Vancouver, BC – There is no guarantee that the latest round of NHL negotiations will prove fruitful but assuming they are and NHL hockey returns in mid-to-late January, the Vancouver Canucks may have more questions than most teams heading into a shortened season.
The biggest issue hanging over the Canucks' head - and it has been this way since the moment they were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by Jarrett Stoll's overtime marker on Cory Schneider in Game Six of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series - is what the immediate future holds for now- former No. 1 netminder Roberto Luongo.
Luongo's days in Vancouver are clearly numbered and, if certain reports can be believed, a deal is already in place for the Canadian Olympic gold medalist to be dealt - likely to Toronto - pending the end of the lockout when transactions can once again be made.
But even if the Luongo situation manages to sort itself out, one thing the Canucks can't avoid is their Ryan Kesler conundrum.
One of the reasons many thought the Canucks might actually benefit from a lockout shortened season was because it would give time for Vancouver's number two center to heal from off-season surgeries to both his shoulder and wrist. But it seems mid-January, which is when the NHL is expected to get underway if it does at all this season, is still too early to be counting on Kesler's return.
What that means is Vancouver will have to adjust to the former Selke Trophy finalist's absence by either shifting bodies around from their current roster or to promote from within their farm system.
Unfortunately, neither option seems particularly appealing when you consider the next highest center on the depth chart behind Kesler is Maxim Lapierre, who clearly doesn't have Kesler's offensive flair and has been a minus-player for three straight seasons, while the next logical call-up at that spot is Jordan Schroeder, who hasn't exactly been lighting up the AHL this season and has spent time in Chicago Wolves head coach Scott Arniel's doghouse at times.
Further complicating matters for the Canucks is that many expect that when the new CBA is finally settled that there will be a compliance buyout included which Vancouver, like many teams, would love to take advantage of but the question is who gets the pink slip in light of Kesler's injury.
Luongo, assuming he can be bought out, would not be a likely candidate for a buyout despite his massive contract if the Canucks already have a deal in the works. Even if they don't, Vancouver probably figures they can still get some relatively decent assets in return for a player that is considered among the best of his position in the entire league.
Defenseman Keith Ballard, who is signed through the 2014-15 season at an annual cap hit of $4.2 million, would be another prime candidate but Vancouver's alarming lack of depth on the back end also makes him an unlikely buyout candidate.
The Canucks have just seven regular blueliners, including current AHL defenseman Chris Tanev, signed this season and had previously lost Sami Salo via free agency to Tampa Bay in the summer. That leaves only forwards to truly consider buyout potentials.
David Booth might be at the top of the list considering his heavy $4.25 million annual cap hit that goes through the 2014-15 season but, despite his struggles at times during his first year in Canuck colors, he's still one of Vancouver's most offensively-talented weapons and was named as the team's most exciting player last season. He's not exactly the type one would give away particularly with Kesler still on the shelf.
Another potential buyout candidate is Manny Malhotra, who hasn't quite been the same player since suffering his near career-threatening eye injury late in the 2010-11 season, but Vancouver's lack of depth at center with Kesler out along with the fact Malhotra has just one year left on his deal will make that also a tough choice.
As much as the Canucks, along with every team across the NHL by this point, would love to get back on the ice playing instead of dealing with the endless lockout rhetoric, they know they'll have plenty more headaches to deal with if and when the puck finally does drop.