Canucks’ Free Agents: Who Stays & Who Goes

The Vancouver Canucks will have a lot of decisions to make this offseason when they start looking at their roster for 2020-21. In total, they have six unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and five restricted free agents (RFAs) to deal with. To make matters worse, many of them are high-profile players that will command a significant salary increase from what they were making in 2019-20. Suffice it to say, general manager Jim Benning will be busy come July 1 (or whenever the NHL decides the offseason will begin). So, with that said, let’s take a look at who they will ultimately decide to keep around next season.

The RFAs

Jake Virtanen

Jake Virtanen sure picked the perfect time to break out offensively. Every season he’s improved statistically despite the tough love shown by head coach Travis Green. His overall attitude and dedication to the game have also seen marked improvement as well.

When the offseason comes around he will be an RFA with the highest amount of leverage he’s seen since he became an NHL regular. He will also have arbitration rights for the first time as well. When he signed his current contract in 2018 at a cap hit of $1.25 million average annual value (AAV), he was coming off a season where he put up 20 points in 75 games. Now after putting together two seasons with a combined 33 goals and 61 points in 139 games, that figure will most certainly go up.

Jake Virtanen Vancouver Canucks
Jake Virtanen, Vancouver Canucks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Virtanen is also only 23-years-old, so his prime years are just around the corner. 2019-20 has seen him turn a significant corner in his development, so it probably would behoove the Canucks to keep him around for the foreseeable future. He’s a big part of the young core they are building and his best years are still to come. He could also be a key component of a cup run, as his playing style is tailor-made for the playoffs.

As for Virtanen’s future salary, his agent will probably use Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals as a comparable. When he signed his current six-year $5.16 million AAV contract, he was coming off a season where he put up 14 goals and 35 points. Virtanen’s 18 goals and 36 points are as comparable as you can get. So we could legitimately see a contract similar to his when all is said and done. The question will be, can the Canucks afford him at that cap hit?

Tyler Motte

When Tyler Motte was acquired by the Canucks at the 2018 trade deadline for veteran Thomas Vanek, pundits and fans dubbed the deal a bust. He wasn’t a high-end prospect and it did not include a draft pick, which many people thought needed to happen at the time. The only other piece was another veteran in Jussi Jokinen, who caught fire and cost the Canucks a chance at a high draft pick. Fortunately for them, the consolation prize was Quinn Hughes, so it all worked out swimmingly in the end.

Tyler Motte Vancouver Canucks
Tyler Motte, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fast forward to now, and Motte has become a valuable member of the Canucks fourth line and one of the unsung heroes on the team. His work ethic, hustle, and physical play have driven the line to success more often than not. Throw in his penchant for penalty killing, and you have one of the most underrated forwards on the team.

Given Motte’s low numbers statistically, he probably will be easy to re-sign. The Canucks should definitely look at doing so because you need those types of players in the lineup to be successful. Some will argue that players like him are a dime-a-dozen, but he has proven that he’s not just any player. Green has tried others in his position on the fourth line and it never looks the same, in fact, it’s looked a lot worse.

Motte has also been a pillar in the community, showing some vulnerability by talking about his battle with mental health. To sum it up, he should stay a member of the Canucks.

Adam Gaudette

The bottom-six theme continues with Adam Gaudette. Since the beginning of training camp this season, he has proven that he’s not just ready for the NHL, but that he’s ready to thrive there. He has solidified his spot on the third line over the incumbent Brandon Sutter and has blossomed into an offensive threat as well. His 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games rank eighth on the team and is a huge improvement from last season when he put up 17 points in 56 games.

Gaudette still needs to improve on his faceoff numbers to completely arrive in the NHL, but that will come with time and practice. Overall he’s been a welcome surprise on a team that was struggling to find offence in the bottom-six and on the second power play unit. His celebrations are epic too, which is a bonus.

As for what the Canucks will need to shell out to keep him a part of the fold, it probably will be at least a $2 million AAV contract. Just like Virtanen, his best years are just ahead, and he also falls into the category of being a big part of the young core. Benning will most definitely try to re-sign him at a reasonable rate.

Zack MacEwen

The “Big Fella” has arrived in the NHL and it’s been great to see. The undrafted forward from Prince Edward Island has been a pleasant surprise for the Canucks since coming over from the Quebec Major Junior League’s (QMJHL) Moncton Wildcats. After putting together two great seasons in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Comets, he was a frequent call-up this season. Now he’s an RFA for the first time, and Benning will have to decide if he’s worth keeping around.

Just like Gaudette and Virtanen, he is 23-years-old and on the cusp of establishing what he will be for the rest of his career. When you look at the small sample size he’s given us in 17 games this season, he will be a constant physical presence on the forecheck with the occasional offensive outburst. He definitely has the speed and size to be an effective contributor to the bottom-six, but can he translate that eventually to the top-six? That remains to be seen.

Zack MacEwen Vancouver Canucks
Zack MacEwen, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for what a new contract will look like, it probably won’t be difficult to get him locked up under a reasonable number. He hasn’t statistically blown anyone away and his NHL experience is limited, so expect to see something in the one-two year range between $1-2 million AAV.

Troy Stecher

Another member of this intriguing RFA list is Richmond native Troy Stecher. Of all of them, he’s probably the most likely candidate to be pushed out because of the cap crunch the Canucks will be facing this offseason.

The 2019-20 season has been a rocky one for the undrafted defenceman out of the University of North Dakota. First, he was pushed down the depth chart by free-agent signing Tyler Myers, leading to a massive drop in ice time (almost five minutes less), then he was subjected to trade rumours at the deadline. Finally, he had a stretch of games where the puck kept going off of him for goals against. Talk about a hard-luck season.

Despite all this, Stecher still put up improved offensive numbers with a career-high five goals. He also kept a positive attitude throughout, especially when he was in the rumour mill, and when luck seemed to be against him. He clearly still wants to be a part of the team but understands the business of the game if he does end up leaving the Canucks.

Obviously I’d be upset…At the end of the day, you’re still playing in the NHL. As a kid, you don’t dream of playing for a specific team, you want to play in the NHL, win a Stanley Cup.

Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher (from ‘Canucks’ Troy Stecher philosophical on trade deadline buzz’, The Province – 2/21/20)
Troy Stecher, Vancouver Canucks
Troy Stecher, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canucks could look at trading the underrated defenceman in the offseason to a team searching for mobility on the backend. He moves the puck well and is a solid penalty killer too. I think they could probably get a valuable draft pick for him, which is going to be crucial in a draft that promises to be one of the deepest in recent memory.

The UFAs

Chris Tanev

I could write an entire article on Chris Tanev and his contributions to the Canucks over the years. His warrior-like persona has graced our TV screens and Rogers Arena for the past ten years and we couldn’t be more grateful. But this is about the future, and if he should be a part of the exciting road ahead. Based on how much of an impact he’s made on uber-rookie Quinn Hughes and the stability he has provided to the defence core over the years, he should be high on Benning’s list to re-sign.

With that said, if Tanev wants a big raise on his current $4.45 million AAV contract, the Canucks will be hard-pressed to fit him in. They also have a couple of prospects in Brogan Rafferty and Olli Juolevi that will be knocking on the door in the near future. Though, if he is okay with taking a little bit of a pay cut on a shorter-term contract, he is a great stop-gap as we wait for the young reinforcements to arrive.

Chris Tanev Vancouver Canucks
Chris Tanev, Vancouver Canucks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Unfortunately, if Tanev looks at the market for his caliber of defencemen, he could be in line for a good salary on a longer-term contract. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs could use his solid defensive presence on their backend, and I’m sure many other teams will be in the same boat. If he decides that free agency is the way to go, he definitely will find his share of suitors.

Tyler Toffoli

To add to the complications that Benning will face in the offseason, Tyler Toffoli has fit in perfectly with the Canucks. Too bad he’s a UFA at the same time a pandemic is sweeping the nation, potentially canceling the 2019-20 season. In the end, his tenure may only last ten regular-season games, and whatever playoff games the NHL gives us at the end of all this. If that happens, Benning gave up a high-end prospect in Madden and a second-round pick in a deep draft for a rental player.

That doomsday scenario could still play out, but let’s look at the other side of the coin. If Benning is able to discover a way to re-sign Toffoli under a reasonable salary, which is remote, I know, the Canucks could have a deadly top-six for the foreseeable future. He fit in perfectly with JT Miller and Elias Pettersson on the top line and drove play with his speed and propensity to throw pucks at the net.

Tyler Toffoli Vancouver Canucks
Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Again, just like Tanev, Toffoli will have his share of teams lining up to sign him. He’s been a regular offensive contributor throughout his career and has had another solid season with 24 goals and 44 points in 68 games. I really don’t see a world where he won’t get less than his current cap hit of $4.6 million AAV. That puts Benning in a tough spot, especially with the future issues around re-signing his foundation players in Hughes and Pettersson. Unless a miracle happens, Toffoli will be in yet another jersey next season, as much as Canucks fans want him here.

Jacob Markstrom

Yet another wrench this offseason is team-MVP, Jacob Markstrom. Just like Virtanen, he picked the perfect time to put up a career season. His ability to steal games became routine in 2019-20 as the Canucks struggled to find consistency in their defensive structure. The amount of 40-plus save games was staggering, and you couldn’t fault him for any of the losses, which is very impressive for a goaltender.

The Canucks are facing yet another goaltender controversy, although it’s not as dramatic as the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider saga. Benning and company will have to decide what the best route is for the future of the team. Markstrom may be the answer right now, but rookie Thatcher Demko is the future. He may have struggled a bit when faced with the starting job at the end of the season, but he did begin to show signs of turning it around before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the season. He could actually be ready to take the reigns if they decide that’s the best direction to go in.

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That’s not to say that the Canucks should give up on re-signing their all-star goaltender. The problem lies in the term, not the money in this case. If as rumoured, Markstrom wants a long-term deal, they may not be able to accommodate that type of contract. Demko won’t want to be a backup forever, and the Seattle expansion draft is also around the corner. They will have to expose one goaltender, and the most obvious answer would be Markstrom. I’m not sure he will like the possibility of moving after obtaining the security of a long-term contract.

Unfortunately, I think Markstrom is gone this offseason, especially if he wants a longer-term contract at upwards of $6 million AAV. With all the signings Benning will have to make now and in the future, he may not fit in with the current salary structure. He’s also on the wrong side of 30, while Demko is just entering his prime in the NHL, with the potential of becoming an elite number one down the road. I don’t think Benning will want to expose that type of goaltender in the scary world that is the expansion draft.

Josh Leivo

Leivo may be the lesser of the three UFAs I just mentioned, but he still is an intriguing option to potentially stick around in 2020-21. He’s still relatively young and to echo THW’s own Tyler Halsey, they need someone with his abilities. He’s a solid play driver and can go up and down the lineup with ease. Before he got injured he was consistently playing with Bo Horvat on the second line and looked very comfortable doing so. If Toffoli isn’t re-signed, he could see himself there again.

Josh Leivo Vancouver Canucks
Josh Leivo, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even if he doesn’t play in the top-six, he could provide some valuable depth to the third line with Virtanen and Gaudette. He was having a pretty solid first full season with the Canucks before getting hurt, potting seven goals and 19 points in 36 games. His next contract will definitely be of the larger variety, but it shouldn’t eclipse more than $2 million, given his relatively low offensive numbers to this point.

Oscar Fantenberg

When Oscar Fantenberg was signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, no one thought he would become a significant part of the Canucks defence. But that’s exactly what he did. After sitting out the first month of the season, he rarely left the lineup even after the injured Alex Edler returned. It was Jordie Benn getting the boot to the press box, not him. The trust he built with Green kept him on the active roster and even got him consistent ice time, at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Fantenberg rewarded Green’s trust with solid defensive play and puck movement from the backend. There were hairy times to be sure, but not nearly as bad as we saw from Derrick Pouliot and Erik Gudbranson in previous seasons. He was the perfect stop-gap defenceman, even though he didn’t play that role very much towards the end of the season. Unfortunately, that became Benn’s job, which was not expected at the beginning of the campaign.

Fantenberg shouldn’t be difficult to re-sign to a reasonable contract as he put up similar numbers as his previous seasons. So if Benning decides to keep him around, he should come in at under $1 million AAV, probably on another one-year deal.

Louis Domingue

Finally, we have Louis Domingue, the goaltender acquired in the wake of Markstrom getting injured for the rest of the season. He only got into one game before the pause and it was the 5-3 debacle against the Columbus Blue Jackets where he allowed three goals in the final seven minutes of the game. He did make a ridiculous glove save in that game but did not come through with a save when it mattered the most.

Domingue was just an injury replacement, so I don’t see him getting re-signed, even if the Canucks decide on going with Demko as the starter. There will be much more capable backups on the market to look at instead.

Salary Cap Will Be the Enemy of the Canucks’ Offseason

If the salary cap didn’t exist, the Canucks would have no problems re-signing all their key free agents. But alas, it does, and they will have to make some difficult decisions this offseason. Markstrom, Tanev, Virtanen, Toffoli, and Gaudette will see their bank accounts grow substantially, creating more problems for Canucks brass.

Jim Benning
Vancouver Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning will have his work cut out for him this offseason (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

If the Canucks want to keep the majority of them in the fold, sacrifices will have to be made in the form of trades or buyouts. If Benning can get out of under the Sutter, Loui Eriksson, or Sven Baertschi contracts, that will make things easier. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening unless they eat some salary in the deals, which doesn’t help the situation very much. What’s certain is that it will be interesting to watch it all unfold, whenever that may be.