The Vancouver Canucks want to make the playoffs. This is certainly true for the players, coach, and ownership, and probably true of Jim Benning and Trevor Linden as well.
The Canucks are also rebuilding, or at least trying to rebuild without tearing down first. The result is like turning an office building into a construction zone while everyone still shows up 9-to-5 in their cubicles: the construction workers distract and annoy the office workers with their hammering, drilling, and messiness, while the office workers just get in the way.
In other words, it’s a mess. And sitting in the middle of this mess is Radim Vrbata, a pending unrestricted free agent stuck in a scoring slump, with just 2 goals in his last 27 games.
The rebuilders want Vrbata gone, traded for prospects and/or picks before the Canucks lose him for nothing in the summer. But Jim Benning still insists that the playoffs are the goal and seems reluctant to embrace the idea of selling at the deadline. That could mean that if the Canucks are even close to the playoff bubble at the trade deadline, Benning will hang on to Vrbata for the playoff push.
Let’s ignore whether trying to make the playoffs is the right thing to do for the moment. Let’s instead ask whether the Canucks would actually be worse without Vrbata.
This is a tough question to ask, because I like Vrbata and think he’s a very good hockey player. But it’s been hard to ignore how ineffective he has been for most of this season. More than that, his role on the team seems to be dwindling as the season progresses.
Right now, Vrbata doesn’t seem to fit with the Sedins, who, with Henrik clearly injured, particularly need an active, forechecking winger who can win battles along the boards. He doesn’t seem to fit alongside Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi, who have staked out their claim on the second line.
Against the Wild on Monday, Vrbata ended up playing with Linden Vey and Alex Friesen, who was playing his first ever NHL game. That’s pretty clearly the third line, at the most, even with Willie Desjardins’ affinity for Vey.
He also lost his spot on the top power play unit, with the young guard—Vey, Baertschi, and Ben Hutton—skating with the Sedins.
So, if Vrbata isn’t in the top-six and isn’t on the first power play unit, than how much worse could the Canucks get without him in the lineup at all? The Canucks have options to replace him, as well. Jake Virtanen seems to mesh nicely with Horvat and Baertschi, while Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, and even Alexandre Grenier wait in Utica for their NHL opportunity.
Let’s be clear: Vrbata has been unlucky this season. His 6.2% shooting percentage is the lowest of his career in a full season. Given time, his luck will change or he’ll find his game or he’ll stop gripping the stick so tightly or whatever other narrative you want to attach to it and pucks will start to go in the net.
But the Canucks are a bad team. They’re one of the worst in the league by the underlying possession metrics. They lost 5-2 on Saturday to an AHL team wearing Maple Leafs jerseys. They lost 5-2 on Monday to a Wild team that had been in freefall and whose coach had just been fired. Odds are that they’re not going to make the playoffs no matter what the Canucks do at the deadline.
So would trading Vrbata really make them worse if they’re already the worst?