July 01 2014 10:46AM
If your loved ones had intentions on using Canada Day to spend some quality time with you this year, they've likely got another thing coming. The window for signing unrestricted free agents opens up at 9 AM PST tomorrow morning, and if you're a regular reader of this blog then I think it's fair to assume that the Hockey Holiday takes precedence over the Statutory Holiday for you. Please like our sport.
Last year's frenzy - whose onset was pushed back until July 5th because of the lockout - saw 81 new deals (including some of the RFA variety) formally announced; they ranged from inconsequential AHL-fodder to legitimately impactful NHLers, and everything in between. There were 65 in '12, and 74 in '11, respectively.
While it's generally a captivating day for a hockey fan, the Canucks in specific haven't exactly lit the world on fire themselves with their initial burst of signees. The list of players they've lured over on the first day the past 3 years includes Jason Garrison, Brad Richardson, Marco Sturm, Yannick Weber, Mark Mancari, and Alex Biega. It was particularly bleak last summer when the financial situation of the team handcuffed then-General Manager Mike Gillis' hands. While all sorts of money was flying around, the new shiny toy for the Canucks was a player that wound up showing that he asking him to play in a top-9 role was probably asking too much of him.
It could potentially be a completely different story tomorrow for a variety of reasons. Whether that's actually a good thing is something that we'll just have to wait and see.
The Canucks find themselves in a rather intricate spot heading into July 1st this year. In sending the likes of Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison out the door on draft day, they freed up a sizeable chunk of cap space to work with this summer.
Given the transparent attempts to win back the chunk of the fanbase that tuned them out when things got bleak last season, one would surmise that the new brain trust in Vancouver has intentions of spending that money to bring in at least some sort of high profile talent that they can market around. It's not the greatest basis for making personnel decisions, but after how stale things haven't gotten with the franchise, the ambition of trying to breath some much needed excitement and entertainment into the core group of players is an admirable one. As long as they're not just spending money for the sake of spending money, or even worse, handing out the type of term to inconsequential players that winds up restricting their ability to continue being flexible in the years to come.
With the way things currently stand the Canucks enter the free agency period with nearly $18 million in cap space, good for 14th most in the league. But realistically, there are only somewhere around 7-8 teams that can feasibly have more room to work with than them; teams like the Panthers, Islanders, and Predators are ahead of them on the list on paper, but there's no way they're actually going to spend all the way up to the cap.
Looking at their books, there are 10 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies locked up with NHL contracts for the '14-'15 season already. After choosing not to qualify Dalpe and Schroeder today that leaves Tanev, Weber, Kassian, and Vey as the remaining RFAs, while Mike Santorelli is the only UFA from last year's team that they would conceivably attempt to bring back.
All of that is to say that the Canucks have the type of flexibility that they haven't enjoyed in some time, which could be either a blessing or a curse. The class of unrestricted free agents is anything but burgeoning, however that doesn't mean that it doesn't contain various names that could be of interest if the money and term are right (which is a phrase that'll make for a good addition to tomorrow's drinking game).
This section may as well be titled "people that can help infuse some skill and help generate some more offense so that the Sedins don't have to do every. single. thing". Particularly down the middle, given the amount of uncertainty that there is there after Henrik on the depth chart now that Ryan Kesler is no longer around.
Both Bonino and Vey have both played center in the past, but both would probably be better served playing on the wing so that they can focus more on their playmaking than their defensive responsibilities. Bo Horvat may make the team with an impressive camp, but heading into his rookie year and asking that much of him doesn't seem awfully prudent. Brad Richardson, god bless him, should not be asked to do anything more than play on the 4th line and kill penalties.
I'd say that for my money finding at least one or two guys that can create something for themselves and others without being total passengers should be the highest thing on the "to-do" list. There's a few guys available that would fit the bill to varying degrees. As you'd imagine, the market is far more forgiving when you expand the search to account for wingers.
While it probably wouldn't be the end of the world if Alex Burrows started the season back on the top line playing with the Sedins - since there's no way he's going to show as poorly for himself as he did last year - there are a couple of dynamic players available that may not be exceedingly expensive (like a Thomas Vanek), and could potentially make sweet music with the Sedins, in turn allowing Burrows to move down the lineup and bolster the depth. Honestly though, at this point the Canucks could use any and all help putting the puck in the net, regardless of position or spot in the lineup.
The biggest name available appears to be Paul Stastny, but it's also quite possible that he's going to be offered an obscene amount of money as multiple teams fight to the death for his services. The allure surrounding Stastny is that he has managed to log difficult minutes without allowing it to bite into his offensive production. A perfect example of that was this past season, when he was the only regular on the Avs to tread water in the possession game.
Similar to Stastny was Mikhail Grabovski in that regard, as he too was the only member of his team to be in the black for zone-adjusted corsi. After a lot of optimism stemming from the hat trick he posted in his Washington Capitals debut this past year, things went downhill from there for Grabbo. He got bumped off of the top power play unit, dealt with injuries, and played in more of a secondary role with Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr rather than the starring one he probably hoped for after escaping Randy Carlyle's clutch. He still crushed it for the Caps, and he remains a desirable target. The problem is that I don't really have a proper grasp of how much other NHL teams value him. He has been known to be a lone wolf, after all.
There's not much in the way of centers that can chip in on the offensive end beyond that, quite frankly. Brad Richards and Olli Jokinen could potentially be intriguing, but both are on their last legs. Richards in particular needs to be heavily sheltered at this point in his career, and I'm honestly not sure if he's even capable of consistently playing down the middle anymore. His legs are so shot that he could very well be a winger, which makes him far less enticing considering some of the other options available at that position.
The most intriguing of the bunch is Mike Cammalleri; his 26 goals last year would've led the Canucks, and he managed to do so in just 63 games. That's both embarrassing and impressive, in equal amounts, at the same time. You'd think his speed and exciting style is precisely what Desjardins and the Canucks were referring to when they stressed the team's desire to change the way it has played in recent years.
Jussi Jokinen has produced at a fantastic rate, but the question of how much of that was due to playing with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal would give me pause. He was also stellar on the power play last year, but once again, the question of quality of teammates raises a red flag. As do his potential demands.
There have been reports that the Canucks are quite interested in pursuing Jarome Iginla which I found to be rather puzzling. I'm as big a fan of him and everything he has managed to accomplish throughout his illustrious career - and he was still quite productive for anyone, let alone a player of his age - but why would he come to Vancouver after having quite transparently left the only franchise he knew for the sole purpose of chasing a title? There are also reports that he wants a 2-year deal if he's going to pick a destination other than Boston, too.
I'd quite frankly be far more interested in someone like a Radim Vrbata; he's a few years younger and he has actually been sneakily slightly better than Iginla over the past 3 seasons combined. He and Matt Moulson aren't exactly the most marketable of personalities, and they won't put a lot of butts into seats based on name value, but that shouldn't blur the fact that he has been an elite goal scorer for long enough that it's time to put doubts aside by now.
As a personal aside I'd love to see the Canucks take a run at Benoit Pouliot this summer if only because he's essentially a rich man's David Booth and the comedy stemming from that union would be swell.
Dustin Penner is available if someone's still looking for "meat and potatoes".
Considering that the blueline is still - even with Jason Garrison's departure - this club's relative strength, I'm not sure how prudent it is to be spending large amounts of money on adding another defenseman to the mix. Particularly since the demand so far exceeds the supply, that I think we'll see some ridiculous figures handed out around the league to undeserving names out of a place of desperation. With Markov, Timonen, and Zidlicky having already been taken off the board by re-upping with their teams, the class of UFA defensemen is bleak to say the least.
The monkey wrench in this discussion is Chris Tanev and his RFA status that looms overhead. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the entry draft that the club was dangling Tanev's rights in an effort to strike a deal for the 1st overall pick with the Panthers. I'm a vocal member of the Chris Tanev Fan Club and have been since before it was cool to be in it, but I've got my concerns about tying up a whole whack of money in him long-term. His increasing injury history and style of play is something that can't be ignored, and whether he'll continue to develop enough offensively to justify what he could wind up being paid is definitely still up for debate.
If he does wind up reaching a deal with the team, I still think that there won't be too many teams that can lay claim to having a more well-rounded top-4 than the Canucks will have. I don't personally have much hope for Luca Sbisa to retain any sort of tangible value, but that's just fine because it would probably behoove the organization to give Frankie Corrado a concrete look at the NHL level, without toying with him like they did last year.
With all of that being said, there are a couple of tantalizing names on the board that could potentially free the team up to once again explore using Tanev as a trade chip. There are also a few others that would, regardless of Tanev's fate, serve as fine options to have aboard should there be an injury, or struggles by the still-unproven Corrado and Stanton tandem.
If there's one blueliner I'd pony up to acquire it's Christian Ehrhoff's, without question. His numbers took a hit this past season, but I suspect that the data there is being at least partially confounded by the fact that the Sabres were such an abomination all year long. Especially since Ehrhoff was legitimately deserving of some Norris Trophy buzz as recently as the '12-'13 season.
Obviously it's not as simple as just attributing everything to Ehrhoff's departure, but it is rather convenient that the power play efficiency for the Canucks as a team started to progressively fall off of a cliff as soon as he left town:
You could argue that, three years later, the team still hasn't found a remotely suitable option to fill the hole that he left in the summer of '11.
There are another couple of blueliners available this summer that may be undervalued by some because they're not necessarily overly physical and don't put up giant counting stats, but the likes of Anton Stralman, Tom Gilbert, and Mark Fayne have all been fancy stats darlings for a few years now. All of those guys would be rather pleasant fill-ins for Chris Tanev, should he be dealt.
In terms of filling a gap on the 3rd pairing Mike Weaver is someone that could potentially be a perfect filler. A far riskier but potentially more beneficial option would be Michael Del Zotto, who was non-tendered by the Predators in advance of July 1st. His possession numbers aren't pretty and really never have been, but he just turned 24 and has shown a propensity for being a power play asset in the past. Plus, his zone entry and zone exit data has actually been surprisingly favourable despite the other underlying concerns.
You can see this being the most divisive topic of the bunch in the comments section below from a mile away. There's understandably lots of skepticism about heading into an 82-game season relying solely on a pair of goaltenders that have a grand total of 78 NHL starts between them.
A name that has come up recently as a target of interest for the Canucks is Ryan Miller. Another has been Jonas Hiller. Both are certainly more proven and established options, and they'd be a lot easier to sell to people. Particularly Miller, who - while his consistency is definitely a point in his favour, and he hasn't had a season with a save percentage below .915 in the past 6 years - is still riding the coattails of the remarkable season he had back in '09-'10. Since that season there have been 40 goaltenders who have started at least 100 games -- Miller's .916 save percentage puts him 21st on that list, while Hiller is 25th (who has failed to top .915 in each of the past 3 seasons and was supplanted in Anaheim this year).
Even though they've been fairly average for a large enough sample size to take seriously by now, the biggest concern is probably their age. With Hiller turning 33 and Miller turning 34, odds are that they're headed towards the downslope of their respective careers.
If either one of them were willing to take a contract that spans fewer than 3 years and has a reasonable cap hit this summer, I'd think long and hard about it. But we've seen teams invest far too many resources in goaltenders time and time again, and there's a disturbing trend building that suggests they should probably stop doing so. While the demand for starting goaltenders is smaller than it is in year's past, all it takes is one team to drive up the price on a player.
Despite John Tortorella's insistence on running Eddie Lack into the ground towards the end of last year, the Canucks still finished middle of the pack in 5v5 save percentage. Meanwhile, they were 28th in the league in goal scoring with just the Panthers and Sabres - who had the first two picks in the draft - being worse.
Ultimately the most prudent course of action is probably to bring in a reliable, veteran back-up that won't mind sitting on the bench for somewhere around 55-60 times a year, and won't require much commitment to be lured over. A Thomas Greiss has been just fine in such a role the last few years, and considering his age he might even have some more untapped upside than that. Same goes for someone like Chad Johnson, whose best quality aside from his name has been performing at a high level at every stop during his career thus far. If you're going to insist on signing someone to challenge Lack that used to be good, going the path of a Devan Dubnyk might even be a reclamation project that could be worth a look.
I had the good fortune of getting Kevin Woodley's ear for a few moments recently, and got his take on everything whether he'd feel comfortable rolling with Lack and Markstrom heading into the season:
"I think Lack is ready to be a No.1 goalie, but not a workhorse starter. We saw the slippage in his play during that silly run of 20 straight, and he is at a stage of development where being able to manage his own game without enough time to work on it with the goalie coach between starts is counterproductive, not just to his long-term growth, but to playing well as those starts pile up. I guess for me the bigger question marks are about Markstrom being able to play well in those 30 to 35 games needed to make sure Lack gets that time this season. We saw some good signs in his last start, and talking to Markstrom it seems some of what Melanson had been trying to get through to him clicked between those last two starts and he felt better about how he was able to translate it in that last game, but seems there are questions yet within the organization and that kind of leaves the Canucks in no-man's land, at least when it comes to this season. I believe with a proper workload and continued development, Lack can be better than anyone you can get in free agency by the end, if not the middle, of this season. Heck, Markstrom may have a shot at it too, but obviously it's risky."
Then the conversation transitioned towards Miller and I asked him whether we should buy into the fact that his numbers fell off of a cliff in his limited stint in St.Louis, or if that was just noise:
"I struggle with this a bit. Think the truth lies somewhere in between the Vezina Trophy winner the Canucks will tout him if they do sign him, and the over-the-hill former star that a lot of people online begging the Canucks not to sign him are making him out to be. He's still above league average, but perhaps just not so much so that you should be throwing piles of money and several years at him. Did his numbers suffer behind a bad Buffalo team? Or do the bad goals get forgotten faster in those circumstances and can save percentage numbers actually be inflated in some of those 40+ shot barrages?
Certainly Chris Boyle's SQP work suggest as much. You could argue he played with less pressure there the last few years as a result of low expectations, and it can be easy to be the goalie getting bombarded when no one blames you for giving up three a game, but i think that also diminishes what a competitive guy he is, and i hear that from a lot of people. I had a couple of NHL goalie coaches suggest he may have become a good bad-team goalie last few years, but that doesn't mean he can't be good on a good team as well, it just requires an adjustment to expectations and perhaps in the style he plays as well. Question is how willing he is to make the latter adjustments (more on that below).
One underreported aspect of his last few years: the concussion from the Lucic incident derailed most of that season and he played through the symptoms for a long stretch.
To me, a bigger question, or at least one with a more concrete answer, is the style he plays and whether that fits the Canucks. Miller is what we call a rhythm goalie, relying more on his feel and ability to read and react. Not saying that like a bad thing, but the natural tendency is the more you rely on timing instead of technique and preset tactics, the more prone you leave yourself to ups and down. his ability to stay consistent early in his career spoke to his incredible focus and compete but I do believe his more aggressive tendencies made St. Louis a poor fit, at least in a short term arrangement with little time to adjust. The Sabres played it more open, allowing Miller to make those reads that are so crucial to his game, but the Blues were more along the lines of many collapsing, shot blocking defences, crowding the area in front of the crease. So Miller playing above the paint threatened to strand him with too much space to recover when those shots were blocked, especially since the goalie doesn't get to feel that puck and know where it is headed next out of those crowds. Different style and not one that necessarily suited his game with little time to adapt.
"Pivoting off of that, is there a stylistic fit between the style Rollie Melanson envisions his guys playing, and the one that Miller has played throughout his career?"
"I struggle to see one and i am not alone in this. Melanson has bent a little but remains pretty firm in his belief goalies need to play a contained game with blue ice in front of their toes. Miller is certainly not a Jonathan Quick level of aggressive positionally, and backed off considerably from his early years, but he also told some people that being asked to play deeper behind a more collapsing Blues team threw him off a bit. Only the two of them know how receptive they are to changing their styles, but a lot of the evidence to this point suggests neither is going to embrace it with open arms. Miller is more aggressive in terms of things like poke checks, and it has cost him in big moments like the goal medal game and at least once i can recall during 2014 playoffs. Meanwhile Rollie has gone as far as taping a big knob above the handle on Lack's stick to try and get him to do it less even in practices, and I don't even think of Lack as a big pokecheck guy. I am not trying to make a big issue of something as small as a pokecheck, but it's more a look at different mindsets in terms of how they think goalies should approach the game.
"What's a realistic range for term and hit for Miller this summer?"
"To me the money only hurts your ability to sign and acquire assets needed for rest of the roster, but it seems like some of those needs are somewhat dire and in this free agent class could be costly so why overspend in a position where buyer should have all the leverage. That said, opportunity cost on handing out term is scarier. Ideally you'd love to see a one or two year deal, one that isn't so long it creates a ceiling that forces a guy like Lack out. We've seen how that plays out already. But will Miller take a deal like that? Is anyone else lining up to offer anything longer? I don't have those answers to be honest."
"If you were running the Canucks, what direction would you go in personally?"
"Hiller may be not as good as Miller statistically but he fits style-wise better right now, adds experience element they seem to think they are lacking and may be more willing to take that shorter deal -- but that too is speculative. Personally, while names like Brodeur and even Nabokov and Vokoun will steal the headlines, I expect smart teams who value and use their goalie coach's insights to target the Justin Peters and Al Montoya types first. Top of my head I'll bet they offer better value statistically, are still improving in some respects (especially Peters) and they are prepared to do the extra work that is expected of a backup, which is no small thing compare to a Brodeur, and important to a team. Greiss, despite the late season disappointment, falls into this category too, and Chad Johnson may get a look, though i know some goalie coaches are having a harder time separating him from the team play that allowed him to post Rask-like numbers in Boston -- too bad their GMs didn't worry as much about it in their Vezina votes as they are now with their salary cap spending. Even hearing some interest in Nilstorp ahead of more veteran guys as a backup."
Who would you like to see the Canucks target starting tomorrow?