Vancouver Canucks X-Factors – Season of Uncertainties


The 2015-16 version of the Vancouver Canucks seems to be turning heads early in this 82-game season. Though perhaps a premature conclusion to amplify their 3-1-1 record to a 48-18-16 record over 82 games, this team looked resilient in all situations: no glaring bad goals on now-undisputed-starter Ryan Miller, no ‘pizza plays’ by our scapegoat Luca Sbisa, and no rookies are falling behind. Just not quite yet.

The squad is littered with pleasant surprises this year. Just the fact that Ben Hutton made it onto the NHL roster and bumped Yannik Weber and his exceptionally cap-friendly contract off the Canucks top-6, is a testament of where this management is going. Lauded for finally taking the youth movement in stride this year, the front office should also rejoice in how Adam Cracknell is being a more-than-serviceable replacement for Linden Vey.

But the squad also lacks the capping stone. The top-9 looks like a mess with rookies and veterans flying all over the place, stuck between checking and scoring roles. Jakob Markstrom is out with an injury that will make us all scared out of our wits whenever Ryan Miller gets ran into. The Canucks leading forwards are still a slow bunch as evident in their loss to St. Louis, unable to match the likes of Tarasenko and Steen, and their speed.

It is a season of uncertainties.

Youth will be served, but on a fine line defined by sophomore coach Willie Desjardins. The Sedins ill score, but limited by their lack of speed and a finishing touch. What will happen to players on expiring contracts?

In this final installment of the Canucks X-Factors, we will look at the last two players on my list, Radim Vrbata and Brendan Sutter.

Radim Vrbata

The last year’s leading scorer for the Vancouver Canucks is playing for a new contract as his two-year $10.0M contract expires this year. The main speculation is that Hamhuis and Vrbata will be expendable for youth and draft picks in return. I would bet that Vrbata would be enough to fetch a late 1st-round draft pick when traded to a decent contender. However, this will only happen if – and only if – the Canucks are out of the playoff hunt before the Trade Deadline.

But that might not be the case anymore.

The Canucks seem poised to push for the playoffs to the bitter ends of March and April. Their division looks less hostile, though only a handful games into the season, with the Oilers seemingly tanking once again and the Kings failing to find their legs. The Ducks are struggling to get scoring, and for another season, have no substantial faith in their goaltending.

When it is all said and done, the Canucks are second in the Pacific Division, only behind the San Jose Sharks who are leading the Western Conference with an incredible start to the year behind goaltender Martin Jones. A few surprises let Arizona take the 3rd spot in the division, and that is how the Pacific Division become the most friendly division in the entire NHL.

Maybe the Canucks won’t be able to trade Vrbata this season.

This echoes a sentiment surrounding Vrbby’s scoresheets five games into the season. Though with 19 shots (second only to Daniel Sedin’s 20 shots) Vrbata is a minus-3 and without a single point to show for.

I would take it that even if we want to trade Vrbata, there won’t be any buyers for the 34-year-old winger. Vrbata’s trade value seems even less than that of Chris Higgins at this stage of the season, and Jim Benning told us all last year that there were no suitors for a Higgins trade. Nil.

Bottomline for Vrbata is that he probably will be staying for the team, unless he has an offensive breakout that does not result in the Canucks pushing for the playoffs. High unlikely. The reason why he is an X-factor is that his future with the Canucks is hopelessly uncertain.

Brendan Sutter

As for Brendan Sutter, our Nick Bonino trade return, he is making his boss look good. He looks much more versatile than Bonino, as Sutter plays on the wing with the Sedins, the net-front on the 1st PP, the 3rd-line center when McCann is not playing, and of course, the PK unit.

And the Bonino-Sutter trade looks better because we got ourselves a Ben Hutton to cheer about, because Clendening played just one game and got stuck in the penalty box for 4 minutes.

Early in the season, Sutter is already a main part of the reason why the Canucks PK is tied for 3rd in the league at 92.3% kill rate. Sutter is also the team’s leading scorer at a point per game through 5 games. He also is tied for the lead with 2 goals, and also for the lead at 3 assists. Compared that to Bonino, who is playing about 5 less minutes per game, a minus-1, and without a single offensive point to show for. We won the trade short-term, eh?

Sutter is getting points off the face-offs, off the SH, and off the cycle with the Sedins. He is doing everything right offensively, which was the criticism coming from the Bonino comparison.

Here is my bold X-Factor statement.

If Sutter has a 60-point season, the Canucks will make the playoffs, barring major injuries to the Sedins, the top defense pairing, or to Ryan Miller.

You know he will be responsible defensively (he is blocking shots at a block-per-game rate), and you know that he is hitting his prime years. Can he lead the Canucks to the playoffs?

My prediction for Sutter: 25 goals, 35 assists for 60 points.

Next: Sven Baertschi: Vancouver Canucks X-Factor #3

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