With the summer sun burning bright and the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, NHL Draft, and free agency still weeks away, let’s pass the time with everyone’s favourite offseason hobby, trade speculation. After Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning made it known that he was going to be “aggressive” this offseason, it became even more relevant to discuss.
Related: THW’s FREE 2021 NHL Draft Guide
Benning has gone on record saying that he wants to add more scoring depth to his top-nine and defencemen that are “size-strength guys that are going to be physical in the corners and in front of the net, that can make a good first pass to get the puck up ice.”
We want to add guys that can support, supplement our top 9 forwards, we want to try to have three scoring lines…So, we’re looking at a different type of player here. We’re looking at players that drive offence that we can play with our other offensive players, because we need to score more, we need to spend more time in the other team’s end.Jim Benning on the players he will be targeting this offseason
So with that said, we are going to start a series here at The Hockey Writers that focuses on different trade partners and what players Benning could be looking at when he picks up the phone to talk to them. Let’s begin with the 2021 Stanley Cup Champion, Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay Lightning Cap Crunch
We all know who and what the Lightning are by now. They are a fast, multifaceted team with a rock-solid defence core and world-class goaltending. Oh yes, they are also way over the salary cap, a point made time and time again throughout the playoffs as they marched towards their second-straight Stanley Cup.
Now that the capless world of the 2021 Playoffs has ended, the Lightning will have to start thinking about shedding salary. The Kraken could help them out by taking $5 million man Tyler Johnson in the expansion draft, but that alone won’t fully solve their problems. Unless another long-term injury reserve (LTIR) candidate like Nikita Kucherov comes along before the puck drops on the 2021-22 season, a trade or two will have to happen.
That’s where the Canucks could come in and take advantage of the situation like Benning did when he acquired J.T. Miller for a conditional first-round pick back in 2019.
Erik Cernak Checks All the Boxes
Size, check, strength, check, mobility, double-check. Erik Cernak is exactly what the Canucks need in their pursuit to improve the backend. He’s also one of the coveted right-hand shots they currently do not have in their arsenal. Unfortunately, he was one of the many Lightning players that shone in the Stanley Cup Final. He was noticeable in almost every game and at 23-years-old, he’s starting to establish himself as a very reliable top-four defenceman in the NHL. Averaging almost 20 minutes a night paired with Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonogh, he’s probably one of the Lightning’s most valuable defencemen right now.
At a very modest $2.95 million in average annual value (AAV), Cernak is as budget-friendly as you can get. He would fit perfectly in the salary structure of the Canucks and fill a massive need on the blueline. If I was Benning, I would be on the phone as soon as the Stanley Cup is awarded to see if a deal could be made.
Cernak’s Price Has Gone Up
With how well Cernak performed in the playoffs, he’s going to cost a pretty penny to acquire. Not to mention the Canucks won’t be the only team calling Julien BriseBois should he be placed on the trading block. The Lightning might not want to trade him considering his age and contract, but he’s one of the most marketable assets they have to recoup further losses if they end up trading a defenceman like McDonagh as well.
Cernak will likely cost at least the Canucks’ 2021 first-round pick and maybe even a mid-range prospect like Kole Lind or Jonah Gadjovich. Also, since the Lightning will be in “salary dump” mode, Johnson and his pricey contract will also have to be part of the deal to make it happen. If the Canucks were not in cap hell themselves with Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson’s new deals on the horizon, that would be a non-issue.
For this deal to work, the Canucks need to find a way to shed salary very soon. Cernak is definitely worth the leg work as he’s probably the best trade target out there right now. He’s young, budget-friendly and a perfect fit for Hughes on the top pairing. With Nate Schmidt seemingly on the block and the Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade rumours floating around again, the Canucks are clearly looking for help on the backend. If Schmidt is moved for anything other than another defenceman, that cry for help will only get louder.
Canucks Could Also Look to the Lightning for Bottom-Six Help
In addition to defencemen, the Canucks also need a third-line center, especially if Brandon Sutter is not re-signed. Enter Ross Colton. Fresh off his Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5, the 24-year-old is primed to start his first full season in the NHL after recording nine goals and 12 points in 30 games. Including the biggest tally of his young career, he also scored four times in the playoffs en route to his team’s second-straight championship.
Colton is exactly what the Canucks are looking for right now, a young pivot that can play a regular shift in the NHL. With only nine goals under his belt, he won’t be very expensive to re-sign as a restricted free agent (RFA), so add budget-friendly to that list too. Unlike Cernak, they also won’t have to shell out a lot to acquire him. Heck, they could even submit a mid-range offer sheet and get him that way without losing any assets.
Colton is beginning his NHL career a bit late, but he does have a lot of potential as a top-nine forward. When Alex Killorn went down with an injury, he got elevated to the second line with Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli and didn’t look out of place. He might not ever become more than a 15-goal scorer, but he will bring a strong presence down the middle and the versatility to be elevated to the top-six to play with the likes of Brock Boeser, Nils Hoglander, and Vasily Podkolzin.
The Lightning Should Be On Benning’s Call List
Suffice it to say, Benning should have the Lightning on his call list this offseason. They are cash-strapped and desperate for relief. According to Kyle Pereira at Last Word on Hockey, they could potentially lose Johnson, Killorn, Ondrej Palat, David Savard, and Blake Coleman. That’s almost half their Stanley Cup forward group not named Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos. So something has got to give, and the Canucks should be there to pounce when it does. Stay tuned for part two as we travel north to Buffalo to check in with the soon-to-be very busy Kevyn Adams.
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Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer 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.
Matthew also co-hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube.