- Craig Custance
As teams are eliminated from the 2014 postseason, the focus shifts to next season, and we’ll be examining some of the teams expected to have the most interesting summers. Here’s an early look at the Vancouver Canucks’ offseason priorities, projected lineup for next season, free-agent targets, cap space and much more.
Points: 81 points (No. 23 in the NHL)
Goals per game: 2.30 (No. 28)
Goals against per game: 2.61 (No. 13)
Power play: 14.7 percent (No. 27)
Penalty kill: 83.3 percent (No. 11)
Corsi for percentage (close): 52 percent (No. 9)
Expectations this season: In the ESPN.com season preview, I picked the Canucks to finish sixth in the Pacific Division, and they are currently in the No. 5 spot. Predictions from the ESPN.com hockey staff ranged from No. 3 in the division down to No. 6.
Did they meet them? An aging team trending down that was picked to finish in the middle of the division is about exactly what the Canucks were this season. But those were outside expectations. Based on ownership’s reaction to the team’s performance -- firing GM Mike Gillis on Wednesday -- internal expectations were much higher.
1. Build a qualified front office
The Canucks are at a turning point, and ownership has to make a decision. Are the front-office hires that are expected to be announced today or down the road being made for the right reasons? Are they moves made to appease fans and help with season-ticket renewals or truly putting the most qualified people in the right positions?
Trying to keep the seats filled by putting a popular or recognizable name in the front office and trying to squeeze a few more wins out of an aging group may come with some short-term gain, but it would be a long-term disaster. Hockey fans are more savvy than owners often want to believe. If hires are made for the right reasons and qualified people are given jobs, they will understand -- even if the hire being made isn’t a popular former player and especially if it comes with a clear, articulated plan from ownership. It should not be a reactionary move done in an attempt to ease pressure in a local market.
There were probably a lot of Bruins fans who didn’t know who Peter Chiarelli was when he was hired away from the Senators, where he was an assistant GM in 2006. But when he made the hire, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said he wanted a man with knowledge of today’s game, a forward thinker and someone who understood well the complexities of an NHL with a salary cap. He got it. It was a great hire. So too was Pittsburgh’s hire of a Nashville assistant GM named Ray Shero that same year, made for the same reasons.
The Canucks have to make sure whomever they bring in to run the show has the same qualifications and experience.
2. Let the new management team make a call on John Tortorella
He still has four more years left on his deal, so it’s not going to be an easy call to fire Tortorella, but you can’t ask a GM to come in and turn this team around and not give the new hire the right to pick the coach behind the bench. If the Canucks decide to double down on Tortorella, the team needs to be reshaped with personnel that better fits what he’s asking his players to do. As one scout pointed out, asking Henrik and Daniel Sedin to block shots might not be the best path to victory. “I’m telling the Sedins to get out of the way of shots,” he said. “C’mon.”
3. Get younger up front
This won’t be easy because the best path to do it is through the draft and that takes years. But in Ryan Kesler, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa and even the Sedins if they’re agreeable, Vancouver has serious pieces to land high-end talent. Vancouver’s roster is bogged down with no-trade and no-movement clauses, but that’s the silver lining to the train wreck in Vancouver this season: Who would pass up a chance at a ticket out? There was so much pressure on Gillis to hit a home run on a Kesler deal that his asking price at the trade deadline was unreasonably high. The new GM will have a clean slate in which to operate without the baggage that came with trying to make up for the Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo disaster. But the goal should be the same; a young forward, preferably a center, needs to be the centerpiece of any Kesler deal. The Ducks are a team loaded with young talent and in position to trade for a player like Kesler. That’s where I’d start.
Projected 2014-15 lineup (before trades)
Top six forwards
1. Daniel Sedin
2. Henrik Sedin
3. Ryan Kesler
Top four defensemen
1. Dan Hamhuis
2. Alexander Edler
3. Kevin Bieksa
1. Eddie Lack
The 2014-15 cap
According to CapGeek.com, the Canucks have 20 players signed for a total of $61.2 million, which could give them around $10 million in flexibility. David Booth has been better this season but is still a prime candidate for a compliance buyout, which would free up even more room. That said, there’s no reason for the Canucks to be a cap team next season as they transition to a younger group. They also need to give Chris Tanev (RFA) a nice raise in the offseason.
Three potential Vancouver targets in free agency
1. Jaroslav Halak, Capitals: The Canucks don’t need to be a serious buyer in free agency this summer. The focus should be on getting younger, and free agency isn’t the place to do it. But in Halak, the Canucks would be able to land a capable starting goalie on a reasonable deal to share time with Lack.
2. Thomas Greiss, Coyotes: He would be another reasonably priced option to shore up the goaltending. As they tend to do, the Coyotes got great value out of Greiss in signing him to a one-year deal worth $750,000. He is 9-7-5 this season with a .920 save percentage.
3. Andrew MacDonald, Flyers: If the Canucks decide to trade one or more of their veteran defensemen and keep Tortorella around as their coach, MacDonald fits his system well. He could fill the Dan Girardi role for Tortorella and at 27 years old is young enough to be a part of a rebuilding process.
The Canucks will have a top-10 pick this year, and they won’t have to trade a franchise goalie to get it this time. In his mock draft, Frank Provenzano had the Canucks selecting Sonny Milano, a forward from the U.S. National Team Development Program. He is on the small side (5-foot-11), and if the Canucks are looking to get size to compete in the heavy West, a better pick could be winger Nick Ritchie from Peterborough, who is 6-2, 226 pounds with skills. Provenzano projected Ritchie to fall to No. 11 in his first mock.
Early 2014-15 projection
There’s enough talent still in Vancouver that the new management team could patch a team together that could compete next season for a playoff spot. The better move is to take a year to rebuild, trading assets while their value is high, especially considering how loaded the 2015 draft is. If ownership is more interested in keeping the turnstiles moving, it might be a tough sell. A realistic projection for the Canucks is another finish somewhere in the middle, where they are now -- and the worst place to be.