The Vancouver Canucks are heading into the offseason in a cap crunch. They have $14.2 million in cap space and have 11 players who are pending free agents. With uncertainty on which players the club will re-sign this offseason, general manager Jim Benning has replacement options through free agency.
Erik Cernak is a 23-year-old defenceman and will be a restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a projected $5 million in cap space, which provides other teams with a perfect opportunity to offer sheet the young defender. Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev are also RFAs for the Lightning. The Canucks should take a shot with an offer sheet since they will need a right-handed defender with the team potentially losing one of Chris Tanev or Troy Stecher.
Cernak had a Corsi for percentage of 50.4 over his first two seasons in the NHL. He is a reliable defenceman to replace one of the Canucks’ two free-agent defenders. Cernak brings size and strength, blocks shots and can get the puck out of his zone (from ‘Defenseman Erik Cernak ’has been phenomenal’ for Lightning,’ Tampa Bay Times, 09/08/2020). He also killed penalties for Tampa Bay. He can replace Tanev, who does the same things but is 30 years old and will come at a higher price point.
“It’s comforting back there to have size, strength, gamesmanship and guys that can bring pucks out and make plays and that’s what Cerny’s done. He’s another guy who’s grown into our system and grown into his game and we’re reaping the benefits now.”Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper
Throughout the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, Cernak played with Sergachev on the club’s second defence pairing. Sergachev is an offensive defenceman, similar to Quinn Hughes. Therefore, Cernak could be playing with Hughes, making up the Canucks’ top D-pairing over the next decade. The Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to offer Tanev a five-year contract for a little under $5 million. Instead of paying Tanev close to $5 million, the Canucks can offer Cernak up to $4.363 million, which would only cost them a second-round pick. With the Lightning in a cap crunch, they will likely not be able to match that offer.
With Jacob Markstrom potentially leaving, the Canucks will need a goalie to split starts with Thatcher Demko. Thomas Greiss is the best option to split starts since he has done so over the past few seasons and has been great at it, too. In the 2018-19 season, Greiss split starts with Robin Lehner, winning 23 of the 39 games started. He posted a .927 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.28 goals-against average (GAA). In 2019-20, he won 16 of the 28 games he played and posted a .913 SV% and a 2.74 GAA.
Adding Greiss provides Demko with some time before becoming a full-time starter. Also, the 24-year old goaltender can gain more experience as he gets an opportunity to play 40-plus games for the first time. Allowing Markstrom to leave frees up money to re-sign other players such as Tyler Toffoli and Tanev or Stecher, or sign free agents with the additional cap space.
If the Canucks move on from Markstrom, they should pick up a backup goalie and a defenceman. The Canucks need to add another mobile defender, and Torey Krug is a potential candidate. Krug has been a top offensive blueliner when healthy over the past few seasons. He was on pace to score over 50 points in the 2019-20 season before the stoppage of play, and he posted 50 points in three consecutive seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19.
He would be a great addition to the Canucks’ blueline as Hughes was the only player in the group to score 50-plus points last season, and the next closest defender was Alex Edler with 33 points. Edler has one season remaining on his two-year, $6 million per contract. Krug would replace him once his contract expires. The only problem with signing Krug is he is looking for term and money.
“I’m very opposed to that. I’ve bet on myself. I’ve taken shorter-term deals, less amount of money my whole career now. This is my time in terms of my value at its peak. I have the ability, I’m in a position now where I need to make the most of it.”Krug said of signing a one-year contract.
Krug will likely sign a contract for at least six seasons and close to $7 million per. Signing him will mean the Canucks would lose the likes of Tanev and Toffoli as well.
The Canucks have been interested in adding Tyson Barrie for some time now, and he fills in two needs for them. He is a mobile defenceman and is right-handed. Both Stecher and Tanev are right-handed, adding Barrie replaces one of them. He would be useful with Edler next season, as he can move the puck while playing with the 34-year-old.
Before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, Barrie posted two 50-point seasons with the Colorado Avalanche in back-to-back seasons. He didn’t have a great season with the Maple Leafs and would have a fresh start in Vancouver. He would be useful on the power play as well since he can quarterback the second unit for the Canucks. Barrie is coming off a four-year contract at $5.5 million per, and he should be offered in the $5.5 million to $6 million range for the same term as before.
Braden Holtby is a pending unrestricted free agent this offseason after spending his entire NHL career with the Washington Capitals. His time with the Caps saw the team win a Stanley Cup in 2018, and he won the Vezina Trophy in the 2016-17 season. It now seems as Holtby’s time with the team is over, and he will be looking for a new home.
If the Canucks lose Markstrom and are unsure about Demko being ready, they have an option in adding Holtby to their roster next season. He will be able to provide the 24-year-old with some veteran experience and will be helpful for his growth as a mentor. On the other hand, signing him could be risky, since Demko expects to be a starting goaltender sometime in the future.
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An NHL scout has noted the Canucks should shift their focus to Holtby, as he will come with a team-friendly AAV. Holtby is coming off a five-year, $6.1 million contract, but will likely be offered less on his next deal. If the Canucks can’t get Markstrom at a team-friendly price, they should attempt to sign the 2016-17 Vezina winner.
Canucks Have Options in Free Agency
Benning will have to be smart with who he re-signs this offseason due to the flat cap. The club also has core players, such as Elias Pettersson and Hughes, whose rookie contracts will end after the 2020-21 season.
In previous years, Benning has overpaid free agents, which is a reason why the organization is in a cap crunch now. Loui Eriksson is a prime example of that, as he signed a $36 million contract for six seasons. The Canucks’ overpaid Eriksson as he has posted 89 points in 245 games. Benning must not make the same mistake in free agency this year.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.