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With inept blue line, Canucks' season was always doomed

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Seven games into the 2022-23 campaign, it feels like the Vancouver Canucks' season is over before it even started. The Canucks have yet to crack the win column, sitting last in the NHL with an 0-5-2 record.

This clearly isn't how president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin drew it up entering their first full season with the club. But it's at least partially their fault for failing to address a glaring team need: the defense.

The Canucks are blessed with ample firepower up front and a franchise goalie in Thatcher Demko, but an inept blue line renders the team's strengths moot. The forwards can't generate the offense they're capable of because the defense can't break out the puck. And Demko is being hung out to dry because the team - forwards included - doesn't defend well.

When fully healthy, Vancouver's defense depth chart looks something like this:

Quinn Hughes Tyler Myers
Oliver Ekman-Larsson Luke Schenn
Travis Dermott Tucker Poolman
Riley Stillman Kyle Burroughs

Injuries have already depleted this group to begin the season, but even at full strength, there are a lot of holes. Quinn Hughes is the only real building block, and as great as he is offensively, he has defensive deficiencies. The prospect pipeline on defense isn't any more promising than the group on the active roster, either.

What could new regime have done differently?

Jeff Vinnick / National Hockey League / Getty

The Canucks hired Rutherford in December, while Allvin was hired in January. In that time, the only noteworthy blue-line additions have been Travis Dermott and Riley Stillman, who are, at best, third-pairing defensemen.

Allvin's top offseason priority should've been upgrading the blue line. That's easier said than done, of course, but the Canucks could've used J.T. Miller as trade bait, as we suggested in the offseason, to help improve the back end. Instead, the Canucks signed Miller to a seven-year extension that carries an $8-million cap hit through his age-36 season. It's already becoming easy to see how that contract could go south.

And despite already being deep up front, Allvin decided to use what little cap space he possessed to sign free agent Ilya Mikheyev, a middle-six winger, to a four-year deal with a $4.75-million cap hit. That money should've been allocated to the back end.

Yes, the free-agent defense options (specifically on the right side where Vancouver's biggest needs are) were limited. But Allvin could've been more aggressive on the trade market. Someone like John Marino, who Allvin and Rutherford know well from their time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, would've been a great fit before he was ultimately dealt to the New Jersey Devils.

Marino is just 25 years old, defensively sound, and signed to a team-friendly $4.4-million cap hit through 2026-27. New Jersey gave up Ty Smith and a third-rounder for him, which the Canucks could've topped if they really wanted to.

It's far too early to fully judge Rutherford and Allvin given that they've been on the job for less than a year and inherited quite a mess from predecessor Jim Benning, but their vision hasn't worked so far.

Ownership at fault, too

Jeff Vinnick / National Hockey League / Getty

Speaking of Benning, this flawed roster has his fingerprints all over it. But team chairman Francesco Aquilini and the rest of Vancouver's ownership group deserve the blame for giving Benning such a long leash.

It had been evident for some time that Benning was an inadequate NHL GM. Hired in 2014, he had more than enough time to turn the Canucks into a consistent winner but was unable to do so. The team always lacked direction during his reign, yet Aquilini continued to employ him.

It was Benning's final offseason in charge that really set the franchise back. Benning pulled off a blockbuster trade, acquiring Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes for a first-round pick, second-round pick, seventh-round pick, Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel.

Garland is a solid player, but Ekman-Larsson, 31, has been in decline since 2017-18, and the Canucks are stuck with his $7.26-million cap hit until 2026-27. Even though the cap is projected to start rising again, it's incredibly difficult to win in the NHL while carrying a burden of a contract.

Also in an effort to improve the blue line that offseason, Benning signed Tucker Poolman - who's ideally suited as a No. 7 defenseman - to a four-year, $10-million deal as a free agent. This was a significant overpay from Day 1.

Had Aquilini fired Benning after the 2021 campaign and given the next GM more of a clean slate, the Canucks would be on a much better track.

What's next?

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As bad as it sounds, this horrendous start may ultimately be what's best for the Canucks. In a perfect world, they finish near the bottom of the standings, win the draft lottery, and land a potential generational player in Connor Bedard - a North Vancouver, British Columbia, native, to boot.

With this blue line, the team's ceiling was probably capped at squeaking into the playoffs, losing in the first round, and not getting a high draft pick.

While the Canucks have too much talent to realistically finish below the clearly tanking Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks, among other teams, anything is possible.

Rutherford and Allvin will have to make at least one major decision this season: determine what to do with captain and pending free agent Bo Horvat. If they can't agree to terms on an extension before the deadline, they'd be forced to trade him - assuming they haven't turned things around by then.

A turnaround isn't impossible, either. After all, the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues were in last place at midseason and still ended up winning the Stanley Cup. But at this point, that seems like a pipe dream for the Canucks, who were always destined to fail with this lackluster blue line.

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