With the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs wrapping up, the Vancouver Canucks gave their final media availability of the season this past Friday. Head coach Travis Green and General Manager Jim Benning made themselves available and spoke on a multitude of topics heading into the offseason.
Following the announcements of the extensions of Green, there is a lot of work ahead to try and find the Canucks’ path to the 2022 playoffs after a disappointing season. As we’ve seen in years past, Vancouver has been successful in some areas while running into problems in others. If the Canucks want to maximize this coming summer and find themselves back in the playoff mix next year, this is what their offseason should look like.
This should be first on the agenda for Benning. Getting RFA’s (restricted free agents) Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson signed is easily the most important thing this offseason. Vancouver has drafted and developed a very solid core, with the likes of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Thatcher Demko, and Nils Hoglander, with Hughes and Pettersson being right at the center of it.
Pettersson, while missing more than half of the regular season due to a wrist injury (30 games), he still managed to tie for fifth in team scoring with 21 points in 26 games. He owns a career .93 PPG (points per game) through his first three seasons and is the teams de-facto number one center moving forward, building a fantastic one-two punch down the middle along with Horvat. Pettersson may cost a significant amount, but this is a player Vancouver will want to lock up for a significant amount of time.
Hughes enjoyed another fantastic season, production-wise. Playing in all 56 games, he produced 41 points while averaging 22:48 TOI (time on ice) per game. What’s even more impressive is that Hughes, for his career now, has put up 40+ points through his first two campaigns, despite only playing in 68 and 56 games. His career minus-34 rating is a bit of a concern moving forward, but at just 21 years of age, there is still plenty of room for the young rearguard to grow. Being such a young age, the possibility of a bridge deal seems likely and favours both parties for the short-term future.
During their end-of-season media availability, a number of topics were brought to light, including the plan for the Canucks to be “very aggressive” in free agency and the trade market.
While as intriguing and exciting free agency can be, the Canucks have gone that route in the past, and it hasn’t quite turned out the way they were expecting, especially with big named players. The most notable free agents of the list include Loui Eriksson (6-year $36 million), Antoine Roussel ( four years, $12 million), Jay Beagle (four years, $12 million), Michael Ferland (four years, $14 million) and more recently Brayden Holtby (two years, $8.6 million). While these payers haven’t been awful, they didn’t quite live up to the expectations they had when joining the team.
The thought would be to go more in the direction the Toronto Maple Leafs took and use free agency to sign veteran players on bargain deals. For example, Joe Thornton (one year, $700,000), Jason Spezza (one year, $700,000), Wayne Simmonds (one year, $1.5 million), and Zach Bogosian (one year, $1 million) have all contributed in various ways and have been especially impactful players in the playoffs, allowing the club to keep their core players together while still adding pieces around them.
The trade market could be an interesting option for Vancouver, but there aren’t a ton of players that could be moved. The one player that was rumoured that could potentially get traded would be a player like Tanner Pearson. Pearson has three years left on his contract with a cap hit of $3.25 million, and while this year was a bit underwhelming, there are positives that would attract certain teams.
He’s a player who can play in the top six forwards when need be, is just 28 years of age, and is also just one year removed from a 21-goal, 45-point season in just 69 games before the season was shortened due to COVID-19. He’s relatively cheap, in the prime of his career, and fits up and down the lineup. Having said all of that, it would take a decent piece coming back to move off of a player like this, especially with the pending UFA’s (unrestricted free agents) from this past year’s roster.
Along with free agency and trades, Benning also acknowledged the possibility of buying out certain players to free up cap space to improve the organization, and there are a few names that stand out in this category.
The first is Eriksson, who was a free agent signing back in 2016 when he inked that six-year contract with the Canucks mentioned earlier. After compiling 63 points across 82 games with the Boston Bruins during the 2015-16 season, Eriksson failed to eclipse the 30-point plateau in five seasons with Vancouver, including just one point in seven games this past season. Eriksson has since contemplated retirement, but if not, a buyout would be the best course of action for the soon-to-be 36-year-old.
There are a couple of other names that could join this list, but let’s go with Antoine Roussel as the second candidate. There was also Micheal Ferland and Jay Beagle, but Ferland has an extra year on his deal, and Beagle is a center who can be slotted in a few different spots in the lineup, making Roussel the odd man out. It’s nothing against him as a player, as we’ve seen him flourish, especially in the playoffs with the Dallas Stars. But with just one year remaining at $3 million, and a solid group of wingers inked for next season, Roussel might make the most sense financially.
In terms of the expansion draft, Vancouver is actually sitting in a pretty good spot. With Hughes, Hoglander, along with prospects Jack Rathbone and Michael DiPietro all exempt from being taken, it makes Benning’s job fairly simple. Based on projections heading into the list of protected and exposed players, the list for Vancouver doesn’t put them in a tough position.
Forwards like Eriksson, Beagle, Roussel and Jake Virtanen all seem to be likely to be exposed. While other guys like Matthew Highmore and Zack MacEwan, who have the potential to grow and become better players, might also be taken if exposed. If that is the crop of players being available for the Seattle Kraken, Vancouver should feel lucky given some of the other teams’ circumstances.
While it probably won’t go exactly like this (given I’m not an NHL general manager), Benning has an opportunity to correct some of his mistakes in years past. Regardless, we’ll see how it all unfolds in the coming months.