Regardless of what you think of Jim Benning's offseason moves, by the end of his second summer at the helm of the Vancouver Canucks front office he has certainly developed a reputation for making a lot of them. Last year it was the addition of Radim Vrbata, Ryan Miller, Nick Bonino, and Luca Sbisa (among others) that made him the talk of the league - talk that, for the most part, was positive.
His second at bat, however, wasn't met with the same optimism. Perhaps it was influenced by his re-signings of Sbisa and Derek Dorsett (which were decidedly awful), but Benning's decision-making has been questioned by everyone from contributors to this blog to the most renowned hockey analysts in the industry. Management had difficulty selling the public on any of the moves they made, as they shipped out beloved netminder Eddie Lack in favour of an older, more expensive Ryan Miller, dumped long-time fan favourite Kevin Bieksa in Anaheim and overpaid for Bradon Sutter both in trade and contract extension.
Throughout both summers, Benning has put an emphasis on developing a young team in a winning environment and icing a competitive team while getting younger - a rebuild-on-the-fly if you will. But though the Canucks made the playoffs last year with 101 points, this year will be more of a challenge, as the Pacific Division has added tons of star power in the form of Connor McDavid, Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton, Paul Martin and Michael Frolik and all its teams not based in Arizona look to compete for a playoff spot (yes, including Edmonton). So the big question is: have the Canucks matched the improvements from their rivals? Have they improved their roster at all? Is this team better than the one that lost in six games to the Calgary Flames in April?
Let's start by evaluating the organization's net gains and losses of players that are capable of playing in the NHL next year.
From a neutral point-of-view, you would be pretty hard-pressed to argue that the players on the left table are presently better on than those on the right (though they did add prospects with exciting potential, but not a lot of proven capability yet). Combine that with another year of aging for the team's best players (Sedins, Burrows, Hamhuis and starting goalie, Ryan Miller), and you have what is objectively not a better team.
Brandon Prust is a fourth-liner on a $2.5-million contract and has put up a paltry 1.08 P/60 at 5v5 and a negative Corsi score in both of his last two seasons. His shooting percentage of 6.6% is well below league forwards' average and his four goals at 5v5 in a full 82-game season is not nearly enough to replenish any of the offense that the Canucks lost this summer. Say what you will about Kassian's off-ice activities and controversies, but at least he was a legitimate top-nine forward who put up the team's fourth highest P/60 last year. His play on the defensive side of the puck was certainly questionable, and Prust's defense and penalty killing is an important part of what he brings to the table, but ultimately the Canucks objectively got the worse player in this deal (and tossed in a 5th round pick to boot).
Goal scoring is a huge cause of concern for the 2015/16 Canucks. The team lost its two highest scoring players at G/60 (Kassian and Matthias) for nobody of goalscoring value. They gave up Nick Bonino, whose P/60 average was well above league average, and Brad Richardson, whose 21 points in 45 games was fairly decent for a fourth-line penalty killer. Aside from Sutter, their replacements come internally, as they will promote players from Utica. We can safely assume Baertschi will be there, as he is waiver eligible, as well as one of Jake Virtanen, Brendan Gaunce, and Cole Cassels. Will any of these players help give the Canucks' top line some offensive support, or will secondary scoring be an even bigger problem this year than it was the last? It seems the latter is more likely.
Defense may be the Canucks' strongest position, which is surprising considering it features Luca Sbisa in a top-four role, but that doesn't mean that it is any stronger than last year. Trading aging veteran Kevin Bieksa to the Ducks may have been addition by subtraction (Bieksa's age caught up to him very quickly as evidenced by, well, all of last season), but beyond that Benning has added nobody of notice this offseason aside from Matt Bartkowski, who will most likely play on the bottom pairing.
Rookie Frank Corrado will have his first showcasing as an NHL regular although it is likely he will be in and out of the press box depending on injuries, serving as Vancouver's seventh defenceman. So while the Canucks' blueline hasn't been bolstered in any noticeable way, it hasn't got much worse either. It was a very neutral summer for Vancouver's defense.
Finally, the Canucks ongoing goaltending circus took another turn this summer with fan-favourite netminder Eddie Lack being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for a (measly) 3rd and 7th round pick at the 2015 NHL Draft. Whether the return for Lack was good enough value for a player of his calibre and if the decision to trade Lack over veteran goaltender Ryan Miller was a good one is a debate for another time, but as it stands on the current Canucks roster, Jacob Markstrom is replacing Lack as the backup goalie.
So how good is Markstrom? Well, the best answer we can give you now is that he is inexperienced. He has dominated every level of hockey he's ever played up until the NHL, but every time he has been called up to the NHL he has performed far worse than what would be anticipated. It's notoriously difficult to predict goalies' career trajectory based off of minor league numbers, but many scouts believe that he still has starter potential, citing his massive size and sound positional play.
That being said, his .896 career NHL sv% in 50 games is abysmal and replacing Lack, who objectively performed better than Miller last year, will be a tall task. So while Markstrom has more potential than his fellow Swede, Lack is clearly the better netminder presently, thus making goalie another position in which the Canucks took a step back.
Of course, it isn't this simple. There are many other variables in play that determine how the Canucks will fare over the coming season, including injuries and luck, and you can't possibly say that the Canucks will be worse this year than they were the last. This is sport. Anything is possible. But every indication we have right now suggests that the Canucks have absolutely not gotten better. Benning lost players to free agency for nothing and did not replace them with other NHL players. They traded some of their best P/60 players for players that have far, far worse career numbers and tossed away their best goaltender for peanuts. All this shapes up to what will likely be a pretty miserable season in Vancouver, with the playoffs seemingly a pipe dream.