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The Globe and Mail

Canucks shifting focus from veterans to youthful, long-term success

In his first game, Vancouver Canucks 23-year-old winger Emerson Etem, left, drew three penalties, including one in overtime that led to the winning goal against the Florida Panthers, on Jan. 11.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

For several years, Vancouver Canucks management has talked about the need to retool the team's roster with younger players.

It's been a slow process.

At the start of last season, the Canucks had the second-oldest team in the NHL with an average age of almost 29.

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At the start of this season – with three rookies on the roster, two of them 19-year-olds – the Canucks still had the fourth-oldest team in the league, with an average age of about 28. But as the team struggles – Vancouver is on pace for barely a point a game – the push to overhaul the roster has started to accelerate.

On Monday night, when the Canucks snapped the visiting Florida Panthers' dozen-game winning streak, the average age of the Vancouver bench was down close to 27.

That type of number puts the Canucks among the youngest third of teams in the league.

Something of a demarcation point occurred last Sunday, when team said it was done with 32-year-old Chris Higgins, a forward who has been slowed by injuries and was, five years ago, a cog in the push for a Stanley Cup. Higgins makes $2.5-million a year. The Canucks talked about trading him but instead had to waive him. No one took him so on Wednesday Higgins found himself in the AHL.

What pushed Higgins out was the arrival of Emerson Etem, a 23-year-old winger acquired in a trade from the New York Rangers. General manager Jim Benning cited opening roster space for younger players to develop as the main reason for the expensive casting off of Higgins.

Etem, in his first game on Monday, drew three penalties, including one in overtime that led to the winning goal.

The Canucks cling to playoff hopes in the woeful Pacific Division, even as the team produces one of its worst seasons since 1999. But it's obvious this version of the Canucks isn't working.

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The team in Washington on Thursday night begins a difficult six-game trip through the east. But building the team for the longer term is becoming more important than short-term results.

A bunch of changes could come in a flurry, washing away most of the vestiges of the 2011 team that made teh Stanley Cup final.

Alex Burrows, 34, with a salary-cap hit of $4.5-million this season and next, is possibly next to go.

Dan Hamhuis, 33, out with a gruesome jaw injury, is a free agent at the end of the year.

And the Canucks are tight against the cap, despite being one of the league's weaker teams.

They want to open room for younger players – but they also have to figure out their cap situation.

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Radim Vrbata, 34, making $5-million, is a free agent after the season and could generate something of a return at the trade deadline.

The youth brigade has also flourished of late. Of the meagre 11 goals the Canucks have scored in five games in 2016, seven have been scored by a trio that could soon regularly form the team's second line: second-year centre Bo Horvat, 20; Sven Baertschi, at 23 in his first full NHL season; and 19-year-old rookie Jake Virtanen.

Horvat struggled at times earlier in the season but now is on a tear. His game started to improve in December and results have come quickly this month. He has four goals and six points. Baertschi has two goals and four points in 2016, and Virtanen, on a line with Horvat and Baertschi late in the Florida game, scored the goal to send it to overtime.

"It feels like a new season, a new beginning," Horvat said.

The Canucks, while they pushed for the Cup, were criticized for a lack of prospects coming up. But the last years of former general manager Mike Gillis – fired in spring 2014 – are now showing some value, including Horvat and defenceman Ben Hutton. There's also Hunter Shinkaruk, who played his first NHL game this season and is an AHL all-star.

Even as the team that peaked in 2011 is dismantled, the guiding lights remain the Sedins, who at 35 are delivering another impressive season.

"We're learning," Virtanen said, "from such great guys in this room. Henrik and Daniel are huge for us, to learn from them."

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