VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season and two of the best players in franchise history are retiring, and yet there is a sense of optimism around the team heading into the summer.
The retirement of Henrik and Daniel Sedin after 17 seasons in a Canuck uniform will cost Vancouver over 100 points on the ice and create a leadership void in the dressing room. Team management realizes the challenges ahead but believes the Canucks are assembling the young talent able to put them back on the road to respectability.
"We are encouraged as an organization about where we are as a group," Trevor Linden, the Canucks president of hockey operations, told a season-ending news conference Monday. "I think this group has an identity moving forward with its young players that is exciting.
"We've got a long way to go, we know that. I think there is a lot of positives and we have to keep building on those and working towards getting better."
The Canucks finished 26th out of the league's 31 teams with a 31-40-11 record for 73 points. The Canucks were the league's second worst team last year with a 30-23-9 record for 69 points. Vancouver will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Head coach Travis Green said "it's not easy to answer" when the Canucks will be able to contend for a playoff spot.
"Our guys have to become better hockey players," said Green, a rookie NHL coach this year. "We need to continue to make the changes necessary in order to become that team. I'm confident we are on the right path."
Bo Horvat, in his third season in Vancouver, and rookie Brock Boeser were the two best players on the Canucks not named Sedin.
Boeser led Vancouver with 29 goals and had 26 assists despite missing the final 15 games with a back injury.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning said Boeser's recovery is on schedule. Boeser has also travelled to Minnesota to have his wrist examined for another injury suffered earlier in the year.
Horvat had a career-high 22 goals and finished with 44 points despite missing 18 games with a foot injury.
"I think there is a lot of promise in our group," said Horvat, who will join Team Canada for the world hockey championships.
"I think we have the right tools, the right assets to help our team in the future."
Right-wingers Jake Virtanen and Nikolay Goldobin both tantalized at the end of the season. Virtanen had 10 goals and 20 points and finally managed to show some consistency. Goldobin finished off the year with three goals in the final four games.
The list of young players the Canucks are excited about for next year include centre Adam Gaudette, the Hobey Baker winner who led the NCAA this year with 30 goals and 60 points; centre Elias Pettersson, picked fifth overall in last year’s draft, who led the Swedish Elite League in scoring as a 19-year-old; defenceman Olli Juolevi, picked fifth in 2016; and goaltender Thatcher Demko who had a 24-13-6 record with the AHL Utica Comets and won his first NHL game with the Canucks this year.
"It's going to be up to these young players to prove they deserve to be here," said Benning. "If they deserve to be here we will find a spot for them and we will play them in situations where they can be successful."
The Canucks will need to tighten up on their back end. Vancouver allowed 264 goals this season, the most in the Western Conference.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom was guilty of giving up some bad goals all year, but his game improved as the season ended. The Canuck defence was suspect all year and could be reworked over the summer.
The Canucks will have a high draft pick against this year. The Sedins retiring frees up US$14 million in salary cap room but Linden didn't sound like someone expecting to spend a lot of money in free agency.
"I think it's very likely we could be several million dollars below the salary cap," he said.
Green said it was too early to say who might replace Henrik Sedin as the team captain. He believes the departure of the Swedish twins creates new opportunities for other players.
“"hat's a positive thing in a way," said Green. "There is going to have to be new leaders step forward and people probably inside that room will act a little bit different."