Success in the Stanley Cup playoffs has left the Vancouver Canucks at the same crossroads where a couple of their Pacific Division rivals stood a few years ago.
In 2017, the Edmonton Oilers finished second in the division and took Anaheim to seven games in the second round. It looked like a coming-out party for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but the Oilers missed the playoffs the next two years and didn’t get past the play-in round this season.
This year, the Canucks eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games, then took the Vegas Golden Knights to a seventh game – after trailing 3-1 – in their Western Conference second-round series.
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While pleased with his group, head coach Travis Green said it’s the beginning of a long journey.
“You can’t just stay the same, you have to improve to get better and continue to improve every year,” Green said during a conference call Tuesday.
What path the Canucks follow next year will depend on decisions made by general manager Jim Benning.
The NHL salary cap will remain at $81.5 million US next season. That gives Benning about $15 million when deciding on unrestricted free agents like goaltender Jacob Markstrom, defenceman Chris Tanev and forward Tyler Toffoli. He also must deal with restricted free agents like forward Jake Virtanen and defenceman Troy Stecher.
Markstrom, Vancouver’s best player the last two seasons, will be looking for a raise from the $3.6 million he earned this year. He’s also 30 years old and missed parts of the regular season and playoffs with injuries.
Rookie Thatcher Demko, who will make just over $1 million next year, stepped in for Markstrom when the Canucks trailed Vegas 3-1 and made 123 saves and recorded a shutout.
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Benning sees value in having “two good goalies,” but keeping both could be a financial stretch.
“We’re going to try to figure out a way that makes sense for us and makes Jacob and his agent happy, to try and figure out a deal to try and get him signed,” Benning said. “We want him back.”
Looking ahead to 2021-22, Benning will need to money to pay young stars like centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, the building blocks of any Canuck success.
Tanev, 30, made $4.4 million last year. He’s been paired with Hughes and played a role in the Calder Trophy candidate’s development. Tanev is also 30 years hold and has a history of injuries.
Veteran defenceman Alex Edler has two years left on his contract and Vancouver has promising young blue-liners like Jalen Chatfield, Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty in the system.
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Virtanen, 24, had career highs in points (36), goals (18) and assists (18) in 69 games last year while being a bargain at $1.2 million. His development curve has also been inconsistent.
Winger Loui Eriksson, 35, who had no points in 10 playoffs games, remains a financial rock tied around the Canucks’ neck. He has two years left on a contract paying him $6 million a season.
Benning has already heard from GMs about possible trades.
“We have a lot of good young players going forward that we have to make sure we have room to sign them,” he said. “We are going to have to make some tough decisions, maybe even on some young players.
“We are going to have to decide what players we want to sign going forward and other players maybe we can move on to recover [draft] picks. That’s the circle of life in our business.”