There’s been a lot of questioning of Jim Benning’s decisions lately.
First with the Eddie Lack trade, then with the Kevin Bieksa non-trade to San Jose, then the Zack Kassian trade, and then most recently with the Bonino trade (which I addressed in my last post). Benning’s been beginning to clean house, no doubt about it.
Here is the Canucks’ lineup, from last year to this year:
The first line and the top two defensive pairings would be the exact same, the second line would be faster and youth-infused, the third line’s defensive responsibility with the addition of Brandon Sutter, and the fourth line would just be a smash show. Hits, hits, hits, baby.
While the team’s average age has jumped almost a year (which, it makes sense if you think about it), Benning has done his best to replace his older vets with younger players such as Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Linden Vey, Frank Corrado, and Sutter if you count him as younger – he’s 26. This year’s group looks faster, grittier, and definitely scorier than last year’s group.
The forwards will consist of much of the same group as last season: Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Radim Vrbata, Horvat, and Derek Dorsett are all locks to start the season on the Canucks. Meanwhile, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, and Alex Burrows are pretty much guaranteed to start the season in the NHL – however, if a prospect outdoes them in camp, they could very much find themselves on another team to start October. Finally, a seeming upgrade on Bieksa, Kassian, Brad Richardson, Shawn Matthias, and Nick Bonino is the aforementioned Baertschi, Corrado, and Sutter (who provide depth and scoring), as well as other newcomers Brandon Prust and Ronalds Kenins, who will each look to secure a spot on the fourth line.
As a prelude to the defensive analysis, here are the bottom defensive pairings become the ones with the best possession numbers from last year:
Interestingly, the defensive pairings this year coordinate with the the top three pairings in Corsi-For %. As giveaways were noticeably a problem last year (I see you, Sbisa), you have to wonder if perhaps Benning let Bieksa, Adam Clendening, and Ryan Stanton go for a reason – however, new guy Matt Bartkowski’s fancy stats numbers aren’t all that impressive either. Alex Edler will look to improve on his last few seasons, and perhaps reclaim the D-man scoring crown from surprising Yannick Weber, who only two years ago was being used as a fourth line forward. On the other end of that pairing, defensive stud Chris Tanev will once again anchor his offensive counterpart. Luca Sbisa showed signs of being a decent defender last year, but will end up on the bottom pairing or even the trade block if he hasn’t improved his game during the offseason. And then there’s Dan Hamhuis. Probably the most mature member of the Canucks’ defense, Hamhuis will likely step into a leadership role now that funnyman Bieksa is gone – if he hasn’t already. He’ll likely be on the second pairing with Weber, as those two worked somewhat well together last year.
In the goaltending area, Ryan Miller has a new, young goalie to mentor – Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom absolutely torched the AHL last year with a remarkable 1.88 GAA and saved 93.4% of the shots taken on him, earning him the starter’s spot in the AHL All-Star Game. While Markstrom’s numbers were less than decent in his NHL games last season, Benning believes that he’s ready to at least play backup in the big league. Meanwhile, Miller will try to repeat last season – without getting injured, that is. Barring any more surprises, Richard Bachman and Joe Cannata will tend net in Utica although they have signed Clay Witt to give more competition and perhaps backup if an NHLer is injured and triggers the line of call-up dominoes.
Now, which prospects have a chance to upset the balance and earn a roster spot?
Hunter Shinkaruk, for starters. He’s almost made the roster two years in a row, and if he can out-muscle Chris Higgins (doubtful with those abs, but nothing’s impossible), Brendan Gaunce is another forward in the same position, having really found himself last season with Utica. The 6’5, 200 lb Alexandre Grenier and the somewhat smaller but more forceful Jake Virtanen will be competing for jobs on the right wing, while Cole Cassels, Alex Friesen, and Jared McCann will all push for a job at center. McCann and Virtanen will be sent back to junior if they don’t make the team.
On defense, names like Jordan Subban, Andrey Pedan, and Ben Hutton come to mind as to which prospects have the best chance to make a move to the big leagues – however, while they are all skilled players, it’s highly unlikely any of them will start the year other than in Utica.
The extremely-doubtful-but-really-cool-if-they-made-it pack also includes 2015 draftees Guillame Brisebois and Dmitry Zhukenov, who have loads of potential but need time in the minors. While they may end up getting some pre-season games, they both have a 99% chance of getting sent down to the QMJHL.
Of course, the YoungStars tournament is still a few days away (September 11), and we could see some surprising prospects there, but there likely won’t be too many if any changes at all to the current roster.