’s believed to have some significant interest in them, although there’s many in the industry that are skeptical about how straightforward it might be for Canadian-based teams to procure the relevant work visas for players based in Russia in light of the invasion of Ukraine.
For context, it took the club the better part of four months to get Podkolzin’s immigration paperwork done last summer. And that was almost a full year before the war.
There are other intriguing names, however, that could be available out of Europe — particularly in the event that non-Russian players leave the KHL in droves.
Canadian Olympian Corban Knight, for example, who hails from Oliver, B.C., has become a point per game scorer in the KHL in his late 20s and early 30s, while winning nearly 60 percent of face-offs the past few seasons. He could have some Derek Ryan potential, as a guy that’s perhaps figured out some of the defensive aspects of the game in his late 20s and early 30s and might be an effective, bottom-six depth player.
Forwards Sergei Tolchinsky, Oscar Lindberg, Lucas Wallmark and Peter Cehlarik (whose rights are still owned by the Boston Bruins) could be similarly worthwhile gambles, while defenders Tim Heed and Nikita Nesterov could add some speed and puck-moving ability on the back end, although both profile more as depth defenders than everyday players.
Carve out additional salary cap flexibility
Even with the upper limit of the 2022-23 NHL salary cap projected to rise to $82.5 million, Vancouver is once again going to be severely hamstrung by a lack of cap space.
This lack of cap space isn’t severe — depending on precisely where outstanding potential performance bonuses for Podkolzin and Jaroslav Halak land, the club should have somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15.5 million to $16.5 million with six players to sign — but it is limiting, particularly considering the overall uncertainty around Boeser’s situation and eventual cap hit. Until that’s resolved one way or the other, the club will have to keep $7.5 million budgeted for him, just in case.
Something has got to give here, clearly, and management is hyper aware, given public comments on the matter over the past few months.
Rutherford and Allvin made a good start here by trading Travis Hamonic ahead of the NHL trade deadline, but more cap-oriented moves will be needed if the club hopes to build out realistic avenues to improve in the short- and long-term.
You know the names by now, the very good players and the far less efficient depth players too, but one counterintuitive move that would help significantly would be to move off of Micheal Ferland’s LTI contract this offseason. For cap crunch contenders, adding Ferland’s contract (while sending some money out) could be an attractive proposition, particularly given that his deal was front loaded and his salary drops to $2.5 million for the 2022-23 league year.
For the Canucks, meanwhile, getting out of LTI would permit them to toll daily space, which opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for the club, particularly given that their American League affiliate is now based locally in the Fraser Valley. It would also permit them to, potentially, duck the sort of performance bonus overage penalties that have left them carrying dead money on the books as a result of bonuses hit by the likes of Pettersson, Hughes, Halak and others in recent years.
Chart a new, coherent direction for the club
It’s early in Rutherford and Allvin’s tenure, but nearly five months into this new era of Canucks management it’s all but impossible to really ferret out what their precise, big picture vision for this club is just yet.
We know from their moves and some public comments to this point that depth matters, speed matters, accountability and practice habits matter, and that clearing cap space is a priority.
We have cause to suspect — from the Tyler Motte trade, in particular — that they’re cognizant that the club isn’t a contender and that the priority has to be the future. That matches with their willingness to roll the dice modestly and acquire players in their early-to-mid 20s who have pedigree and potential but have stagnated elsewhere.
Those are just bread crumbs though. This market is still waiting to fully understand the organization’s new approach.
For example, while operating with the future rather clearly in mind, both Rutherford and Allvin have publicly denied that a “rebuild” of any magnitude is in order given the club’s circumstances.
So where exactly is this team headed? What’s the framing through which management’s approach can be best understood? Will this organization ever do the work that’s required, and it may well involve taking a step back on paper, to build a durable, contending team in a hard-cap league?
There’s a lot of optimism around this team locally following their strong finish to the season. Building off it wisely might even begin to build a sense of trust in Canucks leadership among Vancouver consumers — a sense that’s long since been lost.
Actions will speak louder than words.
A plan, however, that’s executed with some discipline and a commitment to both non-cap spending and to discernibly aiming high — not just making the playoffs as a goal, but to work toward winning 16 playoff games and raising the banner Canucks fans have longed to see in the rafters for over 50 years — would go a long way toward fumigating the stench of mediocrity and dysfunction that has hung over this franchise for too much of the past decade.
(Top photo of Bruce Boudreau: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)