The 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks are at risk of believing their own hype. They made their purchases at the beginning of the year and done well by them. Now, at the top of their division, should the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks sell or buy?
2019-20 Vancouver Canucks Should Sell From Strength
Don’t get me wrong! Being at the top of the Pacific division, however briefly, is a happy surprise for the team and their fans. But the entire division is reminiscent of schoolboys playing King of the Hill while distant nations build actual castles.
Ask yourself who is ready to get beyond the first round of the playoffs, and it’s a very shortlist. Shorter than the number of teams who will make the playoffs, certainly.
“Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights, if they get their goaltending and defence sorted out” is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement.
Net? What Net?
The owners want the playoffs. This isn’t questioned. The fans do too, and it would be excellent for the players to get a feel for the second season. The reality, though, of where the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks sit is that they are one or two bad days from being in fifth place in the division. A losing streak at the wrong time can leave them tenth in the conference. There’s a risk to the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks selling, but there’s more to them buying.
Right now the Chicago Blackhawks are making the push everyone still expects of the Nashville Predators. The Winnipeg Jets can’t be discounted despite losing half their defensive core because of Connor Hellebuyck. And they will be all the more dangerous should they sort out their relationship with Dustin Byfuglien. Or, for that matter, decide to move past him and spend the money they’ve held aside.
It’s a dangerous place to be, and one that applies unique pressures. Teams that are ten points out are pretty sure they’re out of the running. Ones with a six- or seven-point lead on the wild card spots are pretty sure they’ll get in. Everyone else has an uncertain footing. The temptation is always there to add just a little bit more, a tweak here or there for reassurance as much as anything else.
Or make a big, bold move to tell everyone – owners, fans, players – what’s expected of them now.
Making Changes Has Changed
General managers used to move players in and out of the team without much consideration for anything but numbers. They have an underperforming winger and could use a depth defenceman, so they’d look for a trade. Sometimes a player would get shipped out because of money issues. And, very rarely, players could be shipped out because of personality clashes with other players or staff.
Now, personalities play a more important role in team composition. Someone being “good in the room” has gone from a phrase that made reporters groan to an actual benefit. There are few sports where the team is as, or even more, important than individual players on it. The best skater in the world will only be on the ice for half the game. The best goalie in the world can’t win games alone, only delay losing long enough for his teammates to score – or not.
If your team has factions, it becomes much harder for them to work together, especially come playoff time. Of course, if the team misses the playoffs entirely then “we like each other” becomes less important.
Why Not Go For It? It’s Open!
How available the playoff slots in the Pacific are is the result of several weaker teams coinciding. Any three of the top five teams could make it into the guaranteed slots, sure, but that leaves the last two to do battle with the Central division. And a plan that requires Nashville and Winnipeg to continue underperforming while Chicago slips meekly down the standings isn’t much of a plan.
So why shouldn’t the Canucks buy? GM Jim Benning has repeatedly said he’s looking for more scoring, and that can’t hurt. Making the playoffs will give a lot of the young players exposure to that stepped-up intensity. It also gives fans playoff games for the first time in several years increasing ticket sales. And you know the owners will love that.
For one year.
There is that little, niggling detail about acquiring players: they cost something going the other way. And the Canucks don’t have a whole lot of assets they can spend.
Give and/or Take
We’ve talked before about how the Canucks aren’t in the fifth year of a presumed rebuild. This is at best Year Three, and that is when the Canucks sell, not buy. And they can exploit other teams right now in a way they might not be able to later.
Right now is an ideal time to let others push for the playoffs. The more teams who think they have a shot, the larger the seller’s market is. Yes, the Pacific division is tight, but so is the Central. And, for that matter, the Eastern Conference: the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers are each one win away from a wild card slot.
The very closeness of the Pacific means there’s a chance for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks to keep their place. If they lose a piece or two, they might slip enough to drop to the wild cards. The same will happen if either Vegas or the Calgary Flames find their expected pre-season form. (I think we can assume the uninterested San Jose Sharks are out of the running.) So what’s the actual risk, here? It’s a weak division, and if the Canucks sell their way to being a slightly weaker team, they can still finish in the top three.
The Canucks have been shockingly healthy so far – for them. Yes, they’ve lost players, but outside of Alexander Edler, they haven’t been the top-end guys. Even losing new top-six arrival Micheal Ferland for an extended period hasn’t hurt much because he couldn’t crack the top-six while he was healthy. The perpetually injured Brandon Sutter has had his 3C spot capably filled by Adam Gaudette. Now that Sutter’s back, he’s been pushed to the wing and done fine.
The Utica Comets currently have five of the top fifteen scorers in the AHL. Two of them are established AHL scorers, but two others are NHL rookies in Kole Lind and defenceman Brogan Rafferty. The fifth is wild card scoring winger Nikolay Goldobin. If the team offered to retain $1.5 million dollars of NHL veteran Sven Baertschi (32 points in 26 AHL games), would that make him more tempting? In short, if the Canucks sell a couple of players from their NHL or AHL teams, they can fill the blanks. Assets can come back for players they aren’t using – including on defence.
Jordie Benn can’t be happy eating popcorn while healthy, but Chris Tanev has refused to be damaged this year. Likewise, Zack MacEwen has been happy to practice with the NHL club. But imagine how much happier he’d be replacing the older, more expensive, and currently just as idle Tim Schaller?
The Inevitable Warning
So far, most of the players mentioned have been minor pieces. That’s fine, as relatively small assets (cap room, later draft picks, depth players) can add up nicely. But why not go for a BIG move, and get a haul? Imagine putting up Jacob Markstrom as a rental, or the emerging RFA Jake Virtanen? The shut-down defenceman Tanev would gain attention from any playoff team!
Well, here’s the trick: Tanev has been a mentor to super-rookie Quinn Hughes. Markstrom has not only been excellent for the team. He’s also been a rallying point with the personal issues he has faced this year – a bond shared with Brock Boeser. And the owner has to like the connection Shotgun Jake has formed with the fans. Besides, it’s never a good look when a young guy comes up through the system only to be sold off when he plays well enough to get a raise.
I’m not saying any of those are insurmountable issues. Heck, there’s even some risk moving veterans from the farm when that team is doing so well. Ideally, you want your young guys to be in a winning situation before they get to Vancouver.
So why should the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks sell anything at all? Because whatever they sell, it’ll be cheaper than what they’ll pay to buy.