No quick-fix solution to Canucks’ problems

 

Really heavy lifting still lies ahead, while full-scale remake would take two or three years

 
 
 
 
Canucks GM Mike Gillis is already over the 2013-14 salary cap, and that’s with just 17 players.
 

Canucks GM Mike Gillis is already over the 2013-14 salary cap, and that’s with just 17 players.

Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG

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VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks have no salary-cap space available, a shortage of National Hockey League-ready prospects and lack portability among their key player contracts. Other than that, general manager Mike Gillis’ summer “reset” of the team shouldn’t be a problem.

The week after their second straight first-round playoff elimination, Gillis was still working through his coaching review and a planned summit meeting with ownership, while his top assistant, Laurence Gilman, continued to tour North America for potential minor-league locations.

The really heavy lifting — think Superman shifting the moon’s orbit — still lies ahead. And it doesn’t take a superhero to understand how difficult it will be for Gillis to make even a few impactful roster moves to catch up to the NHL curve towards big, brawny teams.

It took the Canucks years, literally, to configure their team the way it is: skilled, fast and too small up front. The evolution spanned managerial regimes; most of the core players were already in Vancouver when Gillis replaced Dave Nonis five years ago. So the idea that there can be a quick, effective overhaul of the roster is unrealistic.

There can be changes, yes. And no matter how disillusioned some are with the Canucks’ playoff performances since the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, the team may yet be only two or three significant acquisitions away from challenging again for a championship. But a full-scale remake of the Canucks would take at least two or three years, unless Gillis wants to simply gut his team and turn it into the Florida Panthers or another draft-lottery contender.

Since owner Francesco Aquilini fired the last GM who missed the playoffs, calling it unacceptable, and the current crisis is due primarily to two or three terrible weeks over the last two playoffs, it’s unthinkable that Gillis will knowingly sink his team for two or three years.

Assume that he won’t. Figure that his “reset” will begin with a couple of key moves this summer.

Even that modest objective is still easier said than done.

Capgeek.com, the online bible of player salaries and cap space, shows the Canucks are already $100,000 over next season’s $64.3-million-US payroll limit, and that’s with just 17 of the 22 or 23 players Vancouver needs for a roster.

But cap space is easier to fix than most problems. Finally trading backup goalie Roberto Luongo and buying out the final two years of spare defenceman Keith Ballard’s bloated contract, which would cost Aquilini $5.6 million, will create $9.5 million of breathing room under the salary cap. The Canucks would still need seven or eight players for that, but it’s doable.

The team, however, will have to be extremely cautious in free agency and probably can’t afford Ryane Clowe or Nathan Horton or David Clarkson. There are unrestricted free-agent forwards farther down the payscale who might help — Guillaume Latendresse, Raffi Torres, Eric Nystrom, Bryan Bickell — but these won’t come cheap, either, in this year’s weak free-agent class.

As far as getting help from their homeless farm team, years of trading away second-, third- and fourth-round draft picks, as well as some questionable selections, have caught up to the Canucks.

For all those who cheered the Derek Roy trade six weeks ago, who still thinks it was a good idea to give away a second-round pick and blue-line prospect Kevin Connauton for a 5-8 centre who had six points in 12 games before turning invisible in the playoffs?

Defenceman Frankie Corrado already has an NHL-style game and may be ready for full-time work. But that may be it for help from the minors next fall.

For Gillis to change the lineup enough to change the Canucks’ course, chances are he’ll have to trade a core skater or two.

Six core players already have no-trade clauses and three others, Alex Burrows, Chris Higgins and defenceman Alex Edler, get them July 1 when contract extensions begin.

Burrows and Higgins have grit and assertiveness the Canucks need up front, which is partly why Edler makes the most sense as a trading chip. The 27-year-old is maligned at home for his inconsistency, but he’s still a young, top-pairing defenceman with great value around the league.

Would the Philadelphia Flyers, desperate for help on defence, surrender 6-3 centre Sean Couturier for Edler? Could Edler fetch the Canucks a package of assets that includes Detroit Red Wing power forward Justin Abdelkader or Colorado Avalanche winger Jamie McGinn?

The Canucks are solid and experienced enough at the top of their defence to proceed without Edler.

But there is the matter of that no-trade clause the Canucks gave him, and this is where things get tricky for Gillis.

Every player Gillis has re-signed has agreed to take less than market value to stay in Vancouver, and in return for that sacrifice the Canucks have reciprocated with no-trade clauses. Only in Higgins’ case, are there limitations to the NTC.

The Canucks can trade Edler before July 1, but would it be honest to do so? NHL teams regularly trade players with NTCs. The players simply become active third parties in the transactions.

But if Gillis were to trade Edler or ask another Canuck to waive his no-trade clause, the spirit of co-operation — the shared sacrifice between club and player — would vanish in Vancouver.

The money the player left on the table to stay here won’t be repaid by his new team. It wouldn’t be long before Canuck free agents demanded every dollar they could squeeze from the team, which is what happens in most NHL markets. This would seriously undermine the environment Gillis has worked hard to achieve and make it more difficult for the Canucks to succeed under the salary cap.

It’s no wonder the manager was non-committal last week when asked during his post-mortem press conference if he would ask players to waive no-trade clauses that were offered and accepted in good faith.

“In order to get players to play for less than market value, you have to give them something they can rely upon,” Gillis explained. “I think if a player was unhappy here, he’d waive his no-trade. If we were unhappy with him, it would be obvious and he would waive his no-trade. But that’s not a path we’re looking to right now. I think we need to supplement our core group of players that are here as best we can, and then look at possibilities down the road.”

Burrows acknowledged trades are business, even for players who have NTCs, and he would consider whatever options the team presented him. He was adamant, however, about wanting to stay. So is every other Canuck core player.

“(Players) want that (no-trade clause) because they really like it here,” winger Daniel Sedin said. “They love the city and they love to play hockey here and they want to win here. Is it fair to come back and ask them to waive that? I don’t know. That’s something I can’t really answer.”

Gillis will have to decide.

But if he isn’t trading any of his core players, the Canucks’ reset is likely to become a Canuck rerun.

imacintyre@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Canucks GM Mike Gillis is already over the 2013-14 salary cap, and that’s with just 17 players.
 

Canucks GM Mike Gillis is already over the 2013-14 salary cap, and that’s with just 17 players.

Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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