“We do have to be careful with what we do this summer,” said Trevor Linden a few months ago. “We're okay with being young next year. We're going to be extremely young, we know that.”
The Canucks’ actions on July 1st seemed to bely his words, as they added three older veterans that will prevent the team from getting “extremely” young. Perhaps it’s a quibble over the definition of “young.”
Heading into last season, the two youngest teams in the league were the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche, with an average age of 25.0. The Blue Jackets had 15 players under the age of 25 and no one over the age of 31. The Avalanche had 19 year olds like Tyson Jost and Samuel Girard play significant roles.
Both teams made the playoffs.
Sure, neither team got out of the first round, but they at least got there, and their overall youth gives them a promising future.
The Canucks were never going to match the Blue Jackets’ 15 players under 25, but the Canucks’ free agent signings mean they won’t even get close. Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tim Schaller will take up roster spots that could have gone to younger players.
What’s frustrating is that Jim Benning claimed that the message his players were meant to get from these signings is that the competition is on.
Benning : We want competition at camp, that is the message to our players today. We will also look at the secondary trade market. #Canucks— Rick Dhaliwal (@DhaliwalSports) July 1, 2018
The issue is that signing bottom-six players to four-year, $3 million contracts doesn’t create any competition; it squashes it. Players are well aware that they won’t be able to out-compete Beagle and Roussel for a spot. Even if they did out-perform them, the youth are not going to make the team at the expense of two veteran players on long-term contracts.
Some might argue that Beagle, Roussel, and Schaller will play in the bottom-six, where the Canucks’ youth won’t play. It’s a baffling argument; who says that young players can’t play on the third and fourth lines? Brendan Gaunce and Jake Virtanen are both bottom-six forwards, even if Virtanen seems poised to move up the lineup.
Adam Gaudette, for example, likely saw the fourth-line centre role as a spot on the roster he could win out of training camp, then work his way up the lineup. If the Canucks had signed a cheaper veteran to a short-term deal, Gaudette could have competed in camp, but he’s not going to beat out Beagle for the role.
Unless the Canucks make some trades this summer, there won’t really be any spots to battle for in training camp, as roster decisions could come down to who’s waiver eligible and who isn’t, rather than merit.
To show you what I mean, let’s look at the Canucks’ waiver eligibility. I’ve highlighted the players that we can be fairly confident will make the team.
These are the players that will need to clear waivers to be sent down. There are 11 players that I think are a lock to make the team, as the Canucks won’t risk losing them on waivers. That’s not even including Nikolay Goldobin and Brendan Gaunce.
One important name is missing from that list: Brock Boeser. He is exempt from waivers, but there’s obviously no way he’ll be sent down. Here are the rest of the waiver-exempt forwards.
With Boeser, that makes 12 forwards that we can reasonably expect to be on the team no matter what. That doesn’t include Elias Pettersson, Jonathan Dahlen, or Adam Gaudette. If you think it’s a given that Pettersson makes the team, then we’re already up to 13 forwards, which is how many were on the opening night roster last season.
So, where’s the competition?
Maybe the competition is between Goldobin and Brendan Leipsic, or you could argue that another young player could out-battle Pettersson in camp, but those are lateral moves in terms of getting youth into the lineup. Are there any veterans that could be out-battled at camp and waived? Maybe Schaller, but that seems unlikely given his new contract.
Meanwhile, a couple younger players like Goldobin, Gaunce, or Leipsic will have to go on waivers, while Dahlen and Gaudette are likely to start in the AHL no matter how good they are in camp.
The Canucks could carry 14 forwards if they only have 7 defencemen on the opening night roster. Let’s look at that possibility.
That’s 7 defencemen who can reasonably be expected to be on the roster no matter what, barring any trades. Last year, Alex Biega was kept up as the 8th defenceman, so that’s a possibility, but there could be a small competition at camp with some of the players who are waiver exempt.
Olli Juolevi is the most likely defenceman to battle for a spot on the roster, though we’ll have to see what happens with Quinn Hughes this summer. I have no doubt that Hughes could play in the NHL this coming season and excel, but another season in college hockey wouldn’t necessarily hurt.
So, adding up all the highlighted players in the above lists, and adding a couple goaltenders, we get to 21 out of 23 players. That leaves just two open spots that could go to either two forwards or one forward and a defenceman.
Perhaps there’s competition for those two spots, but it’s competition that will conceivably leave deserving young players in the AHL or on waivers where they might get claimed. Instead of both Goldobin and Pettersson making the team on their own merits, for instance, the Canucks might have to make a decision based on waiver eligibility, sticking Pettersson in Utica so as to not lose Goldobin on waivers.
Sure, there will be injuries, and players will get called up, but for players hoping to make the team out of training camp, the Canucks’ free agent signings didn’t say “We want competition at camp,” but “You can’t make these roster spots out of camp.”
Ultimately, the Canucks might have to make a trade or two in the summer if they want to be as “extremely young” as they say.