Vancouver Canucks: Projecting when they make playoffs again

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 21: The starting line-up for the Vancouver Canucks (L-R) Sven Baertschi
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 21: The starting line-up for the Vancouver Canucks (L-R) Sven Baertschi /

The Vancouver Canucks keep trying to piece together a playoff team despite missing it in three of the last four years. The playoffs are a long shot in 2018, so how much longer will fans have to wait until spring hockey returns?

Since general manager Jim Benning was hired in 2014, the Vancouver Canucks have been trying to retool on the fly. Benning and president Trevor Linden have tried to draft well and develop future superstars while also adding enough veterans so they could compete for the postseason.

It worked in 2015, as the Canucks surprisingly finished second in the ultra-difficult Pacific Division. However, the younger and faster Calgary Flames diminished the Canucks in six games.

Vancouver has missed the playoffs in each of the past two years, but it’s helped them add two more (hopeful), franchise cornerstones, defenceman Olli Juolevi and centre Elias Pettersson in the draft.

Despite his many critics, Benning has done a very good job bringing young talent to this team. He drafted Brock Boeser (who should be a perennial 20-30 goal-man in the NHL), and robbed the Flames in separate trades for Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund.

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He also signed B.C. boy Troy Stecher and drafted a possible franchise goalie in Thatcher Demko. But bad contracts to players like Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa and Loui Eriksson have caused many to distrust Benning. No GM is perfect, and he’s done a fascinating job trying to balance rebuilding and staying competitive.

But after flipping Jannik Hansen and Alexandre Burrows at the trade deadline for Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlin, respectively, Benning signaled his intentions that a full-scale rebuild was on. Linden confirmed this in April.

However, signing Sam Gagner, Michael Del Zotto and Thomas Vanek makes the Canucks a better team on paper. It almost seems like the front office is still trying to build a playoff-caliber team.

With the Sedin twins entering contract years (and possibly their last seasons in Vancouver), this rebuilding project could just be beginning. So how much longer until the Canucks return to the postseason? Let’s take a look.

Western Conference is loaded

Unfortunately for the Canucks, the Western Conference is loaded with way too many quality teams. We know the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators are Stanley Cup contenders. The other two California teams, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues are playoff contenders.

So the Canucks are definitely not ready to make noise in the West. But as I’ve discussed many times, some of these Western powerhouses are nearing the end of their dominant reigns.

The Ducks have an aging core, with Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry on the wrong side of 30. The Blackhawks looked old and slow against Nashville in their first-round sweep. How much longer can Jonathan Toews (29), Patrick Kane (29 in November), Duncan Keith (34), and Brent Seabrook (32), hang on?

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The Blues have had to let key players like Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie leave because of cap constraints. San Jose, Los Angeles and Minnesota have too many core players nearing the ends of their primes, too. These players include Joe Thornton (38), Joe Pavelski (33), Anze Kopitar (30), Jonathan Quick (31), and Zach Parise (33), Ryan Suter (32), and Eric Staal (33 in October).

Put it this way: By 2019, many of these teams in the West will have core players in their mid-to-late 30s. For the Canucks, guys like Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton, Granlund, Baertschi, Boeser, Stecher, Juolevi and perhaps even Pettersson will be in and/or entering their primes.

Looking ahead, only a few Western teams like Calgary, Edmonton and Nashville have teams that are built to win now and in the next five years. Vancouver will already be richer in young talent than most teams by 2019-2020.

Canucks still need time

The main problem facing the Canucks is they don’t quite have a star with that “franchise player” label. That’s why it hurt them to miss out on a chance to draft Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine.

All Stanley Cup champions need the franchise scorers or two, plus a franchise defenceman and world class goalie. Juolevi figures to be that blue liner. Demko is hoping to be that goalie, but we have no idea yet. Vancouver still has problems on defence and plenty of questions in net. When the Sedins eventually leave, Horvat and the young kids will have the pressure of transitioning into a new era on their own.

Vancouver’s top young players and prospects aren’t in their primes just yet. We know 2017-18 is another rebuilding year. 2018-19 will be a year where some of the West’s top teams get older and a bit slower.

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But 2019-20? That is shaping up to be a playoff year for Vancouver. They’ll be one of the youngest and fastest teams in the Western Conference by then. Realistically, that’s when you can expect Vancouver to challenge for and/or make the playoffs. If my calculations are correct, just wait two-and-a-half more years, Canucks fans.