As I watched the Toronto Maple Leafs flame out against the Washington Capitals, I was filled with mixed emotions. That team tends to dominate national headlines, which is repugnant to us neglected Cascadians, but they also have one heck of an inspiring young group.
With Auston Matthews leading the way, flanked by William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri, it’s tough not to be a little envious.
That, my friends, is a core. It’s a young one, no doubt, but it’s definitely a backbone to build upon.
That realization had me musing: do the Canucks have a core? Even a little baby one?
First, I define core as a group of foundational players* that form the backbone of a team. Five or six skaters. Not only do they inform the identity of the group for long stretches, they also perform the heavy lifting.
Your core should play a lot. They should score or defend with the best of them, and they should make the players surrounding them better. (And in a demonstrable sense; not “stuff”, not truculence.)
And critically, the loss of a core player will usually drastically impact a team’s performance.
Teams seldom get far without a solid core group. Last year’s winning squad, the Pittsburgh Penguins, revolved around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and young goaltender Matt Murray. Hard to ask for better than that.
The idea is just one team-building philosophy, but it seems to be the dominant one. You can see it in action in Chicago, where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were each locked into identical, long-term, $10.5M contracts.
That’s a lot of money for two players, but since they comprise a significant chunk of Chicago’s core, it matters little. Inexpensive role players and young prospects can orbit around them, and then be sold off for picks and youth once they start asking for too much money. As long as the core is intact, the team remains competitive.
In the last 15 years Vancouver has had two very successful groups led by two solid cores. First, the West Coast Express era with Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund, and later the Sedin era, featuring the twins, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler and Roberto Luongo.
Most of those players are now gone, so does Vancouver have a core anymore? And if so, who is in it?
Your Vancouver Core
Obvious Bo Horvat is obvious. He is young, he is fast, his given name is pleasingly monosyllabic, and he led the team in scoring in just his third NHL season. Just call him H-core.
Chris Tanev is another member. He’s the heart of the blueline and despite his understated play he makes the team indisputably better. Now that Nikita Tryamkin has departed for the KHL, I don’t see Tanev being traded anytime soon.
I believe Alex Edler is still an obvious pick. He’s one of the longest tenured players on the team, and along with a hearty bowl of muesli, he eats minutes for breakfast. But he’s part of that older group.
Here’s where I should say Daniel and Henrik Sedin. And I will, but with a predictable caveat: they’re getting old. The Sedins may be the heart and soul of this team, but I don’t expect them to be key scoring contributors moving forward. They, like Edler, are part of the previous era, and probably can’t be counted on for much longer.
At this point the conversation becomes contentious. Personally, I believe the list ends here. I suspect Jim Benning would disagree.
Your Not So Much
*Think I forgot that errant star? I didn’t! Brandon Sutter was acquired, signed, and instantly labelled a “foundational player”, but if you’ve followed this blog for longer than 15 minutes you’ll know that we care to differ.
I do understand Benning’s intention there. Sutter was brought in as a quick fix to the core; a “top six” centre who could ease them into the next generation. And it totally would’ve worked too, save for the minor detail that Sutter is relatively bad at hockey.
Undoubtedly Erik Gudbranson was acquired with the same thought process, but an injury-plagued season makes him an ongoing question mark.
Loui Eriksson should be core; he’s historically been a great scorer and he’s signed to a long-term contract. But given his age and his disappointing 24 points in 65 games it’s hard to slot him in. He just wasn’t the impact player I thought he’d be.
Who else is there? Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher, are great young defenders with plenty of potential, but both still have a lot to prove. Ditto for forwards Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund.
There are some bright prospects who could turn out. Olli Juolevi will be given every opportunity to anchor the blueline, and Brock Boeser seems too good to ignore. Thatcher Demko could be “the guy” in net. But they are all still just prospects.
Excluding the 36-year-old Sedin twins, Vancouver’s core currently consists of just three players, Horvat, Tanev and Edler. A good start, but there’s a pretty significant age spread and not a ton of scoring in that mixture.
In other words, it’s time for Vancouver to knuckle down on hoarding those high draft picks. Grab some scorers, avoid the reaches. They’re two or three pieces away.