Core Values: Henrik, Daniel Sedin at center of aging Canucks core
The Vancouver Canucks have a lot of familiar faces, but those faces are starting to get a little aged leaving the future in question.
In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
The Vancouver Canucks are in an odd place heading into the 2014-15 season. Coming out of a season that was equal parts weird and bad, Vancouver isn’t quite rebuilding, but they’re also not looking like the Western Conference power they were over the five seasons before last.
A series of bad decisions led the team to this point. Trading away Cory Schneider when it was Roberto Luongo who wanted out of town set off the chain reaction. John Tortorella’s tenure as head coach blew up in the organization’s face. Before that, Luongo asked out of town again and got his wish this time.
Now Tortorella is gone, general manager Mike Gillis is gone and there’s a marginally clean state.
However, instead of rebuilding, new general manager Jim Benning went to work on shuffling the deck. Ryan Kesler wanted to move on and got his wish. The team acquired Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa in the trade. Top-scoring defenseman Jason Garrison was also shipped out. The team went out and signed Ryan Miller to an expensive three-year deal. Benning also signed Radim Vrbata to possibly play with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
So the Canucks are different than they were last year, but are they better? That’s hard to say. They should be able to manage a better record under new head coach Willie Desjardins, but will they be much of a threat in the loaded Western Conference?
Though there were changes, there is some stability in the core. And with that stability, there is also age. The Canucks need to get younger and soon. Their first-round draft picks in recent years could eventually matriculate to the NHL roster and be impact players, but it’s probably time to find a way to improve a core that is over the hill by NHL standards.
Core Values: Vancouver Canucks
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Henrik Sedin (33, 4 years), LW Daniel Sedin (33, 4 years), D Dan Hamhuis (31, 2 years), D Kevin Bieksa (33, 2 years), D Alexander Edler (28, 5 years), G Ryan Miller (34, 3 years)
Total cap hit for 2014-15: $34,100,000 (49.4% of salary cap consumed by six players)
Average Age: 32
Total point production in 2013-14: 43 goals, 122 assists, 165 points (32.1% of team’s total point production)
About the Core
Henrik Sedin: Was 2013-14 an anomaly or a sign of an impending decline for one of the league’s most productive players of the last decade? Henrik Sedin had 50 points in 70 games, a respectable total, but his lowest points-per-game average since 2003-04. Sedin also missed 12 games, the most he’s ever missed in one season. Though it is likely Sedin is on the down side of his career, which has been brilliant to date, it is reasonable to expect an uptick in production for the Canucks captain in 2014-15. The addition of Radim Vrbata, a natural scorer to play on the opposite wing of Daniel Sedin, Henrik now has two quality scorers with him. Though it is unquestionably an aging top line, it should be productive. Sedin is arguably the greatest Canuck of all time. He is the franchises leading scorer with 842 career points including a franchise-best 649 assists. The Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner in 2009-10 is likely to finish his career with the team with four years remaining on his contract. Erasing the bad taste from last season seems like a good way to start the first year of his new extension. How he was acquired: 1999 NHL Entry Draft, first round, third overall
Daniel Sedin: A lot of the same questions that were asked of Henrik Sedin last year could be asked of brother Daniel. The gifted scorer saw his goals-per-game average drop to its lowest point since 2003-04 also. He finished second on the team with 47 points and had just 16 goals. Perhaps it was more because of the system or the general negativity surrounding the Canucks last year, but without the Sedin’s carrying a heavier offensive load, the team just struggled. Having won the Art Ross as the league’s leading scorer in 2011, there would appear to be plenty left in the tank for Daniel Sedin, who has 307 goals in his career, second most in franchise history. He may not be a 30-goal scorer going forward as he reaches the latter stages of his career, but he also could benefit from having the highly-skilled Vrbata on the top line to draw some attention away. With 805 points in what has been a brilliant career, there’s four years to erase the memory of last season as he has an identical contract to Henrik’s. How he was acquired: 1999 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall
Dan Hamhuis: Since his arrival in Vancouver four years ago, Hamhuis has been a serviceable top-pairing defenseman for the club. Last season, under John Tortorella, Hamhuis saw his offensive game drop in the name of defense. He blocked a career-high 130 shots last season. Expect that number to drop this year though as Hamhuis should be asked to assist more in the possession game as a solid puck mover with decent mobility. At age 31, Hamhuis had a rather remarkable year having been named to Canada’s Olympic team and helping the club win the gold medal. It was forgettable in Vancouver, though. He did average more ice time than ever before in his career, but his point production dropped to its lowest point since 2006-07 in terms of points-per-game. Hamhuis is at his most effective when he has a little more freedom, or so it would seem. With a new coaching regime in place, he should be able to get back to that style that could help the team’s possession improve. If the team does start rethinking it’s rebuilding plans, Hamhuis might be a good trade chip with just two years left on his very affordable contract with a $4.5 million annual average. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2010
Alexander Edler: Of all the players on the Canucks, no one has more years remaining on his contract than Edler. Coming off of a 63-game campaign in which he posted 22 points, Edler suffered the same fate as ever single Canuck as his average production dropped Two years ago, he had a career season with 11 goals and 38 assists and at 28, he’s the core’s youngest player right now. Second on the team to Hamhuis in average ice time last year, Edler still has the skills to be a top defenseman in the NHL despite his ice time dropping a little bit each of the last four seasons. Strong in possession thanks to solid mobility and distribution skills, Edler could be due for a bounce-back season. Staying healthy has been an issue, though, as Edler has just one 82-game season under his belt and one more at 80. A career-Canuck, he has 228 points in 494 games. Due to his age and his contract, it’s unlikely he’d be moved even though the interest is sure to be high. If he maintains career averages over the course of the contract, he’ll remain a valuable player now and in the future for the Canucks as the organization trudges through this somewhat of a middle ground between restructuring and trying to stay competitive. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, third round, 91st overall
Kevin Bieksa: Considered one of the team’s leaders, Bieksa also saw a decline in his production last season (this is a trend, as you’ll see). With 24 points in 76 games, Bieksa had the second-lowest points-per-game average of his career. A strong two-way defender who has found it increasingly difficult to stay healthy, Bieksa is running out of time in his career as he hits 33. He's still a crafty veteran with an abrasive style has often irked opponents. Bieksa still can bring a lot of value to the team. He’s more skilled than he’s given credit for and has often posted positive possession numbers, even last year. He’s not a star by any means, but he has made the Canucks a better team over the last several years. With just two years remaining on his contract, his time may be running short with the club. How he was acquired: 2001 NHL Entry Draft, fifth round, 151st overall
Ryan Miller: A controversial addition due to his age, the money spent annually on him and the way he ended last season, Miller has a lot to prove right out of the gates. Considering the Canucks could have had one of Roberto Luongo or Corey Schneider and now have neither, Miller was brought in to be the No. 1 despite Vancouver already having Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, youngsters with starter potential. Though Miller struggled down the stretch last season after being traded to the St. Louis Blues, he posted an overall even-strength save percentage of .923 despite spending most of the season with the porous Buffalo Sabres. His struggles in the playoffs and late-season swoon will definitely overshadow that number. Overshadowing it all is the $6 million cap hit. The 2010 Vezina Trophy winner is now 34, which is around the time a lot of goalies start to decline if they haven’t started already. For the sake of Vancouver’s competitiveness, that can’t happen. And that’s why I included him in the core here. As this team adjusts over the next few years, Miller has to be good. Lack and Markstrom aren’t ready, or at least don’t appear to be, and with fewer reps for either at the NHL level, they may not be soon. A career .915 save percentage, Miller showed flashes of the best version of himself early last season. Expecting him to sustain that isn’t realistic, but expecting him to be better than he was late last year and in the postseason is. This could be Miller’s last stop in his NHL career and he’ll want to make it memorable. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014
Who’s next in line
This has been a big question for the Canucks for a long time now. The core they’ve established served them well for many years, but now they’re getting older and there’s not a whole heck of a lot available to replace them.
After trading Ryan Kesler, the team is going to put a lot of faith in one of the players they acquired in that deal in particular. Nick Bonino is looking like the Canucks second-line center heading into the season. In his first full-time season in the NHL last year, Bonino had 49 points including 22 goals. He should bolster scoring, though perhaps not at the rate that would have been expected for Kesler next year. Either way, Bonino is 26 years old and has a chance to play a big role as a relative youngster on an experienced team.
The Canucks also have to be looking for more from Zack Kassian to prove he’s more than just a brute forward. The former 13th overall pick was big on PIMs last year and not on points. He’s not going to be a dynamic scorer, but he has to be better than 29 points. He was the youngest contributor on the team last year at age 23.
Now blocked by Miller’s presence, it will be interesting to see how the Canucks handle the Jacob Markstrom, Eddie Lack situation in net. Markstrom has just one year left on his deal before becoming a restricted free agent. Lack has two years before hitting unrestricted free agency. Will both stay or is one on the way out? Either way, Miller’s arrival is a no-confidence vote against both goaltenders and how they respond is anyone’s guess.
Recent first-round picks Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann all appear to have big-time potential and could soon jump into established production roles on the team over the next few years. Prospect Dane Fox is coming off an incredible 107-point season in the OHL and recent draftee Thatcher Demko could be the goaltender of the future as he matures at Boston College.
It’s not totally safe to throw last year out and count it as an anomaly just because of Tortorella’s coaching and the disaster that followed. That said, what happened last year may need to be taken with a grain of salt. The Canucks should be better this year. Whether or not that means they're playoff team is less certain considering how stacked the Western Conference is.
The top of the Pacific Division still seems fairly well set with the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks still looking like the cream of the crop. The Canucks could push for a wild card spot with a few others, but the Central Division is packed with talent, too. It’s going to be a season-long battle to be sure.
What the Canucks really have to decide is how long they are willing to let the aging core stick it out. Based on the contracts doled out, the Sedins are likely lifetime Canucks. Everyone else is fair game.
The Canucks are going to need a lot from other players that had down years last year like Alex Burrows, who was the epitome of what was going on in Vancouver last year. With him losing his spot on the top line to Radim Vrbata, it could be tough to return to the production he’s shown previously in his career.
Where this team is going to struggle is in the depth department. The top line looks solid, but the rest is a mixed bag. How Bonino reacts to being the No. 2 center could be a big factor in whether or not this team starts getting the scoring going.
The defense lost a big producer in Jason Garrison, but that makes room for guys like Chris Tanev, Yannick Weber and the recently-acquired Luca Sbisa to take on a more prominent role while falling in line behind the three core defensemen.
There’s also going to be a lot of pressure on Miller to deliver on his big contract and keep the goaltending situation stable after a pretty good situation was botched by the previous administration.
There’s a lot of work ahead for Jim Benning to bring this team back to respectability. There’s also a fair amount of responsibility on the shoulders of new head coach Willie Desjardins who is coming off an AHL title and a lot of hype surrounding his hiring.
In order to get this franchise moving forward again, though, it’s going to require this team to start getting younger. That might still be a few years away before something like that is feasible. That also assumes that each of the four first-rounders selected over the last two years pan out when so many others before them in this organization, particularly over the last decade, just haven’t.
The Canucks can hang around and compete this year if all goes well, but it seems as though the Stanley Cup window we heard so much about over five years of really strong teams and one finals appearance, has been forcefully slammed shut.
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