First it was on. Then it was off. And now, who knows?
A swap of struggling right wingers, a scenario that had Jake Virtanen bound for Anaheim and Danton Heinen returning home to the Lower Mainland, shifted from hot to cold late Saturday night. Postmedia learned that the trade between the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks was close to being dead.
The sticking point in a flat salary-cap reality is another year remaining on Virtanen’s contract extension.
It’s a US$2.55 million cap hit, but $3.4 million in actual salary. Heinen is a restricted free agent with an expiring US$2.88 million cap hit, and unless the Canucks retain salary, which wouldn’t occur, it wouldn’t be a one-for-one trade. The Ducks would want an add-on and that only adds to the suspense, or lack of it.
Both Virtanen, 24, and Heinen, 25, are enduring tough seasons and might benefit from a change of scenery.
Virtanen’s only goal in 19 games came Jan. 18 at Calgary on a harmless wrister from the sideboards. It was aided by an Olli Juolevi screen before the shot deflected off the stick of Flames defenceman Juuso Valimaki and changed directions.
Virtanen is fourth among team forwards in hits and sixth in take-aways and will be aligned with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson on Monday to open back-to-back games in Winnipeg. Virtanen is obviously being showcased because he’s not being slotted to kickstart that line.
“I thought he had a pretty strong last game and some good looks around the net,” Canucks coach Travis Green said Sunday of Virtanen managing three shots and five attempts Thursday in a 3-0 loss to Edmonton. “He looks like he’s skating a little bit faster.”
Virtanen has long been the subject of trade rumours. In the 2019 NHL draft at Rogers Arena, he was dangled in a package to acquire defenceman Tyson Barrie from Colorado. That fall, his conditioning was questioned at training camp in Victoria and it became a lightning rod for more trade speculation.
And when Heinen was in Boston last season, his name was floated in a rumoured deal that would have sent Virtanen to the Bruins.
“There aren’t many players who don’t see their name linked somewhere in some type of trade rumour, especially if you play in a Canadian market,” added Green. “There’s lots of coverage and we have a lot of communication with our players, including Jake, because there have been some rumours and you have to talk players through it.
“But it’s probably a bigger deal to the outside world than our room.”
In Heinen, the Canucks would receive a guy who’s better defensively than Virtanen, but hasn’t put up the points. The Langley native was acquired from Boston at the trade deadline a year ago and has six points (3-3) in 17 games with the Ducks.
At best, he’s a third-liner who’s responsible, will occasionally show some finish and could play the second power play and kill penalties. Anaheim has too many players like that in their bottom six.
THE LONG, WINDING ROAD
As the Canucks approach the halfway mark of a compacted 56-game season, the sobering reality of just two wins in their last 13 games (2-9-2) — and a power play being blanked seven times in that stretch — is it will take a ridiculous run of winning two-thirds of their remaining games just to squeeze into the post-season.
Nobody wants to focus beyond a tough double-dip with the big, fast, skilled and speedy Jets, who are 2-1-0 against the Canucks this season, but Vancouver has played the most games and has the third-worst win percentage. That’s telling.
The Canucks are only five points out of the fourth and final division playoff spot, but Montreal has four games in hand and it wouldn’t take much for the Canucks to be staring at a double-digit point deficit to just get to the post-season.
Green did what he could to massage his other practice lines Sunday and tinkered with the power play.
The first unit had Elias Pettersson on the left wall to help run the show while Brock Boeser was on the right dot, J.T. Miller down low and Bo Horvat in the bumper. The second unit had Tanner Pearson down low, Adam Gaudette on the left dot, Virtanen on the right dot, Nils Hoglander in the bumper and Tyler Myers on the point.
“The Jets play a pretty aggressive game and have good top-end players and their top line is probably the most challenging to play against because it’s big and strong and fast,” said Canucks centre Brandon Sutter.
“If we can get kind of get hot and put three, four or five wins together, you’re going to make up ground. Things can change pretty quick, and that’s cliche, but that’s how it works this year.”