My favourite trade of the 2017/18 NHL season was the one that sent Brendan Leipsic to the Vancouver Canucks. If you’ve read my work over the past few years, you know that I’ve been a big fan of the 23-year-old for quite some time, largely because of his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Here’s a quote piece I wrote after he was traded to Toronto in 2015. Here’s the first prospect profile I got a chance to write about him. Here’s me hyping him up to Golden Knights fans when the Leafs made the controversial (and, based on his exile from the lineup in Year 1.5 of 4, extremely incorrect) decision to expose him to the expansion draft in favour of protecting Matt Martin. Lastly, here’s me defending his early-season scoring slump in Vegas, thinking there was a player there.
So when I found out that one of my favourite prospects to cover over the past few years was heading to my other childhood team, I was thrilled. Frankly, I didn’t care what the Canucks gave up for him, so long as it wasn’t a core piece. Upon finding out that the return was Phillip Holm, the oldest third best of three notable SHL defencemen to jump across the pond (Toronto signings Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen being the others), I was ecstatic.
Leipsic’s start in Vancouver has been fairytale-esque. Playing somewhere in between a distributor and a displacer on a line with Bo Horvat and the since-injured Brock Boeser, the Winnipeg native has averaged about 18 minutes of ice time per night and made the most of it, scoring two goals and adding three assists in just three games. That’s a little over a third of the way to his career production prior to the trade (3G 13A in 50GP), and even if he’s been put in a position to succeed, and even if there’s some luck involved, he’s certainly grabbing the bull by the horns and making the most out of this opportunity.
Canucks fans and Vancouver media alike are ecstatic with the move, for good reason. Leipsic compliments his linemates, he’s young, and he plays a style that’s enjoyable win-or-lose. He’s pesty, he loves to carry the puck, and he’s willing to make a nifty pass or a knee-drop one-timer on a whim. While hoarding a bunch of 23-year-olds isn’t the best bet for a team that’s closer to entering a rebuild than it is to exiting one, having one or two picked up without giving up significant futures is fine.
Poll: Would you still prefer draft picks instead of Tyler Motte & Brendan Leipsic?
— Donnie & The Moj (@DonnieandTheMoj) March 6, 2018
Of course, this has led to some using his success as a counter-argument for another big discussion point in Vancouver this week: the Canucks’ failure to acquire a draft pick, top prospect, or, well, anyone that will enter next season, or even next month, under the Age of 23: an age where players should be beginning to reach the peak performance of their careers. That Leipsic has succeeded in his first week is heralded as a vindication point for those who look to staunchly defend the Canucks front-office, overseen for the past four seasons by Team President Trevor Linden and General Manager Jim Benning, who signed an extension just a few weeks back.
For this trade to be a vindication point, though, it would require it to be a seller’s move that was in defiance of the expectation for a seller’s return. The Leipsic trade was not that. Vancouver did not send back a player in their twilight years or a star that would be too old or expensive to help the team when they were ready to be competitive. Holm was not a player that was placed in trade rumours. He was not a player that was moving the needle for the Canucks. He was not a player that anyone put any sort of trade value on, and he was not a player that was good enough to have a noticeable decline if they held onto him for a while.
What Holm was, was a waiver-exempt defenceman that will help the Chicago Wolves and give the Golden Knights some flexibility, while Leipsic was a player on their own bubble that was likely to be forced to the waiver wire if they acquired a top-six forward, which they did in Tomas Tatar. That trade was an opportunistic hockey deal which involved sending away an older, long-shot prospect for a younger player that served more use both now and in the future. It was right place, right time; without the sudden opportunity to get Leipsic, I highly doubt that Holm moves this season. Benning deserves credit for being quick on his toes in this instance, but that doesn’t negate the team’s fundamental failure to amass draft picks, both this year and the last four years.
What do I mean when I say fundamental failure? Here’s a list of every player the Canucks have had since 2014 that played games for the team over the age of 28:
|Adam Cracknell||Dan Hamhuis||Loui Eriksson|
|Alex Biega||Daniel Sedin||Mike Santorelli|
|Alexander Edler||David Booth||Pascal Pelletier|
|Alexandre Burrows||Derek Dorsett||Radim Vrbata|
|Andrew Alberts||Henrik Sedin||Raphael Diaz|
|Brad Richardson||Jack Skille||Roberto Luongo|
|Brandon Prust||Jannik Hansen||Ryan Kesler|
|Brandon Sutter||Jason Garrison||Ryan Miller|
|Chris Higgins||Jussi Jokinen||Sam Gagner|
|Chris Tanev||Kevin Bieksa||Thomas Vanek|
Linden and Benning were hired coming off a season where the Canucks finished 25th, briefly bounced back up to 8th overall, and have since followed that up with 28th place, 29th place, and on pace to be 28th place performances. To anyone remotely wise, that looks like a team that at some point should have declared a fire sale, shedding as many possible veteran players for picks as possible, both to give you as many chances to hit a home run at the draft (with your “Super Scout GM”, no less), and to bring you further into the basement, increasing the value of your own picks. That’s how Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles initiated their runs of dominance. That’s, to some extent, how teams like Toronto and Winnipeg did it. While you don’t have to burn everything to the ground (holding onto a few players that should be impactful still in 3-4 years helps with the turnaround), you should be giving yourself as many kicks at the can as possible, right?
Under Benning, the Canucks actually have a net deficit of picks, selected the standard 7 times in 2014 and 2015, 6 times in 2016, 8 times in 2017, and currently sitting with 6 picks this year. That’s impressively low, but when you look at what they got back for the above list, you can probably guess why.
The Canucks lost nine of these 30 players to free agency, including names like Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Miller, and Radim Vrbata, who were considered automatic deadline hauls in their final years. Two players on this list retired with the team. One was lost on waivers, and one was bought out. Just eight of these players were traded for assets, and only five of those were traded for picks.
It gets murkier from there. The picks traded for Ryan Kesler? One was used to draft Jared McCann, who was traded relatively quickly to Florida for Erik Gudbranson, and the third was traded for Derek Dorsett. The second acquired in the Jason Garrison deal was flipped for Linden Vey, who departed after two extremely ho-hum seasons (Vancouver also packaged a 7th with Garrison). The second round pick Vancouver received for Kevin Bieksa ended up being part of the trade to acquire Brandon Sutter, who hasn’t helped the Canucks get any better and is extremely doubtful to do so over the course of his contract.
On the more positive side, the conditional 4th picked up in the Jannik Hansen trade was traded down to a 5th and 6th last season, and, in what should’ve been the smallest trade of them all, the fifth-round pick received for Raphael Diaz was used to select Adam Gaudette, who depending on who you ask, projects to be become something between “decent third liner” and “Wayne Gretzky, Lebron James, and the Pope combined”.
There seems to be a lot of missed opportunity here. In some cases, it’s hard to point fingers; no one is moving the Sedins unless they asked to be moved (though Hansen and Luongo taking up two retention spots would’ve made that difficult to swing at this deadline regardless), getting Jonathan Dahlen back for Alex Burrows looks like a legit haul, and a few of the smaller names here shouldn’t have been expected to be returned for picks.
But when the contributions of this 30-team list appear to be “some names to remember as the core of the bad years, a third liner, a maybe second liner, and whatever we get for Chris Tanev if we ever concede there”, that’s a poor reading of the room. This year’s deadline was more of that: Vancouver walked in with a bevvy of bubble year to veteran talent expected to be on the block (Tanev, Vanek, and Gudbranson leading the way, with players like their 2017 UFA class of Michael Del Zotto, Anders Nilsson and Sam Gagner being possible bait for teams looking medium-term as well) and walked out with… a few weeks of Jussi Jokinen’s contract, and Tyler Motte, who probably makes the Utica Comets better while his stik remains hot, but projects to have a very low shot of being an actual NHLer.
Some might say the market wasn’t there. I don’t know if I buy that; in Tanev and Gudbranson’s case, there is nothing more inherently overvalued in hockey right now than a middle-aged, defensively sound (to the eyes, not the numbers, in Gudbranson’s case), right-handed defenceman, and any shortchanging that GM’s may have offered now won’t get better with the age curve next year. As for Vanek, I’m hard-pressed to believe that a trade market that saw Brandon Bollig pull in a draft pick didn’t have room to take Vanek’s 17 goals and 41 points, no matter how slow and defensively inept he may be at times. It’s very well possible that no one went out of their way to offer up the required fortunes unprovoked, but the sheer lack of activity appears to signify a lack of proactive provoking done on Vancouver’s end.
Which, of course, has been the core problem with this team over the past few years. There doesn’t seem to be a plan in place; no chain of roster decisions that show a particular age window, that signifies a rebuild or even an all-in, no consequences attempt to juice whatever they can of the group that they (yes, they: only the Sedins and Alex Edler are on contracts given to them pre-Lindenning) have. It’s been year after year of winging it, hoping the hockey gods will dictate a direction, and hoping that no one starts counting the grains in the hourglass, with the odd acquisition of a bit piece that neither dismantles or builds upon the project acting as a distraction.
That’s what this deadline ended up being, just as they all are. The Canucks failed to turn their ageing assets or their assets that are unlikely to be useful if and when their top prospects become ready, into anything that can accept and build upon the next generation. The Leipsic trade, while fun, a net victory, and a solid right-place, right-time effort, doesn’t change the complete lack of vision shown as this executive group nears the four-year mark, and as long as we pretend that it does, nothing will.