Canucks: Cream of crop at All-Star break, but roster concerns linger

Getting ahead of the NHL trade-deadline pack has long been the method of operation for Canucks president Jim Rutherford

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The message from Rick Tocchet was respectful and remindful.

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Enjoy the schedule break from the grind, but remember what got you to this lofty perch as the NHL’s top team that has turned it from hunter to the hunted.

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“We’ve raised the bar and we’re under the microscope even more, and we have to keep the same standard,” cautioned the Vancouver Canucks head coach. “It’s the resiliency and getting to that 60-minute effort and that’s the next elite level — that’s what we’re striving for.”

The Canucks are among leaders in scoring and defending and strong structure will support a push toward the playoffs and making noise when they get there.

That said, Tocchet knows when enough is enough. One of his strengths is reading the room and leaning on his leadership group to chart the club’s direction regarding practices and days off.

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“Sometimes, too much video, too much talking and analyzing makes people stale,” admitted Tocchet. “This is the right time for the break. Coaches want breaks from players, too. We do need a mental rest.”

However, Tocchet is wary of a momentum swing if players aren’t attentive.

“This is where they become self-starters,” he said. “You give them a game plan. We had a meeting with our strength coach and sports science guy about what to do in these 10 days and they have to apply it.

“I’m glad guys can go and lie on a beach for a few days but do the right things. I’m pretty confident they understand what the Canucks standard is.”

Hello, it that you, ‘Trader Jim’?

That standard also applies to the hockey operations department.

When the Canucks open a five-game road trip Feb. 6 in Carolina, it will bring the March 8 trade deadline into sharper focus. Getting ahead of the pack has long been the method of operation for Canucks president Jim Rutherford. And he knows he owes his vastly-improved team a commitment to augment the roster.

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Contenders have strength down the middle, strong special teams and elite goaltending. The Canucks check those boxes, but depending on deployment, they could use a proven centre or winger. And in a perfect world, they would love both.

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Penguins winger Jake Guentzel scores on goalie Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders at UBS Arena on Dec. 27. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

If Elias Pettersson remains a pivot, he desperately requires support with a winger who can read the game and finish. His strength is playmaker first and shooter second and he’s going to get pucks to a guy at speed. Right now, that’s not happening.

Pettersson’s fit with Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev is awkward, disconnected and ineffective.

Kuzmenko, 27, is consumed to improve game awareness, but often has that key moment of indecision or a turnover to sour his status. He also hasn’t scored in 13 games and had no shots in four of those outings. 

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In a 5-4 overtime victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, he had no shots, played just 11 minutes and had but four third-period shifts. Just eight goals in 42 games this season in return for a US$5.5 million salary cap investment — the contract that has another year remaining — is difficult to move in a trade. And ownership here has no appetite to retain salary in any transaction.

As for Mikheyev, 29, he looks lost. Despite straight-line speed, he isn’t working in unison with linemates and the trio is a confused collection of individual talent. Mikheyev hasn’t scored in 17 games and had one shot Saturday in 13:03 of ice time. He’s a cap fit at $4.75 million this year and the next, but not for a guy expected to be a top-six staple.

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“I believe in Mik,” said Tocchet. “He hasn’t put himself into positions to play fast. Him and Kuzy sometimes have it tough because they’re not together and spread too far apart. Look at our other lines. Whoever has the puck, the other guy is always close. 

“Mik needs to be close with speed. When he doesn’t, it looks like he’s skating backward or standing around a lot. He has to pick it up. He’s our speed guy, he’s got to chase pucks down. It’s not that he doesn’t want to. It’s a mental thing.”

So, what’s the solution?

Do you go big and try to land gunner Jake Guentzel from the Pittsburgh Penguins?

If the league’s oldest team believes it can’t bridge a wild-card chase deficit and moves the unrestricted free agent, the Canucks’ hockey ops familiarity with Sidney Crosby’s winger — and the beneficiary of those sweet feeds — will be a factor. Guentzel has 22 goals and has twice struck for 40 goals.

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However, the asking price will be steep. A first-round pick, roster player and prospect is a lot to give up for a rental. And Guentzel, 29, will want a big bump on his expiring $6 million cap hit and term in a new deal. Does Rutherford have the appetite for that? He does have expendable players.

A safer bet might be the versatile, two-way presence of Calgary Flames centre Elias Lindholm and look elsewhere for a winger. The former Selke Trophy runner-up has had four 20-goal seasons and 42 in 2021-22. It would give Tocchet and option to keep Pettersson with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser on the high-octane Lotto Line.

Lindholm, 29, is a UFA on an expiring $4.850 million cap hit. Although stuck at nine goals, he doesn’t have a supporting cast and may fetch a first-round pick and prospect in return.

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If management is looking for a bargain, rejuvenated UFA centre Sean Monahan, 29, of the Montreal Canadiens may be prudent. He has 13 goals after being limited to 17 points (6-11) in 25 games last season after suffering a broken foot and requiring groin surgery.

He took a massive cut from a $6.375 million cap hit to just $1.985 million this season and bet on himself. Tocchet likes size and as a pure rental, Monahan wouldn’t break the bank. The Canadiens would demand a high draft pick in return.

The New York Rangers are also in the hunt for Monahan. On Sunday, they announced centre Filip Chytyl will miss remainder of the regular season with a suspected concussion. That will heighten the Rangers’ trade urgency.

It will also test Rutherford’s resolve as “Trader Jim,” if he believes the veteran Monahan is a budget-wise roster addition.

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