After a revealing post-mortem press conference by Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning where he promised an aggressive offseason, it’s never too early to speculate what that could mean for the franchise moving forward. Ownership has clearly given him a vote of confidence, and now that head coach Travis Green has also been extended, changes will only come on the player side rather than in management or the coaching staff. Apart from the potential additions of Henrik and Daniel Sedin in some capacity, that is.
So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at a few players the Canucks could be targeting as they navigate through yet another long offseason.
Anthony Cirelli – Tampa Bay Lightning
2020-21 Stats: 50 GP – 9 G – 13 A – 22 PTS
The Tampa Bay Lightning somehow managed to get themselves out of cap hell last offseason, mostly due to the long-term injury reserve (LTIR) relief of Nikita Kucherov’s $9.5 million cap hit, but this time it will be a different story. According to CapFriendly, they are $5.066 million over the salary cap going into the 2021-22 season, which means they will have to get creative or hope that the Seattle Kraken takes Tyler Johnson’s $5 million cap hit off their hands.
Even if that happens, they will still have to alleviate the pressure with some trades, buyouts, or a combination of both. That’s where the Canucks could come in and do the same thing they did in 2019 and take advantage of a Lightning cap crunch. Back then they acquired current top-line forward J.T. Miller for only Marek Mazanec, a third-round pick and a conditional first-rounder that eventually became Shakir Mukhamadullin. This time, they might be able to fill another need with the acquisition of rising two-way dynamo Anthony Cirelli.
Since Cirelli was drafted 72nd overall by the Lightning in 2015, he has developed into a legitimate two-way threat on Tampa’s third line. He was a key contributor to their Stanley Cup win in 2020 when he recorded three goals and nine points and he was even in the Selke Award conversation, finishing fourth in overall voting. He’s hit double digits in goals in all but two of his five seasons in the NHL, and his advanced stats are pretty solid too, as he currently holds a career 53.1 Corsi-for percentage (CF%).
Unfortunately for the Canucks, Cirelli won’t come cheap. He likely will command a first-round pick or package of picks and prospects that could include players like Kole Lind and Olli Juolevi. They also won’t be the only team calling, as there would be a lot of suitors if he’s made available.
Sam Reinhart – Buffalo Sabres
2020-21 Stats: 54 GP – 25 G – 15 A – 40 PTS
If you thought that Cirelli was a bit of a pipe dream, Sam Reinhart definitely is. Having said that, recent rumours out of Buffalo could make that dream more of a reality, but only by a small amount. The Canucks would still have to get out of their own salary cap hell and be willing to give up a lot of their future to get him. Like Vasily Podkolzin, Nils Hoglander, or Jack Rathbone territory, which should be a non-starter. Established players like Miller or Brock Boeser could also get a deal done, but given their importance to the team and Boeser’s recent return to form, that probably won’t happen either. Not to mention, they would also have to re-sign him to a new contract that could turn out to be pretty pricey.
But given the fact that Reinhart has expressed interest in coming out west, let’s entertain the possibility of acquiring him. Through five full seasons in the NHL, he already has five 20-goal campaigns and has hit the 50-point plateau three times. He also can play every forward position and knows how to play with skilled players. Needless to say, he would bring the Canucks speed and skill over the top and make them a playoff contender almost immediately. That is if Benning was able to do the impossible and not only get out of the cap nightmare of his own making but also manage to get Reinhart without mortgaging the team’s present or future.
Despite the seemingly unrealistic nature of this trade, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Benning exhaust every possibility before giving up this particular ghost, considering he tried and failed to get him nearly seven years ago. According to reports after the 2014 NHL Draft, he offered his two first-round picks and Hunter Shinkaruk for the first-overall selection which he was going to eventually use to select Reinhart. In hindsight, that would have been a heck of a deal, considering Jake Virtanen and Hunter Shinkaruk have fizzled as NHLers, and Jared McCann is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.
Alex Kerfoot – Toronto Maple Leafs
2020-21 Stats: 56 GP – 8 G – 15 A – 23 PTS
Of the three players outlined here, Alex Kerfoot might be the most realistic option of them all. Like Reinhart, he is a hometown boy from Vancouver and he fits all the attributes Benning stated he would like to add to his team this offseason. His offence might have regressed since his days with the Colorado Avalanche when he accumulated 34 goals in 157 games, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a valuable player to have on your team.
Kerfoot has speed to burn, can play every forward position, and has the ability to play on both special teams. His skills in the faceoff circle aren’t anything to write home about, but that doesn’t mean he can’t develop that skill. The fact that he had a 56 percent faceoff success rate during his sophomore season should give everyone hope for the future since it shows at least a modicum of skill in that area. He also had the benefit of learning from one of the best in Manny Malhotra this past season, so I’m sure he’s already picked up a few pointers for the future.
Kerfoot’s versatility could land him anywhere in the top nine which would give Green more options when he juggles his lines. The name of the game this offseason is scoring depth throughout the top-nine. The Canucks cannot just rely upon their top-six to provide offence. At least the third line has to start being a consistent threat and adding Kerfoot would go a long way to making that a reality, especially if Podkolzin fits in on the second line with Hoglander and Horvat and Tanner Pearson drops down to play with him.
How Aggressive Can Benning Be?
Benning might want to be aggressive this offseason in both the free agent and trade markets, but wanting and doing are two totally different things. First, he doesn’t have an overly deep prospect pool to draw from, and second, the salary cap will ultimately dictate what type of moves he can make. He also has to earmark space for the contract extensions of Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson and pray that his colleagues don’t blindside him with an offer sheet for the latter.
Before any trades can happen, Benning needs to have a plan for clearing cap space. The Kraken might do him a favour and select Braden Holtby, but after his second-straight mediocre season, that possibility is looking more unlikely by the day. Unlike last offseason, buyouts are on the table, so I would expect a combination of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, or maybe even the aforementioned Holtby could hear their names called when the first buyout window opens.
According to CapFriendly, the Canucks are projected to have $14.98 million of cap space going into the offseason. With that money, Benning has to re-sign Hughes and Pettersson to lucrative contracts (at this point most likely bridge deals) and fill out his roster to fulfill his promise of making the team competitive for next season and beyond. All I have to say is, good luck Jim, you have a tall order ahead of you.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, and scout 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.