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The Vancouver Canucks have led the NHL this season in one important category: trade speculation.

After wholesale changes in December, new president Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin made it clear the team needs improving and requires some salary-cap flexibility to achieve this. Allvin also told Sportsnet the Canucks are in no position to let potential unrestricted free agents leave for nothing, a recurring organizational failure under the previous regime. No wonder there has been so much breathless conjecture the last three months about “Trader” Jim and the looming roster upheaval on the Canucks.

But Rutherford also predicted when he was hired that the Canucks might already be better than people realize, and under new coach Bruce Boudreau have gone 22-10-5 since Dec. 5. During that span, they’re a top-10 team in the NHL, climbing back into the playoff race in the Western Conference.

There are only three regulars headed towards unrestricted free agency -- key penalty-killer and energy forward Tyler Motte, backup goalie Jaroslav Halak and depth forward Alex Chiasson – and most of the big decisions facing management are better dealt with in the off-season.

The fireworks many predicted for this trade deadline in Vancouver are unlikely to occur. And one thing that almost certainly won’t be happening is a trade of J.T. Miller. A month ago, he was at the epicentre of all the trade speculation. And in the last 16 games, as of Friday, the 29-year-old with another season under contract at a bargain $5.25-million had led the league in scoring with 29 points. The Canucks want to keep their best skater and emotional leader, and at least take this summer to find out what that would entail.

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Projected deadline cap space: $1.625 million

Cap space committed for next season: $70.64 million (minus $3.5 million for Micheal Ferland on LTIR)

2022: VAN 1, WPG 3, VAN 4, VAN 5, VAN 6, VAN 7

2023: VAN 1, VAN 2, VAN 3, VAN 4, VAN 5, VAN 6

The Canucks’ needs haven’t changed since the start of the season, despite two management regimes and the impressive spike in performance under Boudreau: more speed, better quality and mobility at the bottom of the defence, and organizational needs for more depth at centre and a deeper pool of prospects.

Allvin has said the club will target college and European leagues for the latter. But to improve the defence, the team needs cap flexibility, either by finding a way to move off a couple of inefficient contracts or, more likely, trading an expensive core piece.

Ty Smith

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The 2018 first-round pick has gone backwards in his second season with the New Jersey Devils. Pushed down the lineup by the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves, Smith’s average TOI has dropped nearly three minutes to 17:15, and his even-strength goals-against-per-60 has ballooned to 3.9 from 3.1. Smith can be had, and the mobile, puck-moving defenceman who is still just 21 years old checks a lot of boxes for the Canucks. He may cost less than people think, but it will still take a significant “hockey trade” to get him.

John Marino

The 24-year-old Pittsburgh Penguin was a favourite of Rutherford and Allvin, but may not be as popular with the new regime there, especially since the Penguins are at a salary-cap crossroads with a handful key players headed towards unrestricted free agency.

Shortly before leaving Pittsburgh, Rutherford signed Marino to a six-year, $26.4-million contract as a second-pairing defenceman who can skate, pass and match up against top forwards. Marino could help the Canucks’ right side and partner Quinn Hughes for years. But this would be a big, risky, complicated trade.

Draft capital

Minus their second-round pick this spring due to last summer’s blockbuster acquisition of Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson from Arizona, the Canucks are looking for additional picks to help rebuild a prospects list that has thinned dramatically the last few years. Beyond minor-league defenceman Jack Rathbone, whose sophomore season as a pro has been slowed by injuries, the Canucks are out of top-grade prospects.

Tyler Motte

The 27-year-old has been a staple of Canucks penalty killing and bottom-six checking for the last four seasons. He is one of the fastest and most consistently physical players on Vancouver, and would be an ideal rental for a lot of good teams looking to bolster depth, grit and special teams for a playoff run.

With Motte on an expiring contract at a salary of $1.25 million, the Canucks would prefer to keep him but are not in a cap position to offer him more than a modest wage increase. But, given where they are in the playoff race, nor is the team likely to just give him away. Motte remains the most likely Canuck to be traded by the deadline, but it will take a solid asset to get him.

Jaroslav Halak

The Canucks are eager to shed a bonus overage of $1.25 million – counted against the cap next season when the goalie will be elsewhere – for the 36-year-old with 551 games on his NHL resume.

After initial reports that Halak was firm about not waiving his no-movement clause, it is believed he would accept a trade that allows him to play and audition for his next contract. But the bonus due after the season is as unappealing to other teams as it is the Canucks, and Halak’s trade value has been further deflated by infrequent use and an atrocious February (.649 save rate in three games).

Brock Boeser

The Canucks’ top right winger has lived on lists like this for the last two years mostly because there are only so many players a team can afford to pay as stars and Boeser is never going to rank ahead of Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Thatcher Demko or Bo Horvat and, now, Miller.

The $7.5-million qualifying offer Boeser is due as a restricted free agent is a non-starter for the Canucks, who would rather negotiate a longer-term deal at something significantly less than that figure. But Boeser holds the hammer, and the team may decide to create its cap flexibility by moving on from the former Calder Trophy runner-up. Any trade, however, is far more likely to happen this summer than by Monday’s deadline.

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George Washington

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