The Canucks weighed the pros and the cons of signing Thomas Vanek and, apparently, the pros put on some weight as the summer progressed. On Friday, the Canucks announced that Vanek will be joining the Canucks on a one-year, $2 million contract.
It’s a surprising signing. The Canucks were reported to be interested in the Austrian winger, but it was hard to tell how seriously to take those reports. Other teams were also interested and the Canucks have a glut of young wingers pushing to make the team.
There are certainly some positives to this signing: Vanek can put up points and he’s particularly effective in front of the net. He had 48 points in 68 games last season, which would have led the Canucks in points-per-game. It’s an immediate upgrade to the Canucks’ offence.
For the rebuilding Canucks, the biggest upside might come at next year's trade deadline, where Vanek might net a draft pick, prospect, or both.
There are some significant downsides, however. As much as he provides in offence, he gives up just as much defensively. He was seriously sheltered on the Red Wings last season, masking some of those deficiencies, and still struggled in puck possession, even while playing with an elite two-way centre in Frans Nielsen.
More importantly, signing Vanek means that at least one more of the Canucks young wingers will be heading down to the AHL to play for the Utica Comets.
The Canucks were already going to be hard-pressed to find a spot in the lineup for all the wingers looking to make the team. There already wasn’t room for all of Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, Anton Rodin, Reid Boucher, Jonathan Dahlen, Jake Virtanen, and Brendan Gaunce to make the Canucks out of training camp, barring a crazy string of injuries.
An NHL roster is limited to 23 players. Assuming the Canucks carry two goaltenders and just seven defencemen, that leaves 14 roster spots for forwards. Vanek will play in the top-six, so let’s take a look at how that shakes out.
Sven Baertschi - Bo Horvat - Thomas Vanek
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Markus Granlund
Loui Eriksson - Brandon Sutter - Sam Gagner
Brendan Gaunce - Alexander Burmistrov - Derek Dorsett
That’s 14 forwards, with Boucher and Rodin as the extras in the press box because they would have to go through waivers to be sent down. Any other young wingers who want to make the team need to outplay the above players.
That puts Boeser, Goldobin, Dahlen, and Virtanen in Utica with the Comets. In his brief audition last season, Boeser looked NHL ready; he’ll likely dominate in the AHL. Goldobin had 45 points in 49 AHL games last season, including 4 goals in 3 games with Utica. Dahlen is coming off 25 goals and 44 points in 45 Allsvenskan games, so should have no trouble transitioning to the AHL.
As for Virtanen, he’s the question mark. The Canucks praised his commitment to developing his game and work habits last season, but he had just 19 points in 65 games for Utica. With his skillset and some talented teammates, he should be able to significantly improve on that mark.
Without Vanek, Boeser would almost certainly have a spot in the Canucks lineup sewn up. Adding Vanek fills the hole in the top-six that Boeser was previously pencilled into.
Some might see that as what’s best for Boeser: give him a chance to get acclimated to professional hockey in the AHL before handing him the tougher challenge of the NHL. There’s also a chance that Boeser could still make the Canucks out of camp; it’s only that it just got a lot harder for him to do so.
As for Vanek, the Canucks have two good options for where to play him, either alongside Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat, or with the Sedins.
Several years ago, the prospect of signing Vanek to play with the Sedins would have been incredibly thrilling, but the three players are past their primes and would make for a very slow-paced line. At this point, the Sedins have done better with linemates that are more fleet of foot.
He could be a boon for Horvat, however. Vanek is a talented playmaker and goalscorer and adds a big boost of talent to that line. More importantly, with Vanek needing to be sheltered to make up for his defensive issues, Horvat, who has similar, if less publicized defensive flaws, will get sheltered in the process.