NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the Vancouver Canucks.
Jim Benning spent this summer a lot like he did his first two as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, trying to walk the fine line between adding youth to an aging lineup without sacrificing its chances of getting back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After the Canucks missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, they acquired 24-year-old defenseman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with the Florida Panthers and signed 31-year-old free agent forward Loui Eriksson to a six-year, $36 million contract. The second addition only cost the Canucks money, but much like a trade to acquire center Brandon Sutter from the Pittsburgh Penguins the summer before, Benning was questioned about the Gudbranson trade because it involved sending two draft picks and 20-year-old center Jared McCann to the Panthers.
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Many wondered why a team that finished 28th in the NHL was trading picks and prospects instead of stockpiling them, especially with a general manager who was hired in large part for his draft expertise.
"I've had to move some draft picks in the last couple of years because I want the team to be competitive and I want our young players to grow up in a winning environment," Benning said. "That's been hard, moving those picks, but I think we are getting to a point now where unless it's a really good young player, we won't be moving any more picks."
Trading those picks was about filling in a generation gap in the roster, with an aging core anchored by Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, who turn 36 before the season, and prospects Bo Horvat (21), Ben Hutton (23) and Jake Virtanen (19). Draft picks were traded away for Derek Dorsett, Linden Vey, Sven Baertschi and Philip Larsen, and in packages for Andrey Pedan, Emerson Etem, Brandon Prust, Sutter and Gudbranson.
"There was not a lot of turnover before I came because the team was very good, so we had a bunch of 32- to 34-year-old players and then the kids we were drafting," Benning said. "That's tough to win with consistently. You need that age group from 22 to 28, those are players I feel you can win with. Some of the moves we made are going to work out really nice and some other moves didn't work out, but that's what we had to try to do to fill in that age group."
Gudbranson fits that demographic, and is nine years younger than the defenseman he replaces, Dan Hamhuis, who signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent. Eriksson is outside that age group but four years younger than the player he replaces, free agent Radim Vrbata.
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Gudbranson will be asked to help clear the crease and steady a defense that finished 23rd in the NHL giving up an average of 2.91 goals per game. Eriksson is a strong two-way forward but was added mostly to bolster the NHL's second-worst offense, with a 2.27 goals per game average that was better only than the New Jersey Devils (2.22).
"Gudbranson brings a physical presence to our back end, and leadership," Benning said, citing a deficit of each after trading Kevin Bieksa to the Anaheim Ducks last summer. "He was one of Florida's go-to guys in a matchup role and that's what we envision him doing for us."
Whether it's enough to get a team that ranked 27th in the NHL with a 47.2 5-on-5 shot-attempt percentage last season back to the playoffs remains to be seen, especially because Gudbranson's possession numbers (46.4 shot-attempt percentage) were worse, though likely affected by tough minutes starting in his zone against the opposition's top players.
A healthy Sutter should help after injuries limited him to 20 games last season. So could the additions of forward Anton Rodin, the Swedish League MVP last season, and defenseman Philip Larsen, who replaces free agent defenseman and power-play specialist Yannick Weber and should get an opportunity to play on the top unit after finishing fifth in scoring among Kontinental Hockey League defensemen with 11 goals and 36 points in 52 games for Jokerit last season.
Rodin, 25, and Larsen, 26, also fit the demographic Benning wants, but like Baertschi and Horvat, they will need to provide offense.
"We need to score more goals this year," Benning said, "And we have some young players that took a step last year and they are going to have to keep getting better for us this year."