Speaking with Frank Seravalli and Jason Gregor on the DFO Rundown, Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford spoke about his team’s need for more “sandpaper” next season.
“We don’t have enough sandpaper,” said Rutherford. “It’s a different game in the West. We have to get some guys — not a lot of guys — but a few guys that are a little bit heavier, to play with some sandpaper.”
It’s true, the Canucks don’t really have a lot of players that play with that type of grit. In fact, they traded one of the few players who did in Tyler Motte at last season’s trade deadline for a fourth-round pick. So, now Rutherford will be looking to replace that through trade or free agency. In this piece, the latter will be discussed as there are three targets he should be looking at when the bell rings on July 13 to start what many people call the “silly season”.
Nick Paul – Left Wing/Center
If the Canucks get anyone through free agency this offseason, it should be 27-year-old Nick Paul, who is currently starring in the second round of the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick in 2024, Paul brings everything Rutherford just described and more. He has been a revelation on a revamped third line with fellow acquisition Brandon Hagel and 25-year-old Ross Colton and currently has two goals and five points in eight playoff games. That includes an unforgettable clutch performance in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs where he scored two goals – including the game-winner – and played 22:03, all in the absence of Brayden Point.
Paul can play every position and at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, packs a heck of a punch when he hits someone, which is something he does often. In 2021-22, he finished with 106 hits (that would put him second on the Canucks behind J.T. Miller) and already has 27 in the playoffs so far after nine games. He can also kill penalties (2:08 of average shorthanded ice time), win faceoffs (50.4 percent) and score a few goals (16) too.
With Paul’s performance in the playoffs so far, his price tag of $1.35 million in average annual value (AAV) from his last contract will inevitably go up once he hits free agency. Including his current team, there will be plenty of suitors for his services too. Fortunately for the Canucks and those other teams, the Lightning will have to do some major cap gymnastics to fit him in for 2022-23.
As of right now, according to CapFriendly, they have zero space to re-sign him and fellow unrestricted free agents (UFA) Ondrej Palat, Riley Nash and Jan Rutta. Similar to last season, they will probably lose at least one member of their effective third line that used to include Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow. All three of them gained significant pay raises last offseason with teams not named the Lightning. If the Canucks are lucky, Paul will be the latest casualty, and end up signing with them. That’s not to say they won’t have to do some gymnastics of their own to fit him in, but with the recapture penalty from Roberto Luongo’s contract coming off the books and the cap itself going up, they will have an easier time doing it than the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs from the Sunshine State.
Michael Raffl – Left Wing
Speaking of versatile players, let’s talk about Austrian forward Michael Raffl. He’s a little on the older side at 33, but he still has some game in that 6-foot-1, 205-pound body of his. Now known as more of a defensive player rather than a goal-scorer at this point of his career, he would bring that “sandpaper” Rutherford spoke about in that interview. With 141 hits in 76 games, he finished just outside the top 50 in that particular stat for forwards and third behind Jamie Benn (143) and Luke Glendening (179) on the Dallas Stars.
Like Paul, he can also kill penalties, provide energy on a third or fourth line and jump into a scoring role when needed. While he only scored seven goals and 16 points in 2021-22, he does have a 20-goal season on his resume and three times where he hit double-digits. He is also known to be able to play with skilled players as he spent time on the top line and the power play with the Philadelphia Flyers alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Similar to how Alex Burrows got elevated from the fourth line to the top line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Raffl’s speed and hardworking, tenacious style ignited Giroux and Voracek’s game when Vincent Lecavalier went down with an injury in his rookie season in 2013-14.
Again, like Burrows, Raffl translated that supposed short-term spot to a few seasons of success. Not at the same insane level of production, mind you, but a permanent fixture on the top line with two of the best players in the NHL at the time. He went on to be a hero in Game 4 of the 2020 Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens and finished with four goals in nine games, all while seemingly with a foot out the door (from “Michael Raffl, Game 4’s hero, is emblematic of how Flyers are winning right now” The Athletic, 8/19/20). He’s always been someone suited for a bottom-six role, and that’s what he is now. If the Canucks want a Burrows-like player that always comes to work, can kill penalties, play up and down the lineup and pot a few goals when given a chance with skilled players, Raffl should be their guy. He also won’t cost much to sign, as his last contract with the Stars was only for one year at $1.1 million AAV.
Vincent Trocheck – Center/Right Wing
Last, but certainly not least is Vincent Trocheck, currently of the Carolina Hurricanes. Out of the three players mentioned in this piece, he will definitely be the most expensive to sign. With the most goals (21) since his best season in Florida where he had 31 goals and 75 points, he has rejuvenated his career in Carolina with 39 goals in 135 games after only 20 in his previous 105. He is also having a productive postseason so far with three goals and seven points.
Unlike Paul and Raffl, Trocheck is not a big guy in the physical sense (5-foot-10, 183 pounds), but he plays big and possesses a gritty style that can be utilized anywhere in the lineup. Despite his lack of size, he is not afraid of physical contact as evidenced by his 185 hits, which would have actually led the Canucks, surpassing Miller’s total of 172.
In addition to his prowess in the offensive zone and willingness to throw the body around, Trocheck would add a third-line element the Canucks currently don’t have – a center that can win faceoffs. Behind only uber-two-way pivot Jordan Staal (the Hurricanes’ version of Bo Horvat), he won 54.6 percent of his 1,245 draws in 2021-22. That included a 56 percent success rate in the defensive zone, an area the Canucks struggled in without the services of Jay Beagle.
Unfortunately, for them, Trocheck likely will cost a bit more than the $4.75 million AAV he earned in 2021-22, and he, like Paul will have plenty of teams knocking on his door if he ends up entering free agency. Having said that, if they can somehow find the money and win his services, he would be a perfect fit behind Miller – if he doesn’t get traded – and Horvat in the top nine. He would also add a much-need boost to both special teams and even-strength as he spent an average of 1:46 on the penalty kill and 2:53 on the power play in the regular season, all in addition to his play-driving 55.8 Corsi-for percentage.
Canucks Will Need to Free Up Cap Space Before Adding “Sandpaper”
With limited cap space, the Canucks will have difficulties signing the players they want in free agency, let alone their own key restricted free agent in Brock Boeser. Before they can think about adding, they need to find the money to do so. That’s easier said than done with the bloated contracts of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers hanging over their heads. They are already trying to gauge interest in Ekman-Larsson on the trade market, but that could prove difficult with his no-move clause.
While it would be nice to add a gritty player like Paul, Raffl or Trocheck to the Canucks’ roster of finesse players, Rutherford and Patrik Allvin might not have the financial backing to do so, at least not without some creative massaging of the salary cap or a trade partner willing to take a bad contract or two off their hands. In the end, all fans can do is wait and see if they can do one or both of those things when free agency opens its doors in July.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.