After a wild offseason full of trades, an expansion draft, the NHL Entry Draft, and free agency, along with their restricted free agents (RFAs) to sign and the potential opt-out of players, the Vancouver Canucks finally have no distractions heading into the 2021-22 season.
With less than a week to go before puck drop, the Canucks have managed to check everything off of their offseason list. The RFA cloud that loomed over this team all summer long is finally over. Any player that was potentially opting out is at least with the team for now. And any question marks about the roster makeup were answered throughout the summer by general manager Jim Benning. The way things are shaping up, at least for the beginning of the season, the Canucks can focus solely on their season opener on the road against the Edmonton Oilers.
Pettersson and Hughes Finally Locked Up
One of the biggest unknowns entering training camp was the contract negotiations surrounding Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. It started right from the beginning of the offseason and lasted throughout the summer, right into this past week. But Benning slowly made headway and got his two cornerstone pieces signed, Pettersson on a three-year bridge deal, with an average annual value (AAV) of $7.35 million, and Hughes at six years, $7.85 million AAV. Benning was just happy to get the deals done. “They’re two important guys in our group. They’re still young players. I think they can still get better. So we’re happy to get them signed and get them in camp,” he said after announcing the deals.
While neither player got a max-term deal (eight years), Pettersson is set up for the next three years and can circle back when the cap landscape shifts and possibly goes up. On the other hand, Hughes signed a longer-term deal, and at six years and under $8 million AAV, should have both Vancouver and the fan base over the moon, based on what other defensemen were signed to over the offseason.
Alleviate Cap Space
While the Canucks were able to lock up their star RFA’s, there were many questions about the amount of cap space needed for Vancouver to accomplish this feat. Thus Benning went to work and arguably got rid of the three toughest contracts on the team… in one trade. He moved out Loui Eriksson ($6 million AAV), Antoine Roussel ($3 million AAV), and Jay Beagle ($3 million AAV) to the Arizona Coyotes, along with a first-round pick in this past years draft, along with a second and seventh-round draft pick in 2023. In return, the Canucks received Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland. Yes, the draft capital hurts in the short term, and each contract had one year remaining, but the Canuck’s needed cap space now, not in the future.
Next, the first of two buyouts. Goaltender Brayden Holtby, who had one year remaining on a two-year, $8.6 million contract he signed in 2020. The second was center Jake Virtanen. That was followed by a trade, shipping defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Winnipeg Jets and receiving a third-round selection in return. It might not have been pretty, but Benning got it done while improving the roster significantly. All of this, combined with players leaving in free agency, accumulated to freeing up roughly $30 million in cap space.
Hamonic Doesn’t Opt Out
The Canucks did an excellent job adding to the backend this offseason. Whether through the trade market, free agent signings, or bringing back their own guys, the depth certainly improved from a year prior. One of the reasons the Canucks did this was the uncertainty of Travis Hamonic this season. Now, this wasn’t something that was necessarily on the minds of everybody throughout the summer, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar topic.
Back in the bubble in 2020, Hamonic opted out while a member of the Calgary Flames. This past year, Hamonic played in 38 games with the Canucks, collecting 10 points in that span, and re-upped with the organization on a two-year, $6 million deal.
With Hamonic not opting out for the year, they now bolster a ton of depth along the right side of the defense, with Tyler Myers, Tucker Poolman, and Luke Schenn. That’s four players deep, all with NHL experience and the ability to move up in the lineup in the event of an injury. Regardless, it’s the best-case scenario heading into the regular season.
Holes Filled All Over the Lineup
There were many question marks regarding the holes in the Canucks lineup once the season was over, and Benning did an outstanding job filling those gaps from top to bottom. It all started in goal. With Thatcher Demko already secured to the tune of five years and $25 million, the focus shifted to the backup position. They went and bought out the final year of Holtby’s deal and brought in Jaroslav Halak on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Halak has shown to be an incredibly capable goaltender throughout his career and has shown he can handle a relatively large load. Over the last three seasons, he’s played a total of 90 games, owns a 2.32 goals-against average (GAA), and a save percentage (SV%) of .910. He’s exactly the man for the job in Vancouver.
On defense, as mentioned earlier, the depth had significantly improved from a year ago. Yes, longtime Canuck Alexander Edler vacated to the Los Angeles Kings, and Nate Schmidt was dealt with the Jets. Coming into their places are Ekman-Larsson, Poolman, and Schenn. Poolman was inked to a 4-year deal worth $2.5 million AAV, while Schenn was on a two-year contract worth $1.7 million total. Plus, the re-signing of Olli Juolevi and the potential growth of 20-year old Rack Rathbone. Not to mention Hughes, Myers, and Hamonic leading the way, Vancouver is more prepared than ever entering a campaign.
Up front, Vancouver knocked off multiple checkmarks. Firstly, they shored up their secondary scoring by adding Garland and the Ekman-Larsson trade with the Coyotes. He brings a potential 20-30 goal pedigree, scoring 22 goals in the 2019-20 season across 68 games, and makes an immediate impact in the top-six. The Canucks also shored up their third-line center woes, acquiring Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars for a third-round selection. Dickson comes with strong analytic numbers, owning a Corsi For Percentage (CF%) of 55.3% while chipping in 15 points across 51 games this past season. With the combination of Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Dickinson down the middle, the center position is no longer in question heading into the 2021-22 season.
For the time being in Vancouver: contracts are signed, the team has been improved up and down the lineup, and there are no more distractions. Now, all we can do is wait until the puck drops on October 13th in Edmonton.
I’m a London, Ontario based broadcaster and sports writer for the Vancouver Canucks. I’ve done work in the past reporting on the NHL, NBA and MLB. I’ve also covered the OHL including the Owen Sound Attack and am currently involved with the London Knights.