VANCOUVER -- With first-line center Henrik Sedin and top-four defenseman Dan Hamhuis expected back from injury this week, the Vancouver Canucks will be completely healthy for the first in more than 12 weeks.
It will be the first time the roster has been intact since center Brandon Sutter sustained a sports hernia on Nov. 10 and missed 33 games. But whether they stay together past the Feb. 29 NHL Trade Deadline will depend on how they play the next few weeks.
"This is their opportunity to play well, to win and to stay together as a group," general manager Jim Benning said Tuesday, insisting he hadn't yet explored the trade market for players like Hamhuis and forward Radim Vrbata, who will both be unrestricted free agents this summer. "Our UFAs like it here, they want to stay here, so that will be up to them on how they play and how the team does from here until the deadline."
Benning wants to see how a healthy roster does before making that decision.
"Vancouver (20-19-11) returns after the All-Star break two points behind the Arizona Coyotes for third place in the Pacific Division. However, they have played one more game than the Coyotes and three more than the Anaheim Ducks, who have the same number of points as the Canucks.
The Canucks got Sutter back before the All-Star break after he missed 33 games, and Sedin expects to return against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday after missing four games with an upper-body injury. Hamhuis, who has been out since taking a slap shot to the face during a Dec. 9 game against the New York Rangers, would also like to return Thursday but might be forced to wait until Saturday against the Calgary Flames.
"To be where we are right now, right in the playoff race with the amount of injuries we had and the schedule, it's a good spot," Sedin said, noting 19 of Vancouver's final 32 games are at home. "But we have to be careful not to think we have our full lineup back and it's going to be a lot of home games coming up and maybe take a step back and not be as focused. You need to be careful to not think it's going to be way too easy."
It's hard to imagine the Canucks' path to a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as easy.
Vancouver has 13 regulation wins in 50 games, is 24th in the NHL with a minus-17 goal differential and 22nd with 122 goals scored. The Canucks' possession numbers in all situations are in the bottom third of the League. Many believe Benning should be trading off older assets for prospects and draft picks, but he made it clear again Tuesday that a playoff spot remains the Canucks' priority.
"We're going to be healthy for the first time, so we want to see where we are at in the standings and from there we will decide what we are going to do at the trade deadline," Benning said. "To get our young players in playoff games, that's experience that is invaluable so for us our goal is to make the playoffs and if we can get our young players games I think that trumps everything."
As much as management still wants to make the playoffs, the players got another reminder Tuesday they aren't afraid to jettison veterans in the ongoing quest to get younger.
Veteran forward Brandon Prust was placed on waivers earlier in the day, and if he clears could be sent to the American Hockey League, joining Chris Higgins, an 11-year NHL veteran who was waived and demoted by the Canucks in early January. Benning said he tried to trade Prust, another impending unrestricted free agent who had seven points in 35 games, but the priority is to make room for younger, faster players.
"That shows what they are willing to do to get better and that's something we know in here," Henrik Sedin said. "I think that's a clear message."
So was signing defenseman Alex Biega, a 27-year-old with 32 NHL games, to a one-way contract extension worth $1.5 million over the next two seasons. Biega's new contract means there is one less spot available for fellow defensemen Hamhuis, Matt Bartkowski and Yannick Weber, each of whom can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Some players will use those messages as motivation over the next month. Hamhuis hopes to send a message of his own.
"The focus right now is helping the team win and putting Jim Benning in a place where he can become a buyer and make a good run here in the playoffs," said Hamhuis, who will wear a plastic jaw protector when he returns after sustaining "15 to 20" fractures and needing two plates in his cheek after being hit by a slap shot. "It would be good to go on a run here and put ourselves in good position for playoffs and instead of thinking about trades and selling, looking at buying and building a team for the playoffs. We'd love to put him in that position."