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Jim Benning has promised aggressiveness to address roster weaknesses.
That’s what you expect to hear from a Vancouver Canucks’ general manager who has a year remaining his contract and is facing two pressing problems. He needs to acquire both a top-six right-winger and top-four defenceman if the franchise is going to take the next competitive step to help ensure job security.
Easier said than done.
The Canucks can’t go the free-agent route to fill both needs because they had just US $8.4 million in available salary-cap space at the end of their season. With contracts for Alex Edler, Brock Boeser, Ben Hutton and Thatcher Demko on the front burner — and a possible July extension for Jacob Markstrom who has a year left on his deal — Benning must get especially creative on defence.
“We have a lot of different avenues to try and get better on the back end end next year,” he said.
In a perfect world, a proven right-shot blueliner to pair with Edler would allow Quinn Hughes to align with Chris Tanev and keep Ben Hutton with Troy Stecher. However, unrestricted free agents are usually long in the tooth and salary while short on returns.
The towering Tyler Myers is 29 and intriguing to some degree.
The Winnipeg Jet could anchor the second power-play unit with his heavy shot and is a stand-up, team-first guy. But could he handle a top pairing here? He has played on the second pairing in Winnipeg but was in third playoff tandem and is on an expiring US $5.5-million cap hit. He’s going to get a raise, but then again the UFA list thins out a lot after him. Is he worth it?
The trade route might be more economical, but if Benning is thinking the No. 4 hole what does that do to the top two? The left-shot Hughes was tried on the right side with Edler, but is that too much pressure against top lines in a defensive capacity for Hughes?
So many questions.
One that was answered this season was the effectiveness of the Hutton-Stecher tandem.
With Edler and Tanev again succumbing to multiple injuries — they missed 26 and 27 games, respectively, including five-game spans starting Oct. 25 and Feb.14 when they were both sidelined — the minutes multiplied as quickly as the confidence for Stecher and Hutton, both emerging 25-year-old college products.
“It was a good opportunity and experience and I felt like I did a decent job,” said Stecher, whose 19:55 of average ice time this season included 31:55 on Feb. 14 against Los Angeles and 30:24 a week later against Arizona. “It gave me a huge appreciation for Chris and Eddie and how they do it on a night-to-night basis and without fear to put their bodies on the line every single night.
“I’m not the player I want to be yet, but it was a step in the right direction because I felt my game as a whole from where it is from the start of the season is completely different. People are always going to doubt me because of my stature, but I proved I can be reliable and it’s up to the coaching staff with how they want to use me.”
Hutton’s transformation from a downcast and defeated blueliner a year ago — he was scratched in four straight February games and seven times in a span of 15 games — to a better-conditioned, more mobile and stronger defender has been remarkable.
In a 3-2 loss at Washington on Feb. 5 with Edler sidelined by a concussion the previous game in Philadelphia, Hutton was in a top pairing with Stecher and looked comfortable. He logged 28:35, including 2:41 on the first power-play unit, had two shots, five attempts, two hits, three takeaways, three blocked shots and finished a plus-1.
Two nights later in a 4-3 overtime loss at Chicago, Hutton played 31:18, including 5:10 on the power play, and finished with seven shot attempts, two blocked shots and an even rating.
“Definitely a bounce-back year for myself,” summed up Hutton, a restricted free agent who averaged 22:21 of ice time on a US $2.8 million cap hit this season and who got better once he was split up from partner Erik Gudbranson. “I wasn’t happy with how last year went and I needed to put the work in and it’s going to be the same this summer.
“I made strides and hopefully I’ll be one step better. Confidence goes a long way. Last year, I lacked it and this year Travis gave me the opportunity. And with that you have more patience with the puck and you’re making those right split-second decisions.”
The Canucks need to make a depth decision on UFA defenceman Luke Schenn while RFA blueliners Josh Teves and Brogan Rafferty will need new deals. Hard to imagine the Canucks will bring RFA defenceman Derrick Pouliot back because of his struggles and they also have to figure out where Ashton Sautner, Guillaume Brisebois, Olli Juolevi and Alex Biega work into the mix.
“Obviously, at the end of the day it’s a business and things are going to happen in the off-season I would imagine,” said Stecher. “But it was a lot of fun coming to the rink every day and being in the fight and next year you want another taste of it.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019