The Canucks are going to be younger next season than they were last season. That’s almost unavoidable when your two oldest players retire.
At the start of the 2017-18 season, the Canucks’ average age was 27.5, which was right around average. As of right now, their roster is about a year younger on average: 26.4. That would make the Canucks one of the ten youngest teams in the league, but still a far cry from the two youngest teams last season, the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets, who had an average age of 25.
The Canucks could have been even younger, however, and at the end of last season, that appeared to be the plan.
“We're okay with being young next year,” said Trevor Linden a few months ago. “We're going to be extremely young, we know that.”
The Canucks then signed three veteran bottom-six forwards on July 1st and now Linden is gone. At the same time, Jim Benning has emphasized that scoring will have to come from the youth and, in truth, it’s not going to come from anywhere else.
There’s just one real issue: the youth are going to have a hard time getting in the lineup. It’s not just the addition of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tim Schaller that will clog up the lineup, but also Loui Eriksson, Sam Gagner, and Brandon Sutter.
That doesn’t seem to be too bad, but when you put together some prospective lines, you can quickly see the problem.
Sven Baertschi - Bo Horvat - Brock Boeser
Loui Eriksson - Elias Pettersson - Sam Gagner
Antoine Roussel - Brandon Sutter - Jake Virtanen
Tim Schaller - Jay Beagle - Markus Granlund
That seems like a pretty reasonable 13 forwards for the Canucks to go with out of training camp based on their current roster. You’ll notice it doesn’t include a bevy of young Canucks, notably Nikolay Goldobin, Jonathan Dahlen, and Adam Gaudette, but also players like Brendan Gaunce, Petrus Palmu, Kole Lind, and Lukas Jasek.
If the Canucks truly want to get younger and give guys like Goldobin, Dahlen, and Gaudette a chance to produce offensively, they have to get in the lineup somehow. And that means someone else has to come out.
Here are three ways the Canucks could cull a veteran or two to make room for youth.
Let injuries take their toll
As much as Jim Benning might hope that a bigger and stronger set of forwards will lead to fewer injuries, the truth is that injuries are inevitable. The Canucks could just wait for that inevitability to occur and give a young player a chance to stick with the team. That’s what happened with Troy Stecher a couple years back: while he arguably earned a spot on the Canucks with a strong pre-season, he still got sent down to Utica to start the year before injuries gave him a chance in the NHL.
Jonathan Dahlen and Adam Gaudette will surely play for the Canucks this season, even if they don’t start with the team out of training camp. It’s not hard to imagine that Dahlen will be one of the first call-ups in case of an injured winger, while Gaudette could be a quick call-up at centre. Depending on the extent of the injuries
That’s cold comfort to Goldobin, however, who is eligible for waivers and could get claimed by a team willing to take a chance on the skilled winger. He could end up battling with Leipsic — also waiver-eligible — for a spot. If the team waits for injuries to give young players a shot, one of them might no longer be a Canuck by opening night.
That’s not even considering Brendan Gaunce, who is also waiver-eligible. The addition of three veteran bottom-six forwards completely crowds him out.
It’s also not very compelling for a young player at training camp, who might excel but still have no chance at making the lineup.
Trade a veteran
Instead of potentially losing any young players on waivers, the Canucks could open up another roster spot by trading a veteran forward.
The Canucks are not going to move one of the players they just signed, so that leaves Eriksson, Gagner, and Sutter. Of the three, Sutter has the most value, with multiple teams reportedly inquiring with the Canucks about his availability.
The issue with trading Sutter is that the Canucks still don’t have a lot of depth at centre. Jay Beagle played a similar role to Sutter in Washington, which might make it easier to move Sutter, but the Canucks would need to feel very confident about Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette playing a significant role down the middle in their rookie seasons.
Perhaps you're comfortable with the Canucks' lack of centre depth because the Canucks aren't likely to be very good next season in any case, but the team has been pretty clear about wanting to insulate the youth. Moving Sutter would instead put the youth right into the heat of the frying pan.
Moving Eriksson would be tough, both because of his $6 million cap hit and his No Trade Clause. That said, the bulk of his signing bonus has been paid out, so less is owed Eriksson in terms of actual dollars. If the Canucks eat some of the salary, a trade might be possible.
That leaves Gagner, who has two years at $3.15 million remaining on his contract. While he’s just a year removed from a 50-point season, he struggled to find a fit with the Canucks last year. He might be a better fit as a depth forward and power play specialist on a stronger team.
Waive a veteran
If the Canucks can’t find a trade partner for one of their veterans, they could instead waive a veteran forward, with the understanding that they might get claimed. That seems like a better option than losing a skilled young forward with a promising future to waivers.
The question is, would they actually do it?
The Canucks won’t waive Sutter, who played such a big role with the team last season. Eriksson is the team’s highest-paid forward and it’s hard to imagine Francesco Aquilini being thrilled with the idea of paying him his full NHL salary to play in the AHL. Besides, Eriksson is still a useful two-way forward.
Gagner, however, would make some sense. While Gagner is absolutely an NHL forward, waiving him would open up some real possibilities for the Canucks’ youth.
Gagner is at his best on the power play, but it would be preferable to give those prime offensive minutes to young players. Pettersson, Dahlen, Goldobin, and Leipsic could all do some damage on the power play, and this would seem like a good season to see what Jake Virtanen could do with some power play opportunities as well.
Also, since Gagner struggles so much in the defensive zone, he would have to get sheltered offensive minutes at even-strength, which is exactly what they hope to give to their incoming rookies.
There are downsides, however. Gagner’s ability to play at both wing and centre would make him an interesting linemate for Pettersson this coming season. He’s also a strong, positive personality in the locker room that would be missed.
So what should the Canucks do? Should they try to make room happen, like Gretchen Weiners and “fetch”? Or maybe they should let that room for youth happen naturally, all on its own, like a beautiful flower. Of injuries.