There's just two games left in the preseason for the Vancouver Canucks, and there's a lot that still needs to be sorted out with this team as they prepare to set their opening night lineup. The competition for the few spots available was far more intense than many had anticipated, leaving Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins with some tough decisions to make.
1- Is this still a team that needs to tweak things, or is it time to dissolve the core completely?
This is probably the most important question when it comes to the Canucks: have the changes they've made, along with the infusion of youth with their young prospects enough to keep them competitive in the always tough Pacific Division? Probably not, and it's likely due to the mess on the back end more than anything else. Ben Hutton has been very impressive from the Young Stars tournament in Pentiction to the main camp and the preseason appearances he's made. He's a smart, mobile, puck-moving defenceman with a nose for the net and great instincts. And he stands out like a sore thumb compared to every other Canucks defenceman because of this. Frankie Corrado is going to make the roster, but likely won't play every night. That means we have an interchangeable 3 pairs of defencemen who don't differ much at all in style. The Canucks were a hell of a difficult team to play with when they had guys who could move the puck. Now, unless Hutton's ready to make this leap, they just look old, slow and predictable on the back end.
The play of Bo Horvat last season, and what we've seen from Jared McCann, Brendan Gaunce and Jake Virtanen so far this preseason shows that maybe, just maybe there's a core for the future being put together. There's a number of youngsters who are going to get some seasoning in Utica, and they'll need it because while there's not a lot of spots open on the roster now, that will be changing. Radim Vrbata is a UFA at the end of this season, as are Brandon Prust, Matt Bartkowski and Yannick Weber. The year after? Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins, as well as both goaltenders. Then, it's the Sedins the year after. The Canucks need to prepare for the future, and that is a future without Daniel and Henrik. If they can't keep up with the rapidly changing Pacific, they're going to need to start building around the young talent they have, and hope these kids can live up to their potential.
2. Is there a method to Jim Benning's madness, because the off-season moves left us puzzled, to say the least.
It's hard to pick which one was the most baffling, but let's start with the one everyone talks about: the extension offered to Luca Sbisa. It was a jaw-dropper when the Canucks announced they had re-signed Sbisa and Derek Dorsett even before the playoffs started. It doesn't matter what category you choose to look at: Sbisa is near or at the bottom of them when it comes to the different ways of measuring defensive performance. Giving him an extension is one thing, but a raise of that magnitude for a player that is a statistically proven defensive liability? Madness. The Canucks gambling on Sbisa being able to mature into a solid NHL blueliner is odd enough, but to pay him top 4 money when his numbers show he's questionable to be in the top 6 on the Canucks or any NHL squad is frustrating. Benning wasn't done there. He moved out Nick Bonino, who was underwhelming in his one season here after coming over from Anaheim in the Ryan Kesler trade. But to bring Brandon Sutter in to replace him, a player that's basically swapped out even for Bonino in terms of talent and potential, and then extend him for 4 years at over 4 million per season?
They needed to do something about Zack Kassian. Whether or not you agree he got a fair shake, he certainly never made the most of the opportunities he did get, and the questions about his off-ice problems made it necessary for them to get Kassian out of Vancouver. But bringing in Brandon Prust? Granted, Prust will be a more willing combatant than Kassian ever was, and will take the pressure to drop the gloves off of Derek Dorsett, who is more valuable to the Canucks as a 4th line player than for his fighting prowess. The problem here is that there will always be those lingering questions as to whether they gave up too soon on Kassian. He showed streaks of brilliance at times, but frustratingly they were not even remotely consistent.
We already talked about the defensive issues facing this team, and while it was good that they were able to bring back Yannick Weber for one more season, and at a very decent rate (and boy, does it ever make Sbisa's salary look worse), bringing in Matt Bartkowski on a one year deal. Not overly large, nor fast, nor particularly tough. And in 131 NHL games he's yet to score save for a goal in Boston's game 7 playoff win over Toronto in 2013. So it makes you wonder: with so many average sized guys on the Canucks blue line, why on earth would they bring in another one? Benning has a plan, I have no doubt about that. The problem is that we're not anywhere closer to knowing what that plan is.
3. How long is Ryan Miller's leash, and what if Markstrom can't give them what they need from their backup?
Even talking about the goaltending situation in Vancouver is risky, as the opinions that people have are as divided as anything you'll see in the current Canadian election campaign. And let's face it, for a team trying desperately to reconnect with a jaded fan base, they did themselves zero favours when they traded away the immensely popular Eddie Lack to Carolina. So that leaves two very different and potentially huge issues in goal for the Canucks in Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom. Let's talk about Miller first.
Maybe it's because of where he played the bulk of his career? Or maybe it's because his most notable hockey moment came on the ice he calls home, giving up the OT goal to Sidney Crosby in the 2010 Olympics? Either way, Ryan Miller sure doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from a lot of people. And unfortunately for them, because of the injury that Miller suffered last season, the Canucks didn't get a full season to evaluate what they have for the next two seasons. There were times that Miller was outstanding, and then he would serve up a stinker. He's a lot like Roberto Luongo in that respect: when he's good, he's one of the best. But when he's bad? Good lord, it's hard to watch. Whether or not you have confidence in him, the Canucks made the playoffs last season thanks to the wins he managed to garner before going down with a knee injury. Is he 100%, and now a year older, can he give the Canucks more than 30 wins this year? If he doesn't, they're toast.
Jacob Markstrom is a very curious case. He was unreal in the AHL last season, going 22-7-2 in 32 games, with a 1.88 GAA and went 12 and 11 in the post season, leading the Comets to the AHL finals. But his NHL appearances have been marred by disastrous starts, leading some to question if he can ever translate his AHL success in the NHL. With the Canucks expected to give him between 30-35 starts this season, the pressure will be on Markstrom more than ever to show he has what it takes. While he can't be sent down to Utica thanks to a new one-way contract, it's safe to say that both Miller and Markstrom are going to have to prove the naysayers wrong if the Canucks want to have a shot at making the post-season. Will they have enough scoring and defensive support to help their goalkeepers this season? That remains to be seen, but as I told you all a few weeks back, the best thing to do for this season, is lower your expectations. It could be a very bumpy ride back to reality.