While the Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning was chasing an evasive Oliver Ekman-Larsson, something happened to his defense. Part of it left.
Chris Tanev hit a home run by signing with the Calgary Flames for four years at $18 million per season. Troy Stecher hit a double when he signed with the Detroit Red Wings for two years at $1.7 million per season.
Had Benning not chased an Ekman-Larsson dream, would Tanev or Stecher have left? Tanev got a ton of money with Calgary, but it’s likely the Canucks could have squeezed the coffers for $1.7 million for Stecher – hometown boy and all.
Now the team is left with a defense that will be built around young star Quinn Hughes, the experience and size of Tyler Myers, a pretty reliable, if not exciting, Jordie Benn, and long-time Canuck veteran Alex Edler. Where might the team find a couple of good defensemen to round out this foursome? There two ways – from inside and from outside.
Who Do the Canucks Already Have?
Oscar Fantenberg (Perhaps)
Prior to the 2019-20 season, Benning signed Oscar Fantenberg for one season at $850,000. Fantenberg became a UFA on Friday October 9. If I were Benning, given what I know now, one thing I might try to do is track down and re-sign Fantenberg. Last season Fantenberg started behind Benn, but played himself into the lineup and showed that he was steady. In fact, he made Benn a healthy scratch for most of the end of the regular season.
As I watched the team play, I believed I could see that Fantenberg consistently looked out for Hughes and took care of his young prodigy. If I could sign Fanterberg for a good price, I’d give him Tanev’s old job of riding shotgun for Hughes.
Olli Juolevi (For Sure)
The Canucks drafted Olli Juolevi fifth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. During the 2019-20 season, Juolevi played with the Utica Comets, and started the season with 13 points in 18 games. He sustained a meniscus tear that required surgery, which set back his development and slowed his progress.
When the Canucks drafted Juolevi, they hoped he’d become a top-pairing defenseman; but, that hasn’t happened – yet. Many Canucks fans believed Juolevi played like a young Edler – a sort of quiet, under-the-radar game that was steady and didn’t make mistakes. Juolevi is also responsible in his own end and is a puck-mover. He’s also like Edler in that he’s a team-oriented player.
The fifth-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft scored two goals and 25 points in 45 games during the 2019-20 season with Utica. However, during January after he was healed, he had 12 points in 11 games. Then, during the postseason training camp, Juolevi surprised many when he made the Canucks 31-man roster proving his red-hot January wasn’t a fluke.
He made his NHL debut during the playoffs and he has a chance of become a roster fixture starting in the 2020-21 season. Although he’s taken a bit of a long and winding road to get here, he shows flashes of what the organization saw in him when he was drafted. (from Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT), Ed Willes, The Province, 08/08/20)
Jack Rathbone (For Sure)
The same 2017 NHL Entry Draft that brought the Canucks Elias Pettersson also saw them draft Jack Rathbone during the fourth round (95th overall). The 20-year-old defenseman chose to attend Harvard University, which is never a bad choice when a young man is looking past an NHL career into the future.
But, when COVID-19 hit, Rathbone gave up working on his undergraduate degree at Harvard to sign a three-year entry-level contract with the Canucks. Rathbone has game. In 28 games with Harvard, he had seven goals and 24 assists (31 points). He’s 21-years-old now and might be able to jump to the team.
Who Might the Canucks Be Looking At?
The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta reports that the Canucks have reached out to three free agent defensemen thus far. They are:
Travis Hamonic played his last game with the Calgary Flames during the regular season and chose to stay home and not risk a COVID-19 infection. Hamonic is a 30-year-old UFA, but given his style of play, he’s probably able to rely on muscle memory, hard work, and experience to play his defensive style.
Hamonic’s been with the Flames for three seasons and during 2019-20 played 50 games. Scoring isn’t his forte, and he totalled only three goals and nine assists in those games. He’d be a good partner for the youngster Hughes.
Sami Vatanen is now 29 years old, but unlike Hamonic, he’s an offensive defenseman. He’s had a strong career with the Anaheim Ducks, the New Jersey Devils, and he played a few games with the Carolina Hurricanes when he was traded late in the 2019-20 season for prospects.
Vatanen is coming off a $4.875 contract and, in the age of COVID-19, because it isn’t the best time to sign a free-agent deal it’s tough to know what amount of money might entice him to sign with a team. He’d be an upgrade for Troy Stecher but he’d likely stretch the team’s salary-cap limit.
The 28-year-old Erik Gustafsson, who was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Flames at the trade deadline, is also an offensive defenseman. He’s a bit of a gamble in that he had a really strong 2018-29 season with 17 goals and 43 assists for 60 points, but struggled during 2019-20 with six goals and 20 assists. However, he’s also likely the least expensive of the three defensemen named here.
If there were any chance he could recapture his form – and that might be an enticing bet for Benning given the offensive prowess of his Canucks – Gustafsson might be a gamble worth taking. Given the style of game the Canucks play, he might be the best choice.
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