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Canucks believe they're better equipped for playoffs

by Kevin Woodley continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

VANCOUVER -- After entering the offseason vowing to get younger, the Vancouver Canucks confused many of their fans this summer with some unpopular trades that left them older at several positions.

General manager Jim Benning said the moves will open spots for young players and address shortcomings identified in a six-game loss to the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference First Round.

The Canucks traded two popular players, goalie Eddie Lack and defenseman Kevin Bieksa; cost-effective center Nick Bonino; promising but inconsistent power forward Zack Kassian; and defense prospect Adam Clendening. Coming to Vancouver are center Brandon Sutter, forward Brandon Prust and draft picks.

"We have some young players that need an opportunity to play in the NHL and show what they can do, so we made some tough decisions to make room for these players," Benning said, identifying forwards Sven Baertschi, Ronalds Kenins and Jake Virtanen, along with goalie Jacob Markstrom. "I'm OK if we take a little bit of a step back in the regular season to make our team better in the playoffs. That was the intent of what we were looking at when we made the moves we made."

The Canucks have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs six of the past seven seasons but have not advanced past the first round since reaching the Cup Final in 2011.

Vancouver's moves started with the trade at the 2015 NHL Draft that sent Lack to the Carolina Hurricanes for the third-round draft pick the Canucks used to select defenseman Guillaume Brisebois, and a seventh-round pick at the 2016 draft.

Vancouver got younger by replacing Lack, 27, with Markstrom, 25, but Benning has been criticized after admitting at an event for season-ticket holders that there was enough interest from other teams in goaltender Ryan Miller, 35, that the Canucks could have kept the two younger goalies.

Instead, they traded Lack, who led the Canucks with a .921 save percentage last season and carried them into the playoffs after Miller injured his knee in late February. Lack was pulled early in Game 4 against the Flames and backed up Miller the final two games.

"Goalies in this market, for whatever reason, are always under the microscope, and I felt we needed an experienced goalie," said Benning, who helped draft Miller with the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 and signed him to a three-year, $18 million contract last summer. "And Markstrom looks to me like he is going to develop into a really good No. 1 goalie, and we wanted him to get up and going."

The Canucks got younger by trading Bieksa, 34, to the Anaheim Ducks on June 30 for a 2016 second-round pick, a move that made room for 22-year-old right-shot defensemen Frank Corrado and Clendening, who each re-signed with Vancouver on July 8.

They got older when they traded Kassian, 24, to the Montreal Canadiens on July 1 for Prust, a 31-year-old fourth-line energy forward who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Benning said acquiring Prust became necessary after trading Bieksa.

"Kevin gave our team a courage level to work and compete every game, and when we moved him I thought it was important to get a type of player that can supply that," the second-year GM said. "We just felt we needed a bit more grit. The playoffs is tough, physical hockey, and I felt we needed more grit and bringing in both Brandons -- Prust and Sutter -- gives us that competitiveness and grit we need to win."

Vancouver acquired Sutter and a third-round pick in 2016 from the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 28 for Clendening, the second-round pick they received from the Ducks in the Bieksa trade, and Bonino, 27.

Critics have argued Sutter isn't an upgrade on the second-line center hole created by the June 2014 trade of Ryan Kesler and filled by Bonino last season, at least not offensively. Sutter's possession statistics suggest he's a fourth-line center, so criticism increased when the Canucks signed the 26-year-old to a five-year, $21.875 million contract extension with no-trade protection Aug. 4.

Benning, who called Sutter a foundation player, views the speedy forward as key to filling the gap between an aging core led by Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, who each turn 35 in late September, and young players including Bo Horvat, who may be ready to take on some second-line offensive minutes after finding his scoring stride as a rookie in the second half of the 2014-15 season.

"We acquired Sutter to give us more depth and speed through the middle of the ice, and he is a matchup player too," Benning said. "We're expecting Bo to come in and have a real good year, but I don't want to put too much pressure on him to have to score."

Sutter's 21 goals last season matched his NHL career high; his career best of 40 points was in 2009-10 with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Even after allowing 27-year-old Shawn Matthias (18 goals in 78 games in 2014-15) to leave in free agency, Benning doesn't seem concerned about scoring. The bigger focus is finding the right balance between the skilled prospects on the way and the right kind of veteran presence to guide them.

"I want to be competitive and I want our young guys to learn from our older guys the things they have to do to play the right way to win," he said. "It's invaluable to have veterans that can teach our young players what it means to be a Vancouver Canuck."

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