It has become clear the Vancouver Canucks will need another off-season of armaments to compete with the full-chambered Chicago Blackhawks.
General manager Mike Gillis said yesterday the team is entering the second phase of his master plan, which calls for young players on entry-level contracts to make the team and contribute in meaningful, cost-effective ways.
"We need to have some push from younger players," Gillis said during his year-end press conference Friday. "That's where you make real headway."
But top prospect Cody Hodgson (lingering back injury), former first-round pick Jordan Schroeder (slight size, just 17 pro games) and Russian scorer Sergei Shirokov (persistent KHL rumours) are not sure bets to make the team next autumn.
Evan Oberg is closest to the NHL among young defencemen, but he's rail-thin and could use strength. The rest of Vancouver's best defensive prospects are still teenagers, and are years away.
As for the NHL roster, Gillis may have to recalibrate his personnel, shipping out some wingers, where the team is deep, for help down the middle and on the blueline. Gillis said speed and goal-scoring remain the team's focus while he's stocking personnel, but this summer, the focus will shift to a pair of unrestricted free-agent centres and some restricted free agents who could prove difficult to retain:
He was Vancouver's best forward against Chicago, and the potential unrestricted free agent has earned a raise with a strong two-way postseason. The 27-year-old could be re-signed because Vancouver has just two NHL centres under contract for next year. Their relationship was very chummy before last summer, when the sides went to arbitration over a relative pittance. Wellwood made $1.2-million (U.S.) last season. He said the arbitration hearing did not cool relations, but he conceded that he would look at options closer to his hometown of Windsor, Ont.
A restricted free agent, he will be Vancouver's most delicate negotiation after a 25-goal season, and his cost could determine much of the off-season plans. Raymond made $760,000 last season, but will likely earn more than $2-million next year after a breakout offensive campaign. He's a 24-year-old, top-six forward with speed to burn - and that could fetch quite a return on the trade market. The Canucks could consider that because they have a ready replacement in Michael Grabner and depth on the wing. "I think the chances of coming back are good," Raymond said.
The restricted free agent might have salvaged his Vancouver career in the playoffs, when he emerged late and helped fill some voids and minutes when injuries struck. The 26-year-old blueliner admitted his March banishment for tardiness and weight-gain was a wakeup call, and may have finally turned the corner on becoming a serious professional. O'Brien's qualifying offer would be about $1.6-million, which is expensive for a third-pairing defenceman with limited offensive game, but it's not Gillis's style to simply walk away from an asset. Stay tuned.
The team loves his heart and character, just not his infirmary report. Johnson is too-often injured to be considered reliable, and offers next to nothing offensively. If Hodgson's wonky back limits him closer to training camp, the Canucks may revisit Johnson. Whomever fills the fourth-line centre role, they will likely need to be a penalty killer. The Canucks were dreadful on that front in the playoffs (68.5 per cent), particularly in the first round, when Johnson was out with a foot injury. The 33-year-old made $1.2-million last season. He'll come cheap.