Vancouver Canucks may have already missed their window

As the details on the 2020-21 NHL season continue to be sorted out, it’s hard not to look back and wonder if the Vancouver Canucks missed a golden opportunity.

Returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year for the first time since a First Round exit in the 2014-15 season, the Vancouver Canucks featured everything you could ask for in a true Stanley Cup contender.

Goaltending capable of stealing games, top-four defensemen with the ability to shut down the opposition and chip in with offense, a top line that could match any in the league, heart and soul grinders in the bottom six forwards, and a Captain having a breakout performance in Bo Horvat.

The Canucks had everything you could realistically ask for but unfortunately fell short in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals to the juggernaut that is Vegas Golden Knights. Just like that, the year was over and a team that seemed to have all the pieces in place suddenly had a lot more questions than answers.

After appearing to make all the right moves, General Manager Jim Benning could only sit back and watch as player after player departed in Free Agency. Tyler Toffoli, a Trade Deadline acquisition at a steep price, signed with the Montreal Canadiens. Toffoli had 10 points in 10 regular season games after arriving in Vancouver but, in his first Playoff game, he suffered an ankle injury forcing him to miss the next 11 games.

Toffoli returned in Game 2 against Vegas and finished as the First Star of the Game with a goal and two assists. Unfortunately, the injury appeared to limit his performance as he finished with only one point in the remaining five games of the series.

As a legitimate top-six scoring threat in the lineup, Toffoli fit in seamlessly with the Vancouver Canucks, providing the type of secondary scoring needed behind the Elias Pettersson line. It’s a shame Vancouver was unable to re-sign him after trading a Second Round Draft pick, along with prospect Tyler Madden and forward Tim Schaller for essentially 17 combined games from Toffoli.

Another player the Canucks lost in Free Agency was Chris Tanev, who Vancouver signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2010. Tanev had spent his entire 10-year career with the Canucks before signing with the Calgary Flames. Although the loss of Toffoli may sting due to the price the club paid to acquire him, the loss of Tanev could actually be what hurts the team the most on the ice.

Tanev is the perfect example of a defensive defenseman that does the little things needed to win games. Known for his relentless shot blocking, Tanev will constantly sacrifice his body by throwing it in front of pucks while killing penalties. Although his style of plays forces him to miss games due to the wear and tear on his body, he’s the type of big bodied, heart and soul guy, known for emerging on Stanley Cup winners throughout the years such as Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, and Matt Greene.

The Canucks also saw other players depart in free agency such as winger Josh Leivo, defenseman Oscar Fantenberg, and Troy Stretcher. The loss of the defensemen means Vancouver will be without three of the six defensemen that played in the Game 7 loss to Vegas. Meanwhile, Leivo had been banged up all season and will look for a fresh start elsewhere. Still, fans will be left to wonder what if, had Leivo and Michael Ferland been healthy additions to the club’s bottom-six forwards.

Finally, the  Vancouver Canucks have also lost Jacob Markstrom to the Flames in Free Agency, however, it isn’t a bad thing not paying a 30-year old goaltender big money because he’s having his best season in a contract year. With the emergence of Thatcher Demko and the addition of Braden Holtby, it’s tough to see a situation where Vancouver is worse between the pipes.

Plus, the Canucks couldn’t afford Markstrom’s six-year, $36 million contract even if they wanted to, which is where all the problems quickly surface for Vancouver.  After this coming season, the Canucks and their limited cap space will have a near all-star lineup of talent needing new contracts. A list that includes the likes of Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Demko, long-time Canuck Alex Edler, up and coming Adam Gaudette, and serviceable veterans Brandon Sutter and Tanner Pearson.

Thatcher Demko (35)

Thatcher Demko #35 of the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Should Demko emerge as a true starter this coming season, while Pettersson and Hughes continue to take a leap in their development, that’d be over $20 million in combined salaries to re-sign just that trio. If the salary cap remains the same next season, which is almost certain due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, then the Canucks already only have less than $25 million in cap space.

What this suggests is in order to keep their young stars, the Canucks, much like the Toronto Maple Leafs, will need to sacrifice their team’s depth. Which then suggests the deepest team in terms of scoring power and defensive responsibility that Vancouver will have had or have in the foreseeable future was that one that just lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals to the Vegas Golden Knights.

It was easily the best team the Canucks have had since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010-11. The team provided memorable moments such as Tanev’s series-clinching goal in overtime against the Minnesota Wild in the Playoff Play-In Round and defeating the reigning Stanley Cup Champions the St. Louis Blues in the opening round.

Unfortunately, those might be memories Canucks fans have to hang on to for a while because the salary cap is coming to ruin everything.