Vancouver Canucks: What to Be Excited for in 2016


The Vancouver Canucks have a lot of things to celebrate as they welcome the New Year.

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The Vancouver Canucks did a great job in 2015 in playing an entertaining brand of hockey. But now, they will have to play a winning brand of hockey, one headlined by youth and a new dynamic core. That might have to start by making some trades, to make room for the kids coming up.

But recapping the tale of the 2015 season thus far, it has not been half bad for the Canucks. Three kids — Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, and Ben Hutton — made the team, and Sven Baertschi settled in, behind sophomore Bo Horvat. Alex Biega is making a very strong case to stick with the team, and so is Luca Sbisa. On a nightly basis, the Canucks have gone from one kid dressed —  Bo Horvat at the beginning of the 2015 year — to now five players who could be considered prospects.

The Canucks are not doing well in the standings. But they are playing respectable hockey with a younger lineup, one pushed to the brink with injuries, namely, to their most experienced defenceman in Dan Hamhuis, and their best defensive forward in Brandon Sutter. Watching the Canucks push back — like at the tale end of the road trip against the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightnings — you could see the team fighting back. And with the latest winning trend, you can see them coming back to life.

Imagine the possibilities when Sutter returns in mid-January. How much better the team’s defence will be with Sbisa and Hamhuis back in Yannick Weber‘s spot? When a top-four defenceman comes to Vancouver? With those things in mind, let us look at what the Vancouver Canucks need to do going into 2016, to continue walking this fine line of a winning rebuild. It seems that great things are in store for our Vancouver Canucks.

1. Trade Chris Higgins, Yannick Weber, and maybe even Alex Burrows.

The main fear of trading veterans is exposing the kids and potentially sinking the ship, down to Auston Matthews Land. But with what the Canucks have gone through, given their current situation, they have no reason not to hit the “eject” button on some of their veterans. You know, “Auston Matthews Land” is not the worst of places, nor is it so far-fetched. In this crazy Pacific Division, who knows what will happen.

Related: Struggling Pacific a Win-Win for Canucks

Secondly, the team will not be losing out on too much talent by trading either one of Higgins, Weber, or Burrows. The three are combining for 18 points in a total of 83 games played this season. That is simply not acceptable for players who are playing top-nine forward minutes and top-four defence minutes. Playing them does not do much to improve the team, and shipping them out will not hurt half as much.

Thirdly, the kids are ready for it. As ridiculous as that might sound, they are. Ben Hutton is already playing good minutes with Hamhuis out. JMcCann and Horvat are already playing exposed minutes, and when Sutter comes back, missing a couple of struggling wingers will not stress their minutes. In fact, I would rather see the Kids playing more than Higgins, Burrows, or Weber. Go ahead and play the veterans if you want to pay more and win less, dear Trader Jim.

2. Appreciate Brandon Sutter and the Younger Core

Remember that trade? I am not saying it was a good trade by Jim Benning. But by now, I hope you understand how good of a player Sutter is, especially in light of who Nick Bonino was. Sutter might not have been a foundational player coming in, but he certainly is playing a foundational role, and that is all that matters for this Canucks squad doing the rebuild-on-the-fly.

What I mean by the “young core” is the group of players from 26 to 30 who are carrying the team along with the ancient-yet-superstar Sedins. Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, and Alex Edler top the group as 29-year-olds, and Matt Bartkowski, Biega, and Chris Tanev round out the group. All these names are centrepieces for the Canucks, they are the core of the team that will bring up the list of Kids who are about to join the NHL ranks.

Related: Canucks are Ready for the Post-Sedin Era

These players have three to five more years of healthy hockey ahead of them. In those years, Brock Boeser will assume Daniel Sedin‘s role, and Virtanen will take his place on the top right-wing spot. Shinkaruk will join Baertschi in the realm of the second-line scoring playmaker, with Hutton doing his fair share of playmaking at the defensive end.

A Jacob Markstrom-Thatcher Demko tandem could become a top-tier goaltending duo of the NHL, and Horvat, McCann, and Sutter will become a tough offensive backbone down the middle. God knows what Jordan Subban, Carl Neill, or even Dmitri Zhukenov could become. Imagine the possibilities.

3. Let the Kids Play Their Game

Ian McIntyre remarked on TSN1040 that Horvat was ‘choking’ his own game, burdening himself mentally with taking on a big role for the Canucks. Luckily, that was Bo, and not a Virtanen, McCann, or Hutton. Now we hope that Virtanen is not clouding up his own play at the World Juniors with all the spotlight on him returning for the Canada Gold.

And how nice has Hutton been? No one need to worry about him, as he is making that ever-so-patient outlet pass and out-waiting opposing forecheckers. Though he is playing slightly sheltered minutes, the eye test tells me that he is growing into a fine player, one nobody needs to worry about hitting a slump. Heck, he has not had a point for nine games going into the L.A. Kings game and nobody really cares!

Related: Bo Horvat: Sophomore Slump is No Reason for Concern

These are kids who have excelled at every level of their careers — until now. Let them play their game, the style that dominated the ice rink. It is not as if McCann and Virtanen are re-incarnations of Mason Raymond, to give a stereotypical Canuck example of a forward who cannot defend. These players are responsible two-way players, the way they have dominated throughout their junior careers. Just let them play.

This should be Willie Desjardins’s New Year Resolution, to let the Kids play. Why do kids like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair look so good? The coaches let them loose, and let them play offence with confidence, let them make some nasty dangles and score some sick goals. Doing a simple comparison of Domi vs. McCann, here is what I found, credits to Keep in mind, Domi is 20, and McCann is still 19.

McCann’s Corsi For percentage at 47.4 percent is superior to Domi’s 43.4 percent.
On average, McCann gets two fewer minutes of ice time each game compared to Domi.
McCann starts 53.0 percent of shifts in the attacking zone, while Domi starts 58.7 percent of his there.
McCann had six more takeaways (20) than giveaways (14) while Domi had five more giveaways (19) than takeaways (14).

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Bottomline? McCann is doing his part. While facing tougher deployment and less ice time than Domi has, McCann out-duels his 20-year-old senior by a mile on the possession metrics. He is a better two-way player than Domi, the 12th overall selection of the 2013 NHL draft. What does this mean? Willie Desjardins, play your kids.

The Vancouver Canucks are still in it this year. Quite an impressive bunch of resilient players, if you ask me. The kids are doing their part, and the new emerging core, behind the Sedins, is ready. It is time for GM Jim Benning to recognize how expendable some veterans are, and to pull some deals through — hockey trades that make the team better now and for the future.

The first wave of change came and went, quick and plagued by injuries. The first half of the season was a cauldron that fused the team together, putting the new core in place. Now, the growing pain is going, and the injured pieces of the core are coming back into place. Vancouver Canucks, your real season is just about to start, and it is looking like a great one.

Next: Could Vancouver start Trading the Kids?

Dear Jim Benning. You have done a good job this year. You did not erase the aging core, but instead, set the foundation to grow a younger one in its place. You put in place a great-looking offensive prospect pool, and the future of your goaltending seems to be set in Markstrom and Demko. This new year, it is time to finally made the wholesale removal of the aging core. It is time. For the second wave of Changes.