They say that you learn from your mistakes. Canucks nation better hope that holds true for Jim Benning when free agency starts on July 1.
Last summer, Benning chased both Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson, the two highest-paid players from free agency. He missed out on Lucic, but signed Eriksson to a six-year, $36 million deal.
Eriksson had a hellish time adjusting to Vancouver last season. That’s not new for him when joining a new team, so a bounce-back is expected next year. If not, his $6-million-per-year salary will be a huge anchor to this franchise.
That’s why Benning needs to avoid the big-ticket free agents this time around. Last year, one of the most productive free agents was Jonathan Marchessault, who signed for $750,000. He scored 30 goals and 51 points—more than double what Eriksson gave to the Canucks.
The Canucks need to sign some players to provide depth, pushing younger players to earn their spot. Fans might want to see Nikolay Goldobin, Reid Boucher, Jake Virtanen, or Jordan Subban make this team. They need to earn that promotion or it won’t help their development as NHL players.
Below are some players at each position the Canucks could target as free agency looms.
This might be the most intriguing name on this list. A poll from The Province Sports showed that about two-thirds of fans were in support of the Canucks signing Yakupov.
The first overall pick from 2012 is coming off of a disastrous tenure in St. Louis where he recorded three goals and nine points in 40 games. Yakupov never earned a spot and never really got a chance on a deep St. Louis Blues team.
If the Canucks were to sign him, perhaps he could be this year’s version of Sam Gagner. Could you picture Yakupov as a fourth-line, power-play specialist? It’s a low-risk signing but perhaps the media-crazy Canucks wouldn’t be the best landing spot for Yakupov.
Another Edmonton Oilers castoff is prepared to hit the free agency market, and the Canucks should be a fit. Pitlick surprised many with eight goals in 31 games last season before he tore his ACL right before Christmas. In 27 career games before his injury, Pitlick had three goals and no assists.
The injuries and lack of consistency could scare away some teams, but Pitlick would be a good fit on the Canucks’ fourth line. He’s the perfect guy to push the likes of Boucher, Goldobin and Virtanen for a roster spot. Pitlick is also an upgrade over players such as Jack Skille or Joseph Cramarossa.
It’s no secret that the Canucks are one of the softest teams in the league. With Luca Sbisa now gone, this team is even softer. A guy like Pitlick who can crash the net would be a welcome addition to the Canucks.
Top Choice: Jordan Weal
Elliotte Friedman mentioned in his 30 Thoughts column that Jordan Weal should get his chance to prove that he can be the next Marchessault. Perhaps the North Vancouver native will get a chance with his hometown team.
There has already been reported interest from the Canucks side regarding Weal. The diminutive centre put up 2.29 points per-60 in limited action, leading all Flyers players. That total would have led all Canucks players as well.
Weal did spend most of his playing time with Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, or Valterri Filppula. Perhaps his inflated stats are a sign of caution for any team wishing to sign him. Signing Weal is still a solid, low-risk option. At best, he’s Marchessault and at worst, he’s Linden Vey.
There should be multiple interested suitors for Nikita Nesterov’s services. He’s a relatively young defenceman at only 24 years old, and he has a penchant for offence.
That’s something the Canucks could desperately use on their back end. Troy Stecher and Ben Hutton will be asked to bring some offence, but the Canucks need more. Their defence scored 22 goals total last season, second-worst in the league.
Nesterov was used as a power-play specialist in Tampa Bay, although he didn’t see much ice time there during his stint in Montreal. He was second on the Lightning with 3.54 points per 60 on the man advantage, trailing only Nikita Kucherov. Nesterov has also never been a negative Corsi player in his career, even in close situations.
Maybe it’s too painful for Benning to sign another “Nikita,” but Nesterov would be a good depth signing for the Canucks. He could slot in on the third pairing behind Erik Gudbranson, and he’s a good option for the power play as well.
Top Choice: Brad Hunt
Offence from the back end is Brad Hunt’s game. He’s been primarily used as a depth defender in Edmonton, St. Louis, and Nashville, playing only 33 NHL games. Down at the AHL level, he’s been a point-producing machine.
He’s averaged 0.73 points per game in 278 AHL games. Even at the NHL level last season, Hunt had five points in nine games with the St. Louis Blues before he was claimed by Nashville on waivers. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Hunt plays that bulldog style similar to Alex Biega. The only difference is, Hunt can chip in offensively as well.
If the Canucks want to give Jordan Subban or Andrey Pedan a serious shot at making the NHL next season, Hunt is the perfect option to push them during training camp. The 6/7 spots on defence are open, and signing the Maple Ridge, B.C. native would create some healthy training camp competition.
There’s still a chance that the Minnesota Wild hold onto Darcy Kuemper to compete with Alex Stalock for a backup job. Still, the Wild can’t be too impressed with Kuemper’s performance from last season.
Kuemper’s 3.02 goals-against average and .902 save percentage were both the worst season totals of his career. For some reason, Kuemper faced a higher volume of shots compared to Devan Dubnyk, which didn’t help his numbers. He faced 32.6 shots per 60 at even strength, third-most among goalies who played more than 15 games. Dubnyk faced 28.6 in comparison, 41st among 63 goaltenders.
Kuemper also has two better seasons under his belt, along with a career .910 save percentage. There are worse options for a 1B goalie behind Jacob Markstrom.
Top Choice: Anders Nilsson
Despite having the 11th-best save percentage at even-strength among goaltenders who played over 15 games, Anders Nilsson will hit the free agent market. Playing as Robin Lehner’s backup last year, Nilsson was solid despite facing a ton of shots behind a porous Sabres defence.
Nilsson seems like the type of netminder that thrives when he faces a lot of shots, and that’s exactly what the Canucks need next year. It might also give Markstrom some familiarity to have another Swedish comrade with whom to share the crease.
The one main knock with Nilsson is consistency. He was subpar in his previous NHL stops before landing in Buffalo. Perhaps the 27-year-old goaltender has turned the corner. Like Markstrom, he has a huge 6-foot-6 frame. Having these two in the Canucks’ crease would create a healthy competition between two similar goaltenders. Nilsson is a suitable 1B option and could start a stretch of games if Markstrom struggles or gets injured.
KPU Journalism Graduate. Trevor has been writing for The Hockey Writers since October 2014. He has contributed articles related to the Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and other issues/stories regarding the game of hockey. Trevor currently lives in White Rock, B.C.