VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks' management team is committed to making the team younger during its second offseason in charge, but only if it makes the club better as well.
And even if it means a second straight summer of asking veterans to waive no-trade clauses.
Speaking for the first time being eliminated by the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference First Round on Saturday, general manager Jim Benning and director of hockey operations Trevor Linden reiterated their plan to supplement an aging core with younger players without sacrificing the goal of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We don't plan on taking any steps backwards," said Linden, who was hired last April and brought in Benning a month later. "We are trying to win. We are trying to make the playoffs, and we are going to do everything we can to do that. Having said that, we have to keep a firm eye on the future and we need to develop players. But we can't put players in the lineup that aren't ready to play."
Linden and Benning answered questions about the sustainability of an aging core that is 3-12 in the playoffs since reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. There was plenty of talk about turning over a roster that has eight key players who are 31 or older and two more who will turn 30 next season, but Benning and Linden made it clear that the youth movement will be a gradual process.
"The issues I came into last year, they are not fixed in a year," Linden said. "We know we have got a lot of work to do, and the fact we had a good season doesn't mask the challenges that are in front of us."
That might be a tough sell to a fan base clamoring for change despite the Canucks' rebound from a 25th-place finish in the overall standings last season to second place in the Pacific Division and a home-ice advantage to start the playoffs. Any goodwill seemed to be lost after being knocked out by Calgary in six games, the Canucks' third straight first-round exit.
Benning pointed to the Flames, who got key contributions from young players and rookies such as 18-year-old Sam Bennett, Michael Ferland and Johnny Gaudreau against the Canucks.
"That's what we're looking to do," Benning said. "We know we are getting a little bit older, but we want to bring in younger players to supplement the energy and skill level of our whole group."
The danger of continuing to push for the playoffs is that the Canucks might miss out on the kind of high-end draft pick that can turn around a franchise. Without more of those top picks, they don't appear good enough to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
"I guess there is [a risk], but we are trying to add core prospects on the fly," Benning said. "You can have a lot of good young players, but if they don't learn what it takes to win and have older players showing them the right way to play, you end up with a team full of real good players that never wins anything. We want our kids to learn how to play in a winning environment."
Just as their players did Monday, Benning, Linden and coach Willie Desjardins all pointed to the successful rookie season of center Bo Horvat, who made the team as a 19-year-old. Horvat was selected ninth in the 2013 NHL Draft, a pick the Canucks got in a trade for No. 1 goaltender Cory Schneider. Vancouver does have a promising power forward Jake Virtanen, who was picked sixth in the 2014 draft, but the rest of their prospects are from deeper in the draft.
That group includes forwards Jared McCann (2014), Hunter Shinkaruk (2013), Brendan Gaunce (2012) and Nicklas Jensen (2011), who has played 19 NHL games. All of them were picked later in the first round. But as Linden and Desjardins warned, few prospects are as ready as Horvat, who earned his coach's trust with his strong defensive play in the first half of the season, then scored 10 of his 13 goals and had 16 of 24 points after the All-Star Break. Horvat also tied for the team playoff lead with four points.
"Bo Horvat was pretty special," Desjardins said. "It would be unfair to expect other younger players to come in and perform like that. Some may, but it's unfair to put that expectation on other players."
The Canucks also tried to fill their gap in 20- to 25-year-old prospects with in-season trades for defenseman Adam Clendening from the Chicago Blackhawks and forward Sven Baertschi from Calgary.
Center - VAN
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 25
SOG: 93 | +/-: -8
The next step is finding places for them to play.
All nine players remaining from the 2011 playoffs have some form of no-trade protection in their clauses. Forward spots will likely open with the likely departure of unrestricted free agents like Brad Richardson and Shawn Matthias. But the top-five defensemen are signed through next season, and Benning said he expects to re-sign restricted free agent defenseman Yannick Weber, who scored 11 goals this season.
That figures to make it hard to find room for Clendening and 22-year-old Frank Corrado, who has played 28 games in Vancouver during the past three seasons. Each would require waivers next season if the Canucks want to send them to the minors.
Benning said he will create space if necessary, even if it means asking a veteran to waive a no-trade clause, as he did last summer with hometown defenseman Jason Garrison.
"We are not afraid to approach them and ask them to waive," Benning said.
Don't expect Desjardins to change his four-line philosophy either.
The first-year NHL coach admitted in hindsight that he might have increased the ice time of top-line forwards Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin early in the series against Calgary, but said he has no plans to alter his balanced approach during the regular season. Not only did it keep his older players fresh late in the season, but it also made everyone feel important.
"I think it made us have one of the best dressing rooms in the League," Desjardins said.
"Talking with Daniel and Henrik [Sedin], the one thing they said was how involved that locker room was, top to bottom," Linden said. "To have a group of guys four lines deep that feel like they are a part of it and feel like they can make a difference every night was probably the reason we had a lot of success."
The question now is whether they can have more success while continuing to get younger.