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How can the Canucks improve their defence for next season?

Jim Benning was a talented defenceman, which is why it’s all the more baffling that he hasn’t been able to build a good defence corps as general manager.
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Alex Edler is a pending unrestricted free agent for the Vancouver Canucks, who need to significantly improve their defence for next season.

In the 80’s, Jim Benning was a talented defenceman, which is why it’s all the more baffling that he hasn’t been able to build a good defence corps as general manager.

As a 17-year-old with the Portland Winterhawks, Benning set scoring records in the WHL with the most assists and points by a defenceman. Although Cam Plante bested those records a few years later, Benning still has the second-most assists and third-most points in a season by a defenceman in WHL history. 

That was enough to get Benning drafted sixth overall in the 1981 draft and he jumped straight to the NHL as an 18 year old with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the next decade, Benning played 605 NHL games with the Leafs and Vancouver Canucks, with a career high of 51 points at the age of 20.

Regrettably, knee injuries and a trend towards bigger, tougher defencemen saw him out of the NHL by the age of 27. 

Theoretically, that experience of playing professional hockey as a defenceman should help when it comes to identifying and acquiring defencemen as a general manager. Instead, defence has been one of the team’s biggest issues under his tenure as GM of the Canucks.

The declining defence of the Canucks

In his first year as GM, with a largely-inherited defence corps, the team gave up 29.8 shots per game. In the years since, as he’s put more of his own stamp on the team’s defence, they’ve only gotten worse. This past season, the Canucks allowed 33.4 shots against per game — only the Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres allowed more.

The Canucks’ defensive issues have been masked by excellent goaltending over the past few years from Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, but it’s been readily apparent that defence is a major area of concern.

That’s particularly true this offseason, where the Canucks have just two experienced NHL defencemen under contract for next season: Nate Schmidt and Tyler Myers. Even when you add Quinn Hughes, who will be re-signed as a restricted free agent, that’s still just three defencemen. Everyone else needs a new contract and/or lacks significant NHL experience. 

Benning’s focus in his first press conference after the end of the season, however, was on the team’s forward depth, repeatedly emphasizing their need for more balanced scoring. Benning only addressed the defence when asked directly about the team’s need to improve the blueline.

"We're gonna have to add some D-men."

He first spoke about three defencemen that will or could potentially return next season. 

“We’ve got some UFA guys that we want to talk to,” said Benning. “I thought Travis Hamonic was a good fit in our group, we'd like to try to bring him back if we can. We're going to sit down, talk to Alex Edler here next week. I thought Jack Rathbone, I thought when he played, he never looked at a place. He's a good skater, he moves the puck with conviction, I thought the games he played, he looked good.”

With that said, Benning admitted that the team will need to find a way to improve their defence by acquiring defencemen. 

“It's not unlike the forward group,” he said. “We're gonna have to add some D-men here to be more competitive next year.”

Benning's trade and free agent history with defencemen

Benning’s acquisitions on defence have largely been disappointing, particularly his acquisitions via trade. In one of his earliest trades, he acquired Luca Sbisa from the Anaheim Ducks as part of the Ryan Kesler trade. He traded Gustav Forsling — currently playing top pairing minutes for the Florida Panthers in the playoffs —  for Adam Clendening, who played all of 17 games for the Canucks. Derrick Pouliot was defensively suspect for two seasons for the Canucks after a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then was out of the NHL the very next year. 

Then there’s the Erik Gudbranson trade, which is the proverbial dead horse at this point. The trade was widely panned at the time by those who put stock in analytics and time didn’t do much to prove them wrong.

Benning’s best trade for a defenceman was his most recent one, acquiring Nate Schmidt for the pittance of a third-round pick. Schmidt may not have excelled in his first season in Vancouver, but he at least looked the part of a top-four defenceman.

Benning’s free agent signings on defence haven’t been much better. Players like Yannick Weber, Michael Del Zotto, and Matt Bartkowski gave up far too much defensively and didn’t provide enough offensively to make up for it. Jordie Benn at least got the Canucks a sixth-round pick from the Winnipeg Jets, for whom he’s been a healthy scratch so far in the playoffs.

Then there’s the Tyler Myers signing — still a contentious one among Canucks fans. Myers eats up minutes for the Canucks, but the underlying statistics don’t paint a pretty picture of the results. More of an issue, Myers has a $6 million cap hit through 2024, which could prove to be an anchor if his play falls off even more in the coming years.

Benning’s most recent signing on defence was Travis Hamonic, who primarily partnered with Quinn Hughes this season. Hamonic has a history of holding his own in top-four minutes, but struggled this season, perhaps because he hadn’t played in nearly a year when the season started and he missed most of training camp. If the Canucks bring him back, it will be interesting to see how he plays with a more normal ramp up to the start of the season.

The Canucks can't improve their defence internally

So, how can the Canucks improve on defence? As intimated by Benning, they can’t be content simply bringing back the same defence corps.

First, there are the team’s UFAs, Edler and Hamonic. Edler has played his entire 15-season NHL career in Vancouver, but it may be time to move on from the veteran defenceman, who has pretty clearly lost a step. If he’s willing to return on a significantly cheaper contract on a one-year deal, it could be worthwhile, but the team can’t keep playing him 21 minutes per game, which means they would need someone else to play those minutes.

As for Hamonic, his biggest selling point was his willingness to play for just $1.25 million on a one-year deal. If Hamonic, who has been clear about only wanting to play in western Canada, will play for cheap again, it’s hard to argue with bringing him back. At the same time, he’ll be over 30 next season and if both he and Edler return, the Canucks could have one of the oldest bluelines in the NHL.

That means turning to the team’s youth. As mentioned by Benning, Jack Rathbone is the team’s rising star on defence. He quickly made an impact in his eight games, but is he ready to step into a top-four role next season? Should he be expected to?

Rathbone showed that he’s ready for the NHL, but he still has defensive flaws in his game that should make anyone hesitant to hand him a spot on the second pairing behind Quinn Hughes. Still, he has the potential to have a positive impact on the Canucks' defence, albeit one that will likely be offset by the age-related decline of some of the team's other defencemen.

After Rathbone, there are far too many question marks among the team’s youth. Olli Juolevi struggles with mobility when defending the rush. Jalen Chatfield can’t move the puck out of the defensive zone. Brogan Rafferty can’t even crack the lineup.

In the prospect pool, Jett Woo shows promise, but is still a year or two away from NHL action. More recent draft picks Joni Jurmo, Viktor Persson, and Jacob Truscott are intriguing but even further from making the NHL. 

External improvement via trades and free agency will be tricky

So, the Canucks’ internal options for improving the defence aren’t that great. That leaves trades and signings, which haven’t been Benning’s strength.

With the expansion draft coming up, however, there is an opportunity. The Canucks could attempt to acquire a defenceman from a team that can’t protect all of their players. Instead of that team losing a good defenceman to the Seattle Kraken for nothing, the Canucks could offer them an asset or two.

That would require the Canucks to be willing to expose one of Schmidt or Myers in the expansion draft. They likely should expose Myers, as freeing up his $6 million cap hit would be a boon to the team, but Benning might not be willing to do so. 

Defencemen like Vince Dunn from the St. Louis Blues or Haydn Fleury from the Anaheim Ducks would be interesting targets for a pre-expansion draft trade. Both are young enough that they shouldn’t regress and have some intriguing potential. As an added bonus, they each can play both sides of the ice.

That leaves free agency. The Canucks won’t have a lot of wiggle room under the salary cap after new contracts for Hughes and Elias Pettersson, although Benning mentioned the possibility of buyouts to free up space. 

The Canucks could clear some space with buyouts of Jake Virtanen and Braden Holtby, though a backup goaltender would then need to be signed to replace the latter. A Holtby buyout would also have a significant impact on the team’s salary cap in 2022-23, costing them $1.9 million against the cap.

There’s little to no benefit to buying out Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, or Jay Beagle. In fact, buying out Beagle would cost the Canucks more against the cap than burying him in the minors.

Assuming the Canucks can find the cap space, however, are there even players in free agency that would make sense for them to acquire?

Dougie Hamilton is the biggest name, but as the top defenceman in free agency, he’ll be able to demand a big contract. The Carolina Hurricanes should have the cap space available if they want to re-sign their number one defenceman, but if he goes to free agency, it’s unlikely the Canucks will be able to come anywhere near his contract demands.

That’s a problem, as the market for free agent defencemen drops off a cliff after Hamilton. 

Tyson Barrie can quarterback a power play, but is defensively suspect. Besides, with Hughes already in Vancouver, Barrie wouldn’t even be on the top power play unit.

Alec Martinez is past his prime and will cost too much. Brandon Montour is closer to his prime, but will also likely cost too much and wouldn’t really represent a major upgrade. Maybe Niklas Hjalmarsson could play a shutdown role, but he’s also 33. There are very few defencemen available in free agency that are worth what they’re likely to get paid.

The wild card: the entry draft

There is a path for the Canucks to improve on defence. It’s just unlikely to be an easy one and will require some clever maneuvering, most likely via trade. The options internally and in free agency just don’t provide much in the way of optimism.

There is a wild card. If the Canucks luck into a top-three draft position, they could potentially draft one of Owen Power or Brandt Clarke, two defencemen expected to go high in the draft. With Power playing in the NCAA this past season and Clarke playing pro hockey in Slovakia, the transition to potentially playing in the NHL next season isn’t as big as if they were going straight from junior.

A little draft lottery luck could go a long way towards helping the Canucks finally having a strong blueline under Benning.