The denial phase is over…probably. Rejoice, Vancouver Canucks fans. The 2017 trade deadline suggests maybe, just maybe, your team’s front office staff has finally acknowledged its ship is sinking. No more bailing out water. Time to descend to the bottom of the Pacific. Or so we hope.
The Canucks entered last year’s trade deadline 24-25-12, eight points out of a playoff position and primed to sell, yet couldn’t find trades for pending unrestricted free agents Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata. GM Jim Benning whiffed on both and even expressed interest in bringing Hamhuis back. It was a disastrous deadline day, with zero trades. Both UFAs departed in the summer, unsurprisingly.
Instead of acknowledging his roster wasn’t good enough, with key veterans like Daniel and Henrik Sedin too old and key youngsters like Bo Horvat and Jake Virtanen too young, Benning behaved like he was building a contender again in the summer. He dealt first-round pick Jared McCann, not to mention second- and fourth-rounders in the 2016 draft, to get veteran defensive help in Erik Gudbranson (along with a fifth-round pick). He threw $36 million and six years at UFA right winger Loui Eriksson. The contract looked ill advised the second it happened and only appears worse now, with Eriksson enduring one of his worst seasons.
The Canucks, then, remained mired in a grey area, not a contender, not a rebuilder, not knowing who they were. Flash forward to this week, with the Canucks 26-29-7, once again eight points out of a playoff berth, and the trade deadline went much better. Not only did Benning ship out pending UFA right winger Alexandre Burrows to the Ottawa Senators Tuesday, landing a decent prospect in Jonathan Dahlen, Benning also sent right winger Jannik Hansen to the San Jose Sharks for another respectable prospect, Nikolay Goldobin, and a conditional 2017 fourth-round pick.
The latter trade was especially encouraging because Hansen has a season left on his contract. Does dealing away a useful veteran with a remaining year of service tell us Vancouver is finally ready to blow things up? A pessimist might say no, that Hansen was merely a probable expansion draft casualty, that the Canucks’ protected group would look something like Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Horvat, Eriksson, Sven Baertschi, Brandon Sutter, Markus Granlund, Alexander Edler, Chris Tanev, Gudbranson and Jacob Markstrom, leaving no room for Hansen anyway. Since the Canucks arguably lack any other skaters they would want to protect, it’s not like Hansen had to stay as expansion draft bait to shield their other desirables.
So what do we think? Are we optimists or pessimists? Benning and president Trevor Linden have an opportunity here. They’ve sold off two veteran pieces. By year’s end they will have missed the playoffs three times in four seasons. Now they find themselves at a crucial fork in the road.
Option 1: stay the course and remain fighting for that playoff bubble. Treat the Hansen and Burrows trades not as a fire sale, but as merely good business because the expansion draft would’ve forced some rosters losses anyway. Realize that Eriksson has five years left on his contract, the Sedins remain Canucks, that Horvat is blossoming into a front-line NHLer, that Troy Stecher is a nice find on defense, and try to compete with win-now trades and signings in the off-season.
If I’m a Canucks fan, I’m praying the front office has finally awakened to Option 2. That means treating this week’s trades as the first step toward true acceptance. It means buying out Derek Dorsett, who carries a $2.65-million cap hit through 2018-19, if he recovers from his neck surgery soon enough to be deemed healthy. It means hoping the draft lottery brings a decent slot and a solid prospect to add to a pool that includes right winger Brock Boeser, goalie Thatcher Demko and defenseman Olli Juolevi.
And it means…broaching the subject of trading the Sedins. If Benning really means business with the Hansen and Burrows trades, if those moves signalled a true shift to a rebuild mentality, the Sedins should create buzz throughout the 2017-18 season as trade candidates. Why wouldn’t they? They’ll be pending UFAs, they still won’t have Stanley Cup rings and at 37 by then, they’ll still be decent enough players to help contending teams.
Sorting out a trade involving both would be among the most fascinating transactions in NHL history. First off, we have to assume both would prefer a deal to the same team. Given their $7-million cap hits, acquiring them would require brilliant salary cap management for both teams involved. Would the Canucks have to eat half each player’s salary? Not possible. The collective bargaining agreement only permits three retained salaries per team. The Canucks retained 20 percent of Hansen's for next year and have Roberto Luongo on the books still, so they could only retain salary for one Sedin, meaning the pair would cost at least $10.5 million to their new team. It’s doable at the deadline with the salaries pro-rated, but it won't be easy.
From a pure hockey and team chemistry perspective, it would be a disruptive trade for any team landing the Sedins, as they come as a pair who play on the same line. A team dealing for the Sedins would likely already be a good one and would essentially be parachuting a new second line onto the roster.
And most importantly, the question the Sedins will likely face all next season unless they sign extensions in the summer…do they want to go? Most players like to chase that elusive Cup. Ray Bourque did it. Jarome Iginla waived his no-movement clause Wednesday to do it. Shane Doan even came around and expressed interest in doing it this year, albeit too late. But for every Bourque or Iginla, there’s a Chris Phillips, a player so comfortable in one place for so long that he simply doesn’t want to uproot. The Sedins, who possess no-movement clauses, could fall into that category, rendering any talk of a blockbuster moot.
But Vancouver fans have to hope the Sedins hunger enough for a championship to make themselves available via trade if and when the team falls out of contention again next winter. They have to hope Benning and president Trevor Linden are done hedging their bets and ready to accept life as a basement dweller for the sake of long-term betterment. The franchise may have ushered in that era this week. It’s too early to know for sure, however. The fan base can only cross their collective fingers.