With the Cadillac of the available defensemen in the shop (debate that amongst yourselves), all eyes will be back on two stalwarts of the Canucks blueline: Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Bieksa. Mike Gillis is up to his neck in blueliners but what happens with these two will have a definitive impact on both Vancouver and a few other clubs looking to shore up their defense.
As of this morning, Gillis is still trying to keep Mitchell from jumping ship while also trying (presumably) to deal Juice to help the Canucks shed at least $2,658,333 in cap excess. It's also possible that, with Salo on LTIR (for the rest of his life?), Gillis can try to move some lower buys like Shane O'Brien and Andrew Alberts, bury Aaron Rome in Manitoba and maybe purge some existing wingers (cough Hordichuk cough). But that would rob Vancouver of defensive depth it likely wants (especially after last season) and, from an asset management perspective, Bieksa is a proven top four guy over third line options in an unpredictable SOB and Alberts (the latter of which could potentially be looking at his fourth team in three years).
It's highly unlikely Vancouver retains both Willie and Juice. It's far more possible one will remain or both will be sporting new uni's in seven weeks. So we at least know one final change is coming to the Canucks defense; we just don't know what it will look like yet.
If they keep Willie Mitchell and deal Kevin Bieksa, he'll need to slot in somewhere in the top pairings with Hamhuis and Ballard, leaving Edler, Ehrhoff, O'Brien, Alberts & Rome to fill out the rest. Vancouver needs to roll Mitchell/Hamhuis as the top pairing, eating up the harder zone starts and the tougher opposition. Puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. The more offensive-minded Edler and Ehrhoff can be split into the second and third pairings, each anchored with more of a defensive-minded partner in Ballard or perhaps SOB/Alberts (coincidentally, the exact same make-up of the Mitchell/Bieksa pairing of a few seasons ago). If Mitchell is less than 100%, Vigneault can start the season with him on the second pairing with Ballard and bump up Edler to top line duties.
If Mitchell leaves then Bieksa/Hamhuis could take top billing - but like above - I suspect it'll be Edler and Hamhuis with Bieksa and Ballard acting as clean up. Either way, it's possible that with Hammer/Ballard/Bieksa/Edler mixed into the top four that Ehrhoff (the leading point getter on the blueline last season) drops to third line duties, though he'll earn his keep on the PP. Or maybe I'm overvaluing Ballard too much? Someone needs to take a step down.
In either example, SOB or Alberts head to Manitoba when (or if) Salo returns and perhaps old 'spody bones get sheltered third line minutes and ample PP time before he climbs back to the second pairing.
For fun, if somehow Mitchell and Bieksa both stay (and I have no idea how they pull back under the cap in that case), you'd have a top four of Mitchell/Hamhuis/Bieksa//Ballard and a wacky third line of Ehrhoff/Edler. SOB and Alberts can thumb wrestle for the 7th slot, Salo may as well retire and Rome will need a plague to inflict the corps to escape from Winnipeg.
Far more plausible is that Bieksa and Mitchell both move on. In that case, Luongo will guard the crease behind pairings like Edler/Hamhuis, Ehrhoff/Ballard, Alberts/SOB with Rome as the warm body in 7th. I can't see how the team doesn't want Salo drinking every magical elixir known to Finnish scientists because the third pairing has potential car wreck written all over it, though Rome has proven himself to be more than serviceable.
Deciding between Bieksa or Mitchell determines the face of the defense: either they have a legit #1 defenseman in Mitchell or they dedicate to the committee approach without him. If Mitchell stays - and I'd imagine this is part of management's selling point on a lesser contract - he'll lead a more defensive-minded group that has to depth to reduce his individual effort on a nightly basis and, ideally, to go deeper into the post season against the elites. Maybe one final factor: Gillis, with Luongo smiling happily at his side, offers Mitchell the captaincy to boot?
If not, then it'll be the first time since 1998-1999 that Vancouver doesn't have a clear #1 defenseman. At that time, Bryan McCabe was the closest guy to it (but, like the Canucks that season, had an off-year and was traded the following summer), Mattias Ohlund was a sophomore and Adrian Aucoin luckily had his breakthrough (23 goals & 18 on the PP). Lacking a defined #1 guy isn't the worst scenario, certainly not when you have talents like Ehrhoff, Edler and Bieksa mixed in with Ballard and Hamhuis. With luck, Edler plays strong in his end while adding to his 42-point campaign, maybe a camp standout in the form of Oberg or Sauve gives Vigneault options or perhaps SOB and Alberts just don't tank. The fact that Gillis made the Ballard and Hamhuis deals this summer suggests he clearly isn't against the committee approach if Mitchell does indeed leave.
Mitchell and Bieksa are both risk/reward scenarios: if you risk Mitchell is back to normal, won't be as susceptible to another concussion (how do you guard against that exactly?) and won't change his style of play, he's a rock to have and the fact that Vancouver, Los Angeles, Washington, San Jose, Columbus and others have kept him on speed dial is a testament to that. Bieksa can give you a dependable blueliner with a big offensive upside and no shortage of grit; the next night he'll miss the net with every shot and get caught sleeping by a speedy winger. He shows the potential to be a #1 defenseman and yet he's a career -20 who's consistency has been handcuffed due to injury in five Vancouver seasons.