NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Vancouver Canucks

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Scott Cullen
5/9/2014 12:09:45 AM
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The Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and cleaned house, firing GM Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella.

Off-Season Game Plan examines a Canucks team that actually has enough pieces in place to bounce back next season.

Canucks legend Trevor Linden has taken over as team president but hasn't yet filled the openings that he created by firing Gillis and Tortorella, though there has been speculation that Bruins Assistant GM Jim Benning is a front-runner for the gig.

As much as the 2013-2014 season was a mess for the Canucks, this team isn't an unmitigated disaster either. There are holes, but holes that can be filled and, even in a down season, the Canucks were a Top 10 possession team.

If circumstances were different, perhaps the Canucks would be in position to overhaul the roster, but with no-trade clauses scattered througout the core of their roster, the most reasonable plan of attack for next season is to provide support for the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and a defence corps that is certainly playoff-worthy.

"Our goal is to be back in the playoffs next spring as we continue developing this group into a team that can challenge for the Stanley Cup," Linden wrote in a letter to season-ticket holders.

There are holes to fill, not least of which is in net, a position that has not been handled in an ideal fashion over the past year. Capable goaltending, improved depth and a sharper power play could be enough for the Canucks to return to the playoffs.

So, it's possible, but the Canucks have to hire a general manager and coach before getting too bullish on expectations for next season.

The good news is that this team is in position to recover quickly if bounces are more favourable for them next season.

 The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Vacant/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Ryan Kesler 71.94 77 25 18 43 52.4% $5.0M
Daniel Sedin 70.07 73 16 31 47 56.9% $7.0M
Henrik Sedin 69.67 70 11 39 50 55.7% $7.0M
Chris Higgins 69.57 78 17 22 39 50.7% $2.5M
Brad Richardson 63.93 73 11 12 23 47.9% $1.15M
David Booth 63.41 66 9 10 19 52.0% $4.25M
Jannik Hansen 62.98 71 11 9 20 51.8% $2.5M
Alexandre Burrows 62.77 49 5 10 15 56.0% $4.5M
Shawn Matthias 62.67 77 12 11 23 48.5% $1.75M
Tom Sestito 55.97 77 5 4 9 44.6% $750K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Mike Santorelli 70.33 49 10 18 28 50.6% UFA $550K
Zack Kassian 65.23 73 14 15 29 50.9% RFA $870K
Jordan Schroeder 59.81 25 3 3 6 52.4% RFA $600K
Zac Dalpe 56.70 55 4 3 7 44.7% RFA $550K

It caused something of a furor leading up to the NHL trade deadline when word leaked that Ryan Kesler wanted out of Vancouver, and it's certainly possible that he could be moved this summer, but with the front office being overhauled, new management may have an opportunity to convince Kesler that he's going to still be playing a vital role on a contending team in Vancouver.

He's not the dominant possession player he was a few years ago, but Kesler remains a strong two-way performer, who faces tough opposition night after night and has scored at least 20 goals in six of the past seven seasons. If Kesler wants to move on, the good news for the Canucks is that he should bring a quality return as a productive player signed to a reasonable contract for two more seasons.

One of the most glaring differences with last season's Canucks, compared to previous incarnations, was that the Sedins (Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin) struggled offensively, both finishing below 0.80 points per game for the first time since 2003-2004. The initital expectation was that they might not get as many offensive zone starts as they did under Alain Vigneault, and they didn't, but still started better than 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone.

While they didn't score, and averaged more ice time than ever before, the Sedins remained dominant in the possession game, both on the ice for more than 55.0% of 5-on-5 shot attempts. Poor percentages resulted in a down season, though that could be reason to expect a bounce back, provided that they still have it in them, at 34-years-old, to get back to scoring at previously customary levels.

Chris Higgins has found a reliable role in Vancouver, playing tough minutes and contributing secondary offence. He has good speed and, while not a high-percentage finisher, he generates enough shots to be productive.

That Brad Richardson ended up playing a career-high 14:54 per game probably wasn't in the Canucks' ideal plans for last season and he contributed 11 goals, 23 points, but he was on the low-end of the possession game, an indication that the workload was more than he was accustomed to handling.

A three-time 20-goal scorer prior to joining the Canucks, David Booth has scored 26 goals in 134 games with Vancouver and, with declining ice time, he's a candidate for a buyout because teams don't need to pay $4.75-million (Booth's 2014-2015 salary) to get this level of production. The argument in favour of Booth would hinge on possession numbers, which have remained strong in Vancouver. That may not be enough.

Speedy winger Jannik Hansen took nice steps forward in the previous two seasons, only to fall back last season, when the percentages weren't as favourable for him. There's no need to put unreasonable expectations on him; he can be a very good third-line forward/penalty killer.

Last season was disastrous for Alexandre Burrows, who didn't score a goal until his 36th game of the season (then scored his season total, five, in four games) and his point production was at its lowest rate since 2006-2007. On the way to burying Burrows, though, consider that he still had terrific possession numbers -- these things happen when you skate with the Sedins, but not just with the Sedins. It might be difficult to go into next season planning on five-goal Burrows being skating on the top line with the Sedins, but he's due for better percentages, no matter where he fits in the lineup.

Part of the Roberto Luongo trade, Shawn Matthias comes to Vancouver as a big tease, for the most part. He's 6-foot-4 and has scored 26 goals in limited ice time over the past two seasons (an efficiency that slots him between Jordan Eberle and Bobby Ryan in goals per 60 minutes of play), but he's a 26-year-old whose career-high is 24 points. At some point, the production has to be there to fit in a top-six, or even top-nine, spot. With a year left on his contract, next year could be a make-it-or-break-it season for Matthias.

Tom Sestito led the league with 19 fighting majors and 213 penalty minutes. Since 2005-2006 (Lockout I), only a couple of Philadelphia Flyers, Riley Cote and Zac Rinaldo, had a season with more than 200 penalty minutes with less time on ice. He also gets routinely destroyed according to possession metrics, so it's entirely possible that, if he's going to be on the roster, he doesn't need to be dressed for 77 games, as he was last season.

Zack Kassian showed some progress last season, finishing with a career-best 14 goals nd 29 points, and while his possession stats weren't anything special, he also started more of his shifts in the defensive zone andhe's 23-years-old, so there is room for further improvement.

Jordan Schroeder has been battling for a regular spot in the lineup and missed a good chunk of last season with an ankle injury. To this point, his 15 points in 56 career games along with decent (if sheltered) possession numbers should give Schroeder a leg up on the competition for a job next season.

Zac Dalpe has played at least 10 NHL games in each of the past four seasons, getting in a career-high 55 games last season, and has 17 points in 96 career games. He's struggled possession-wise and figures, at best, to be on the fringe of the lineup.

That's not a bad group of returning forwards, but the Canucks could very easily dip into the free agent market to find a proven scorer to boot their top six. One possibility would be to keep Mike Santorelli, who had some success last season, or the Canucks could check out the free agent market for someone like Mike Cammalleri, Milan Michalek or Ales Hemsky -- someone capable of fitting with the Sedins.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Alexander Edler 69.35 63 7 15 22 52.4% $5.0M
Jason Garrison 68.41 81 7 26 33 49.1% $4.6M
Kevin Bieksa 66.99 76 4 20 24 51.5% $4.6M
Dan Hamhuis 66.48 79 5 17 22 51.4% $4.5M
Ryan Stanton 63.77 64 1 15 16 53.1% $550K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Chris Tanev 65.90 64 6 11 17 51.2% RFA $1.5M
Yannick Weber 62.40 49 6 4 10 50.1% RFA $650K
Andrew Alberts 56.34 10 0 0 0 48.4% UFA $600K

While he was maligned for his least productive season since 2007-2008, Alexander Edler was more unlucky than anything with the worst PDO (on-ice save + on-ice shooting percentage) among regular defencemen. That doesn't guarantee that everything will be fine, but for a 28-year-old who has played more than 23 minutes a night for each of the past four seasons, Edler is a good bet to produce better numbers next year.

Of the four defencemen with no-trade clauses at the top of the Canucks' depth chart, Jason Garrison is the one with the big shot, which resulted in 15 power play points last season and has him among the defence goal-scoring leaders the past three seasons but, last season, his possession numbers weren't very good.

Kevin Bieksa has been a staple on the Vancouver defence since 2005-2006. He's put up more than 40 points three times and more than 90 penalty minutes five times. He can play tough minutes, and still put up decent possession numbers, and is reasonably-priced for the next couple seasons. These factors would make him desirable as a trade commodity too.

The most reliable of Vancouver's defenders, Dan Hamhuis has been taking on progressively tougher matchups since arriving from Nashville. He plays a no-frills game, but that includes limiting shots against, which seems like a good attribute for a defenceman to possess.

Scooped off waivers from Chicago, Ryan Stanton took a regular turn on the Vancouver blueline and while it was third-pair work against lower-level competition, he more than held his own. He's an inexpensive piece to hold down an everyday spot on defence.

An undrafted gem, 24-year-old Chris Tanev has been very good and steadily improving in a defensive role, moving up alongside Hamhuis to take on tough defensive matchups last season. It's Tanev's emergence that does more reasonably allow the Canucks to consider moving one of their more established blueliners.

Yannick Weber can skate and shoot the puck, but hasn't been able to land more than a fringe role in the league. He's not bad as an inexpensive seventh defenceman option, since he can offer some value on the power play as well.

With this defence core, the Canucks only need to make tweaks around the edges if they are going to make moves in the offseason.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Eddie Lack 67.44 41 16 17 5 2.41 .912 $1.15M
Jacob Markstrom 48.62 16 2 8 3 3.39 .873 $1.2M

Eddie Lack had a nice rookie season, playing far more than could have been expected coming into the year thanks to Roberto Luongo getting traded, but asa 26-year-old with limited track record, he can't be assumed to be the number one for a contending team next season. Maybe he will be but, at the very least, there should be competition.

Presumably Jacob Markstrom might have a shot at that competition, since he has a $1.2-million one-way contract for next season, but even though he has been a highly-touted prospect, the shine on his star has diminished after an .896 save percentage in 47 career NHL games. He's huge, still just 24-years-old and has a save percentage of .922 in the AHL over 94 games in the past three seasons, so there is some reason for hope, but going into next season with Lack and Markstrom would require serious finger-crossing.

Even if the Canucks aren't necessarily going to go after a top unrestricted free agent like Ryan Miller or Jaroslav Halak (though they could...), Vancouver could consider a free agent like Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott or trade for James Reimer.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Bo Horvat C London (OHL) 30-44-74, +20, 54 GP
Brendan Gaunce C Erie (OHL) 31-41-72, +25, 65 GP
Hunter Shinkaruk LW Medicine Hat (WHL) 5-11-16, -2, 18 GP
Nicklas Jensen LW Utica (AHL) 15-6-21, -5, 54 GP
Cole Cassels C Oshawa (OHL) 24-49-73, +7, 61 GP
Frank Corrado D Utica (AHL) 6-11-17, -7, 59 GP
Dane Fox LW Erie (OHL) 64-43-107, +46, 67 GP
Ben Hutton D Maine (HE) 15-14-29, +8, 35 GP
Jordan Subban D Belleville (OHL) 12-30-42, -11, 66 GP
Anton Cederholm D Portland (OHL) 4-12-16, +42, 71 GP
Joacim Eriksson G Utica (AHL) 2.61 GAA, .911 SV%, 52 GP

Bo Horvat, taken ninth overall with the pick acquired from New Jersey for Cory Schneider (remember him?), is a solid two-way player who could make the jump to the Canucks next season. There may be some question to Horvat's offensive upside, but little concern about whether he has the game to stick in some role.

A first-round pick in 2012, Brendan Gaunce is a big-bodied forward who has scored 92 goals over the past three OHL seasons. If he can skate well enough to keep pace, he may have a chance to challenge for a job too, but some time in the AHL wouldn't hurt.

Hip surgery ended Hunter Shinkaruk's season early, but he's a skilled winger who has been a finisher in the WHL. He's not big, so getting stronger and getting a full season next year, ought to be top priorities.

Drafted in the first round in 2012, Nicklas Jensen has good size and speed, but didn't do much in the AHL (29 points in 80 career AHL games). However, he played pretty well in 17 games with the Canucks last season.

A third-round pick last summer, Cole Cassels took a step forward as a playmaking forward. He's not as prolific as his dad, Andrew, but Cole has climbed the ladder quickly over the course of a year.

Steady blueliner Frank Corrado was a fifth-round pick in 2011 and has played 18 games for the Canucks since. He's only 21, so Corrado has time to round out his game, but he's not far from challenging for a job with the Canucks.

Signed as an undrafted free agent this year, Dane Fox scored 64 goals in 67 games for Erie, after never scoring more than 23 goals and 54 points in an OHL season. If the goal-scoring is for real, and not the product of a powerhouse team, then Fox could be interesting. The Canucks can see if it translates to the AHL next year.

Taken in the fifth round of the 2012 Draft, Ben Hutton has good size and had a terrific sophomore season at Maine. His ability to move the puck and join the attack are strengths.

Jordan Subban doesn't come with the same pedigree as older brother D P.K. Subban (or G Malcolm Subban), in part because he's small for the position, but can skate and make smart decisions with the puck.

Drafted in the fifth round out of Sweden last summer, Anton Cederholm plays for WHL powerhouse Portland and was one of six players with a rating of +40 or better. He's big and physical, though hasn't shown much offensive game.

Pulled off the scrap heap, Joacim Eriksson was a seventh-round pick of the Flyers in 2008, but handled the starter's role in the AHL last season. Given the inexperience ahead of him already, he's not likely to be in the picture.

Canucks advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
6th - Michael Dal Colle, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canucks have approximately $58.9M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 17 players.

Check out my possible Canucks lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Top-six winger, top-nine forward, goaltender.

What I said the Canucks needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, two-three defencemen, financial flexibility.

They added: Mike Santorelli, Brad Richardson, Zac Dalpe, Ryan Stanton, Yannick Weber, Eddie Lack.

TRADE MARKET
Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Jason Garrison.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Edler Daniel Sedin Kesler (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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