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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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Only after the Canucks’ bubble burst and they returned home could coach Travis Green fully appreciate the impact his team had on Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

“I’m proud of our group,” Green said Tuesday. “I think they did an amazing job and put a lot of life back into the city. Just being back for a few days, I can really see how excited people are around town about our group.”

They should be. The Canucks can now stake a country-wide claim as the team closest to ending Canada’s 27-year Stanley Cup drought.

It’s one of those arguments that make sports great. You could make your case for the Oilers or Maple Leafs. With the pieces in the pipeline and seven picks in the first two rounds in October’s draft, there is ultimately even one to be made for the Ottawa Senators being second in line.

And admittedly, recency bias is one hell of a drug.

But the case for the Canucks isn’t about Thatcher Demko’s magical three-game spell, or the abundance of secondary scoring that helped knock off the defending Stanley Cup champs in the first round.

It’s about the foundation the Canucks have built and the critical pieces coming.

The Canucks already check a box at nearly every important position, something that can’t be said about the Leafs or Oilers.

They have a superstar forward in Elias Pettersson, who is second only to Connor McDavid in points per game in his first two NHL seasons among this current crop of young stars.

They have an engine in centre Bo Horvat, the captain who showed he is not only the heartbeat of the team but has plenty of skill to go along with it.

They have an elite No. 1 defenceman in Quinn Hughes, the Calder Trophy finalist who defines the modern-day mobile blueliner and smashed rookie playoff assist records in two rounds.

They have quality goaltending, whether it’s pending free agent and team MVP Jacob Markstrom or up-and-comer Demko, the pedigreed So-Cal kid with ice in his veins, paired with another veteran free agent.

They have top-flight wingers in Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller, who might have been 2019’s best off-season acquisition. They have structure from Green, who did a masterful job making adjustments between playoff games. Perhaps most importantly, this Canucks team competes – as evidenced by their fight to get to Game 7 against a better Golden Knights team.

“The belief they had in themselves should be justified,” Green said of his team. “They should be equally confident in the future and also understand the workload needed to compete and win at that level. I think we have those elements within our team."

Now comes the fun part for GM Jim Benning.

Some view this as a treacherous off-season, a tightrope to walk with Markstrom, plus a frozen salary cap for the next two seasons with mega deals looming for Pettersson and Hughes.

“We want him back and we’re going to work on that this week,” Benning said of Markstrom, saying he is willing to go into next season with both goaltenders even though an expansion draft is coming.

Believe it or not, the Canucks actually have a favourable cap outlook compared to most of their contending competition, save for the Colorado Avalanche.

Vancouver has more than $15 million in off-season salary cap space, but they are two seasons away from really having breathing room. There is an avenue to speed that up with Benning digging his way out of previous mistakes, but he said Tuesday that he is not willing to “give up first- and second-round picks to lose money.”

“I’m not doing that,” Benning said. “I’m not in that market.” 

He doesn’t have to be. He can find a taker for Brandon Sutter in the short term. The status of Micheal Ferland’s career is unknown with a potential $3.5 million in LTIR savings. 

In two years, Loui Eriksson’s $6 million will be gone, along with Roberto Luongo’s $3 million cap recapture penalty, Sven Baertschi’s $2.3 million buried in the minors and Ryan Spooner’s $1 million buyout. That’s $12 million off the books – and Vancouver has the good fortune timing to bridge the gap from now until then with young players on their entry-level deals. 

Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander are knocking on the door up front. Kole Lind is right behind them. Will Lockwood could grow into a bottom-six role. Then there is a group of prospects – Jack Rathbone, Jalen Chatfield, Brogan Rafferty and Olli Juolevi – that is ready to fill in the gaps behind Hughes and Tyler Myers on the backend.

“They’re going to be in the mix,” Benning said. “We’ve got some good young defencemen that are going to come to training camp to push for jobs.”

The real difficulty for Benning should be on his big board three or four years down the line, when he will have to juggle new deals for Horvat, Miller and Boeser at the same time as second contracts for Podkolzin and Hoglander. The decisions made this summer will affect those down the line.

Benning called it the “circle of life in our business,” potentially having to say goodbye to some young players to make room for others.

“We have a lot of money to work with, we’re just going to have to decide what players we want to sign going forward,” Benning said. “Other players maybe we can move on and recover draft picks. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, maybe even on some young players, to make sure that we give ourselves the best chance to be competitive next year and keep growing as a franchise.”

The Canucks’ window is just cracking open. 

But it’s a delicate dance, balancing the present and the future. Just ask the Oilers, who were also one Game 7 win from the Western Conference Final as a young club in 2017, or the Jets, who actually got there in 2018, about taking advantage of every opportunity as Canada’s closest team to the Cup.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli