If you've been following the rolling hype of the past week, you know that some are viewing the arrival of mammoth defenceman Nikita Tryamkin as the dawn of a new era in Canucks hockey.
But honestly, the whole thing has felt more like the rehash of an old era: say, 1989, when the Canucks were as far from the playoffs as they are now, and despondent fans were all too willing to embrace the notion of a Russian savior -- a Messiah, coming from the East.
The '89-90 Canucks added three such Messianic Russians: Pavel Bure (drafted), Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, listed in order of the success they had as a Canuck. Suffice it to say, present-day Vancouver hockey fans are hoping Tryamkin has less in common with Krutov than with Bure, whose arrival changed the Canucks overnight. Three years after his 1991 NHL debut, Vancouver was in the Stanley Cup Final.
That kind of impression might be too much to ask of Tryamkin, a "first-pass defensive defenceman", according to GM Jim Benning. That casts Tryamkin more in the mould of a Chris Tanev than a Bure, so I wouldn't be expecting the big lug to have a 60-point rookie season. But make no mistake: Tryamkin's arrival in Vancouver will have a massive impact on the rebuilding Canucks.
Looking ahead to next season, the Canucks have one half of an excellent six-man defence corps: Alex Edler and Chris Tanev are a formidable top pairing with complementary skillsets, and Ben Hutton only needed about half an NHL season to prove he can hang with them. There's three of six. After that, however, the Canucks are paper-thin. They have two other defencemen under contract: Luca Sbisa is paid like a top-four defenceman, but isn't one; neither is depth defenceman Alex Biega.
Vancouver has three defencemen headed to unrestricted free agency as well: Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, and Matt Bartkowski, and considering Benning was trying to unload all three at the deadline, one has to imagine they're off to greener pastures. Weber and Bartkowski, at least. Hamhuis might be too, but it depends on a few things. Among them: his summer asking price, and what happens with Tryamkin.
There are two inbound defenders to consider as well: the offensively-gifted Philip Larsen (who, like Tryamkin, will be coming to the Canucks from the KHL, but he isn't a 6'8" Russian, so he's not garnering as much chatter), and the similarly large Andrey Pedan, who looked ready for the big stage when he was called up to the Canucks earlier in the year. Both of these men are complete wild cards.
But they're not the biggest wild card, either literally or figuratively. That's Tryamkin, who could shape the Canucks' defensive plan for years to come with either a passing or failing grade in his shortened debut season. Ray Ferraro suggested Tryamkin could be a top-four guy for the Canucks one day. If that day comes soon, well, the Canucks are laughing -- Tryamkin, who shoots left but prefers the right side, slots in alongside either Edler or Hutton, and the Canucks have a top-four they can work with.
They'd prefer this, and one gets the sense they believe it's possible. Tryamkin's riding in on the hype train, but Jim Benning's the conductor. In response to a question comparing Tryamkin to Chara, Benning responded, “I’d say Nikita is more co-ordinated. You see him skate and he’s like a 6-foot-1 player. But I’m not trying to make any comparison.” There's no comparison. Tryamkin is better, though.
Maybe not right away, of course. It might take time to surpass Chara. A week or so.
If they see flashes of top-four ability that just need more seasoning, one suspects the rebuilding Canucks decide that's good enough. They let Dan Hamhuis go, and allow the likes of Tryamkin, Larsen, Pedan and Sbisa to fight for that all-important fourth top-four role. A battle of that magnitude is only going to help their continued refinement as NHL defenders. (Alternately, they could shock us all by trading Alex Edler and re-signing the steadier Dan Hamhuis to a sweetheart deal. I don't endorse it, but I wouldn't put it past them. With the 22-year-old Hutton and the 21-year-old Tryamkin in the top four, Hamhuis's leadership might be deemed as a valuable intangible.) Jim Benning has already gone on record as saying the Canucks are going to carry eight defenders next year, and the top three plus the abovementioned bottom four, plus Biega as the injury reserve, may equal The Eight™.
They won't be if things go badly, however. If Tryamkin struggles, or looks like he's going to need a year or more in the AHL learning the North American game, the Canucks are going to have to come up with a new strategy in a hurry. They might be more aggressive in the trade market. They might be more aggressive in free agency. You can't go into next season with Larsen and Pedan as your best options for the fourth spot. If Tryamkin falls on his face, it might be the catalyst for an aggressive back-end remodelling.
Basically, Tryamkin's tryout is going to determine how urgent it is for the Canucks to acquire another top-four defenceman-to-be. The job is his for the taking. If he fails to seize it, the hunt is on for a new candidate, and potentially a new direction. Regardless of how he fares, Tryamkin is going to make a major impression.