The Vancouver Canucks had a pretty successful 2010-2011 season, winning the President’s Trophy as the best regular season team, and then making it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Boston Bruins.
So tweaks, rather than major overhauls, are what general manager Mike Gillis is looking at to improve his roster.
The Canucks lost forwards Raffi Torres (Phoenix) and Tanner Glass (Winnipeg) as free agents, and also dealt defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to the New York Islanders when it became apparent that contract talks were going nowhere.
Otherwise, the Canucks have pretty much the same roster as last year. Mike Gillis signed Maxim Lapierre, Kevin Bieksa and Andrew Alberts to contract extensions prior to July 1.
The morning of July 1, before the free-agency period started at noon eastern, two other impending free agents signed new deals.
Veteran defender Sami Salo signed a new one-year, $2 million contract.
Chris Higgins, a versatile winger brought in at the trade deadline who had three game winning goals in the playoffs, signed a two-year contract extension with a cap hit of $1.9 million.
Veteran Marco Sturm, who can play either left or right wing, signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract. Injuries limited Sturm to only 35 games in the 2010-2011 season, but he is a consistent 20-goal scorer when healthy. According to Gillis, Sturm is now perfectly healthy.
The Canucks also signed depth forwards Andrew Ebbett and Mark Mancari as free agents.
Assuming you include a pair of rookies who saw considerable action in the playoffs (Cody Hodgson and Chris Tanev), and also pair of restricted free agents who have been qualified (Jannik Hansen and Victor Oreskovich), the Canucks have 15 forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies signed.
Obviously, there is a glut of players here, as the maximum roster size is 23 players, although typically most teams go with 22 players.
But do the Canucks have the right pieces to fill the holes in their roster?
The defense and goaltending positions are fine. However, the forwards are a bit more problematic.
Here is how I see the roster shaping up:
Daniel Sedin / Henrik Sedin / Alexandre Burrows
Second Line LW / Ryan Kesler / Second Line RW
Third Line LW / Manny Malhotra / Jannik Hansen
Kevin Bieksa / Dan Hamhuis
Keith Ballard / Alexander Edler
Sami Salo / Andrew Alberts
Aaron Rome / Chris Tanev
Roberto Luongo / Cory Schneider
Group A Forwards
Mikael Samuelsson ($2.5m)
Marco Sturm ($2.25m)
Mason Raymond ($2.55m)
Chris Higgins ($1.9m)
Group B Forwards
Mark Mancari ($0.52m)
Andrew Ebbett ($0.52m)
Victor Oreskovich ($0.60m)
Those players I named on the actual lines should be pretty safe bets. However, the open spots on the wings are basically up for grabs.
The six forwards I listed in Group A are basically fighting for three spots. Ryan Kesler needs a pair of wingers on the second line, and Manny Malhotra and Jannik Hansen need someone to replace the departed Raffi Torres on the third line.
The three forwards I listed in Group B are fighting for the two fourth line winger positions, as well as the potential depth forward spot in the press box.
Of course, there could be a trickle down effect where a Group A forward ends up on the fourth line himself, or pushes Hansen down to the fourth line. However, that is probably unlikely, as they are both unsuited for that role, as well as making too much money to be a fourth liner.
So what is going to happen with this glut of players in Group A fighting for those three spots?
The Canucks could just let them fight it out in training camp and the preseason, and make an evaluation then. Competition is always good, and whoever doesn’t make the cut could then be waived or traded.
But my guess is that Mike Gillis took a look at the lacklustre crop of free agent forwards, which included only two legitimate top six forwards (Brad Richards and Simon Gagne), and decided to go the trade route instead to upgrade his team.
I’d expect the Canucks to dangle either highly touted rookie Cody Hodgson or backup goalie Cory Schneider as trade bait, possibly packaged with one or more of the other Group A forwards, in order to get a legitimate top six winger to play with Ryan Kesler.
On one last note, the Canucks also need to address their toughness. The two bottom six wingers they lost (Torres and Glass) were a significant portion of their grit. Combine that with division rival Edmonton loading up on tough guys who are already trash talking the Canucks.
“It’s going to be fun,” said former Canuck, and now Edmonton Oiler enforcer Darcy Hordichuk to the Vancouver Province. “I’ll definitely be going after some of their key players. It’s payback time.”
Something makes me think Hordichuk is still a little mad about his exit from Vancouver last summer.
Toughness is an area where the Canucks were looking to upgrade after being pushed around by the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals.
With all that in mind, Gillis reportedly talked today with Rick Rypien.
Rypien, a free agent, started last season with the Vancouver Canucks, but left the team on a personal leave for undisclosed reasons, then finished the season with the Canucks minor league affiliate Manitoba Moose, playing 11 regular season and seven playoff games.
Rypien could handily beat either Hordichuk or Ben Eager, the other enforcer brought in by the Oilers, and he wouldn’t have stood by while the Bruins were beating up the Sedins after the whistles in the Stanley Cup Finals either.
If he is over his personal issues, Rypien could be an effective fourth liner for the Canucks, especially now that he wouldn’t be forced to play center, where he was less effective.