The Jim Benning-era Vancouver Canucks have been, say, one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL in recent years.

In his seven years as the team’s general manager, they made the playoffs twice and only played once in the second round (bubble season). They also fell completely flat in the North Division, completely missing the playoffs in what should have been a great opportunity to make some noise.

So they haven’t really been close to a Stanley Cup contender. Despite this, they still seem to want to function as if they are a Stanley Cup contender and a few deep veterans. This resulted in overpayments to independent agencies and large contracts to the potential detriment of their own salary cap situation.

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Despite all of this, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about them as they have what should be the hardest pieces for any competing team: Cornerstone, the talent of the franchise. The group of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and JT Miller are absolutely good enough to be the basis for something big.

They just haven’t been able to build anything meaningful around them yet. Worse yet, the salary cap situation is so tight that they only have $ 10 million of salary cap space to re-sign Pettersson and Hughes (their two best players) this offseason.

So what is the potential of this team here?

Front depth seems a lot better

This has been a big problem the last few seasons. As good as Pettersson, Boeser, Horvat and Miller are, the Canucks haven’t had enough secondary talent around them. They invested a lot of money in players like Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Michel Ferland, Brandon Sutter not giving them a return on that investment (although Ferland’s case was a bit of bad luck given his injury situation; there’s nothing you can do about it).

This offseason, they were able to abandon Beagle and Roussel contracts and sign Sutter for a quarter of his previous rate, going from a salary cap of $ 4 million to a more manageable $ 1.25 million.

Some other important developments among forwards …

• Nils Hoglander was a highlight for the Canucks in 2020-21 as the 20-year-old rookie posted strong possession numbers and scored at a pace of 20 goals and 40 points in 82 games. If he can build on that, he suddenly becomes an intriguing part of the core of the team.

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• Jason Dickinson was a solid pickup for the Dallas Stars and should be improved as the team’s third line center, allowing Sutter to cross the team’s fourth line where he should be much more effective.

• Vasily Podkolzin, the 10th overall pick in 2019 and the team’s top prospect, has signed his entry-level contract and is ready to make the jump to the NHL. He has enormous potential and could be an important addition to the core of the team.

• While The addition of Oliver Ekman-Larsson stole all the headlines, Conor Garland could be the biggest addition. He’s just entered his prime in the league, leads possession and is one of the most effective 5v5 scorers in the league. Of the 481 forwards who have racked up at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time over the past three seasons, Garland’s 1.04 goals per 60 minutes are ranked 31st in the NHL. And he did it by playing for a team without a lot of offensive skills around him.

• The most important development: a healthy Elias Pettersson after being limited to just 26 games a year ago.

They are a much deeper, more talented and better group of attackers.

There are still some concerns elsewhere with the list

Specifically on defense and with the salary cap, where they have nearly $ 14 million for the duo Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers over the next few years.

They managed to get rid of much of their unwanted Arizona contracts under the Garland / Ekman-Larsson deal, but may have accepted an even more unwanted contract in the process.

A few years ago, adding Ekman-Larsson would have been a major decision. But his game has declined rapidly over the past two seasons, he’s now in his 30s and his contract has a huge salary cap for the next six years. Maybe a change of scenery and a new collection of teammates help him get back on track a bit. But it’s no exaggeration to think his best days are in the rearview mirror.

This is a problem for two reasons. The first is that by almost any objective measure the Canucks have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL this past season.

Their numbers 5 against 5 …

  • 60.2 shot attempts against every 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)

  • 32.9 shots on goal against every 60 minutes (30 out of 31 teams)

  • 2.65 goals expected against 60 minutes (31 out of 31 teams)

  • 31.6 odds against every 60 minutes (31 of 31 teams)

  • 11.7 chances to score against high danger every 60 minutes (30 of 31 teams)

  • 2.93 goals against every 60 minutes (28th out of 31 teams)

They also finished 17th out of 31 shorthanded teams. Will a declining 30-year-old Ekman-Larsson and a 31-year-old Travis Hamonic replacing Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt be enough to solve this problem dramatically? We’ll have to see, but it looks like the goalkeeper duo Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak will have to be fantastic every night to give them a chance.

The other issue is the elephant in the room where Pettersson and Hughes are still unsigned and they may need another move elsewhere on the roster to make room for them.

What is the potential here?

The good news for the Canucks is that they are playing in the right division.

Vegas is a playoff team. Edmonton should be a playoff team if for no other reason than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but even that is no guarantee. Beyond that, every other team in the division (Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, San Jose, Seattle) has some sort of significant flaw. After Vegas, there isn’t a team in the division (including Edmonton) that makes you say “this is definitely a playoff team”.

That leaves the door open for a team like Vancouver. Attacking talent and goaltending make the Canucks an intriguing team. But defense and the lack of flexibility in the salary cap are two important Achilles heels that will stay with them. As long as they do, it’s hard to see the Canucks emerge as anything other than the third team in the Pacific playoffs or a wild card fringe team. At least their games should be very interesting and entertaining.

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Adam gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Message him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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