Canucks signing of Thomas Vanek could be crucial to “Project Rebuild”

The Canucks signed veteran winger Thomas Vanek to a one-year deal worth $2 million yesterday, giving fans everywhere an existential crisis.

“What are we? Are we rebuilding? Are we trying to compete for a Cup? Why are we here?”

For what seems like a pretty straightforward signing at first glance, there’s lot to unpack considering what this contract means for the Canucks organization as a whole. Vanek himself is, in actuality, a very small part of this whole transaction and how it shapes the franchise’s future.

Let’s start by looking at the raw deal. Vanek had a poor showing by his own standards last season, scoring 48 points in his 68 games split between the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers. While that number is an improvement on the 41 points he got in 2015-16 with the Minnesota Wild, it’s also not one of the eight 50+ point campaigns that he’s had in his 12 year career.

Still, management has brought Vanek in with the hope that he can boost the Canucks’ offensive numbers, which ranked an abysmal 29th last year in goals scored. The team also thinks he can improve the power play that at a 14.1% success rate also put them second to last in 2016-17.

The deal itself is a very low risk one for the Canucks. If he returns to form, Jim Benning might be able to ship him to a playoff contender for a prospect and/or a decent draft pick. If teams aren’t calling at the trade deadline, they can hang onto him with little guilt.

But what’s most concerning to fans is what this means for Vancouver’s youth movement. At 33 years old, Vanek will be one of seven Canucks forwards aged 28 or older in a league that’s trending towards a game of speed and youth. It’s fair to assume that all of these players will be in the opening night lineup, which leaves at most five spots for players under 30.

If I were to hazard a guess, as of today this is the lineup we’re most likely to see on opening night.

LITC - Vanek - Google Docs

This leaves developing players like Brendan Gaunce, Reid Boucher and Anton Rodin to rotate chairs in the press box, while the Canucks’ two waiver exempt prospects, Brock Boeser and Nikolay Goldobin, will likely open the season in the AHL with Utica.

Plenty would view a demotion of Boeser and/or Goldobin as the biggest loss this contract brings, but the Comets are first and foremost a development team. While both of these players are ready for full NHL ice time, letting them play in the minors is still a better option than leaving them on the Vancouver practice squad.

With all of that in mind, there’s going be a lot of pressure on Vanek to put up solid numbers if he’ll be taking the place of a younger player in the Vancouver lineup. If he doesn’t get on the scoresheet enough and the Canucks’ core youth group show any signs of regression, fans will be quick to point fingers. But if he chips in regularly and the prospects continue to improve with reduced ice time and AHL duty, then this signing will be considered a success.

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