On Sunday at noon EST (9 am PST), unrestricted free agents will be free to talk to teams, and sign with them. This years free agent class has been described as one of the thinnest in history, and beyond the "big name" players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the lack of quality if evident.
After Suter, the most highly regarded defenseman is probably Jason Garrison – he of two and a half seasons of NHL experience, and 34 points last year. Matt Carle will also be pursued heavily, and while he’s an advanced stat darling, he’s constantly grated on Philadelphia Flyers fans as a result of his penchant for turning the puck over. At forward, beyond Parise, the most heavily sought after guys will likely be either Shane Doan, who is old and has a penchant for cheap shots, or the younger P.A Parentheau – who is only a few seasons removed from being waiver fodder. Up the middle, the top available name is Olli Jokinen, and in goal, the best available free-agent is likely to be Martin Brodeur, who is ancient and struggled mightily this past season and then put together some solid performances in the playoffs. Yikes.
A shallow pool has been even further gutted over the past several days, as many of the tier-two free agents who were due to the hit the market, ultimately re-signed with their current teams. It’s going to be slim picking on the open market this year, and teams looking to significantly improve their roster simply won’t have as many options as they’ve had in previous years. Not that, that will stop teams from throwing mind-blowing amounts of money and term around in an effort to land those few difference makers who are available.
Let’s look at what the Canucks "need" to find on the market, what free-agents the team should target, and take a quick glance at Gillis’ history on July 1st in the past. Click past the jump!
While the Canucks have some needs to address, they enter free agency in a pretty enviable position overall. All of the team’s core players are under contract, they’ve got a few NHL ready prospects, and they’ve got a significant amount of cap-space available to them (over 10.5 million, and they could have more if they move Luongo). The Canucks can exceed next season’s salary cap of 70.2 million by about 7 million dollars, and I wouldn’t be that surprised to see them cross over into the "summer cap" bonus, that is if they have a chance to nab the right "big fish."
Looking over who the team has under contract at the moment, they’ve got 11 forwards (4 centres: Sedin, Kesler, Malhotra and Lapierre and 7 wingers: Volpatti, Kassian, Burrows, Hansen, Higgins, Booth, Sedin), 6 defenseman (Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler, Tanev, Alberts and Ballard) and two goaltenders (Luongo and Schneider). If they went into next season with that lineup, they’d handily win their division and probably contend in the West. That said, they can’t possibly enter next season with Luongo on the roster, but that’s a topic for another post!
On their way out the door are 3 NHL defenseman in Marc-Andre Gragnani, Aaron Rome and Sami Salo, and 4 NHL forwards in Samme Pahlsson (already signed with Modo), Mike Duco, Andrew Ebbett and Byron Bitz. None of those names were big differences makers for the club this past season, except for Sami Salo who was a top-four fixture, even though his suitability in a big-minutes role declined as the season went along.
The club will presumably still try to lock-up beloved veteran Sami Salo before he hits the open market, but according to reports from Finland, the two sides aren’t even remotely close to making a deal…
Looking at what the Canucks are allowing to walk out the door, we can get a sense of what holes the club will need to fill over the summer.
Andrew Ebbett is a depth forward, but he’s a particular type of depth forward in that he’s a replacement level guy who can fill in effectively and produce some offense in your top-six. He basically replaced Jeff Tambellini this past season, and if he re-signs elsewhere over the next week the team will need to find a "top-six depth guy" over the course of the summer. Or they could hand the keys to Jordan Schroeder.
Aaron Rome, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Sami Salo are defensive depth. All played a few games in the top-four over the past season, but mostly they’re best suited to playing third pairing minutes on a really good team. The Canucks will need to find some defensive depth this summer, whether or not it comes from within the organization (Connauton and Sauve strike one as ready to contribute in limited minutes) or on the open market is the question.
Samme Pahlsson never really worked out in his short post-deadline stint with the Canucks, but the fact that the team brought him in indicates that they require another center who can handle tough minutes, and allow Kesler and the twins to play under better circumstances. Malhotra wasn’t as effective last season as he was the season previous, and for whatever reason the team doesn’t seem to like Maxim Lapierre playing regularly in the top-9. Both could be serviceable third line options, but based on Gillis’ comments over the past few weeks: the club’s need for a center is one that team management sees as particularly glaring.
Mike Duco and Byron Bitz are fourth line grinders and pugilists, plain and simple. The team has retained Dale Weise with a qualifying offer, still has Zack Kassian on an entry-level deal and recently re-signed Aaron Volpatti as well. It’s also possible that Steve Pinnizotto, who missed all of last year with injury, could get another shot with the team. Generally speaking, these sorts of players are the easiest to find on the open market.
Beyond those team needs, the club requires another top-4 defenseman, as they really struggled once Salo’s effectiveness in that role diminished. It’s possible that Chris Tanev will grow into being a legitimate, shut-down top-four defenseman – but he wasn’t ready for those minutes last season. Expecting him to be an everyday top-four guy starting in October is a bit of a gamble, but considering the exorbitant cost of bringing in a guy like Garrison or Carle, it might be a worthwhile gamble to make.
In summary, the team is in a good spot heading into July 1st. All of their roster holes can probably be addressed in-house if necessary, and the only glaring slot that the club both needs to address, and that will be difficult to address, is finding a steady top-4 defenseman. Beyond that, the Canucks only really need depth and ideally another defensive centreman.
Who to Target on the Market
When we wrote about the team’s need for a third line centreman a month ago, we included names like Stoll and Slater who have since been taken off of the market. The guy we believed to be most suitable for the team, however, will be available tomorrow, and that guy is Jay McClement.
McClement was shunted onto the fourth line in Colorado last season, more because the Avalanche are deep at centre (O’Reiley, Stastny, Duchene), than because he’s lost his fast ball. McClement remains one of the single best penalty-killing forwards in the league, and he’s the sort of defensive centreman that the Canucks tend to like – in that he can soak up tough minutes and win a lot of defensive-zone draws. Among all defensive centreman who remain on the market, McClement seems like the guy who could most convincingly fill the "enabler" role Malhotra held down in the 2010/11 season.
Paul Gaustad will also hit the market tomorrow, and while he brings more size and more offense than a guy like McClement does, in my view he’s a high-end fourth line centre. He’s generally posted positive possession numbers, but he’s never been tasked with matching up against top-comp, and I think he would struggle if given Malhotra-type minutes. I’m just not sure that Gaustad fits in with Vancouver’s usual M.O. – though Gillis has seemingly prioritized "size" over the past few seasons.
Another name available is Torrey Mitchell, who had something of a rough season for San Jose last year. Mitchell’s underlying numbers cratered, and his PDO went through the floor (thanks Antii Niemi!) so he could be an intriguing "buy-low" option. He’s had positive possession numbers in three of the past four seasons while facing moderately difficult competition, and starting more often in the defensive zone. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if the Canucks pursued him, and I must say I really like his game.
There are a few available options like Dominic Moore and Kyle Wellwood who are reasonably effective – especially Wellwood – but would never sign in Vancouver for their own respective personal reasons. Keith Aucoin and Zenon Konopka are fourth line centreman who appeal to me for a variety of reasons (Aucoin can drive play, and draws an outrageous amount of penalties, while Konopka is tough, drives play and wins faceoffs like a mad man), but they’re not really third liners.
A Top-four defenseman
Could the Canucks take a serious run at Ryan Suter tomorrow? I’m sure they’ll make him an offer, and they should, but realistically Suter is a white whale and is going to sign with a team that offers him something like 9 million per. I just can’t see the Canucks making him their highest paid player.
We’re big Jason Garrison fans around here, and while his goal totals from last season are a percentage driven mirage, if you’re going to "buy high" on a player: Garrison is the right guy to do it with. Yes his offensive output is unsustainable, but he’s posted excellent underlying numbers for two years in a row. Beyond that he’s exceedingly versatile, something Vancouver has lacked on their blueline over the past two seasons. In 2010/11 Garrison played on Mike Weaver’s left side, and the twosome were one of the leagues single best shutdown defensive pairings. In 2011/12 he played a more offensive role on Brian Campbell’s right side. Garrison is not a 5 million dollar defenseman, but if the Canucks paid him that much and shipped Keith Ballard out – that would be a big net win for the team.
Matt Carle has been a positive possession player in each of the past four seasons, and has exceeded 35 points in three of those campaigns. He’s an offensive defenseman who has occasionally been tasked with playing difficult minutes. Unfortunately, he generally plays the left side. While he’s a skilled player who could potentially bump over to the right-side and do a convincing Christian Ehrhoff impression, he’s not really an ideal fit for the Canucks despite being an excellent defenseman.
If the Canucks can’t find a white whale, lose out on Schultz derby (Update: they did lose out on the Schultz Derby) and also fail to re-sign Sami Salo, then one guy who makes a fair bit of sense as "Tanev insurance" would be former Babe Pratt Trophy winner Adrian Aucoin. Adrian Aucoin isn’t an ideal top-four defenseman, but he plays the right side and is more suitable for that role than the likes of Kuba, Salvador, Kubina or Bryan Allen.
We really liked Lee Stempniak as a cheap, top-six option before he re-signed with Calgary, and David Jones looked alright too – even though 4 million is way, way too much to pay for his services. Both of those players have re-signed now, and the market is absurdly thin.
Shane Doan has become available however, and the Canucks are known to be extremely high on the Coyotes captain. I would keep his name in mind, because I would be very surprised if the Canucks didn’t take a serious run at Doan. Doan is a positive possession player, who has consistently put up points with very little offensive talent around him. There’s no telling what he could do in Vancouver, playing on a team with a top-PP unit and playing with a pivot like Ryan Kesler.
Another top-six winger who seems to fit in with what the Canucks like to do is P.A. Parenteau. Parenteau has posted spectacular underlying numbers, and has produced counting stats as well on some really bad Islanders teams over the past couple of seasons. While some would say he’s benefitted from spending his ice-time with Matt Moulson and John Tavares, the WOWY numbers indicate that he’s been of more help to them, then they’ve been to him. Parenteau’s agent is Alan Walsh who, you might remember, got sub-average NHL goaltender Ondrej Pavelec a five year deal with a 3.9 million dollar cap-hit. Many expect Parenteau to get seriously paid this summer and while it’s possible that he’ll be too rich for Mike Gillis’ blood, cost aside – he’d be a great fit in Vancouver.
Beyond those two big names, Jeff Angus suggested the Canucks bring in Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson as "second line playmakers" to help set up Booth and Kesler this week, and both players would be sensible additions at the right price.
My wager is that Jordan Schroeder will basically fill this role next season, and he looks NHL ready. But, if the Canucks look to the open market for a new Jeff Tambellini/Andrew Ebbett type, then the available names are generally unsexy. Chris Conners, Gilbert Brule, Ryan Shannon and Erik Christensen would seem to fit this basic mold.
We’ve gone on at length about Dylan Reese, who seems like an ideal Alain Vigneault third-pairing defenseman. Fingers crossed the Canucks can get him under contract, because while he’s not a particularly physical defenseman, he looks likely to be the best Aaron Rome replacement on the market.
Other options like Scott Hannan, and Greg Zanon would fit in well enough, but it’s Dylan Reese and Adrian Aucoin who are the real depth defenseman "prizes" in my view.
Gillis on July 1st
Generally speaking, the Canucks have been quiet on the first day of free-agency during Gillis’ tenure. In 2008, Gillis leaked the details of the two year, twenty million dollar contract that he offered to Mats Sundin, but didn’t make a splash until a couple of days later when he signed Pavel Demitra. In 2009, Gillis’ big move came hours before the market opened, when he got both Sedin twins under contract. On July 1st itself all he did was sign Aaron Rome. Last year, the only major move the Canucks made was to sign Marco Sturm to a one year, two million dollar deal that really didn’t work out.
The big exception is July 1st 2010 when Gillis signed Dan Hamhuis and Manny Malhotra for a combined 7 million on the first day of free-agency. Those two signings represent some of his finest work as General Manager.
So will this July 1st resemble 2008, 2009 and 2011, or will Gillis make a 2010 level splash? Looking at the fundamentals this year, the Canucks don’t need to add much, prices are likely to be insane, and the talent pool is exceptionally shallow. As such, I’d expect July 1st to be relatively quiet for the Canucks. While Gillis may take a run at the likes of Shane Doan or Jason Garrison, and may dot some i’s and cross some t’s by getting at the agents for Jay McClement and Dylan Reese – I wouldn’t expect fireworks from the Canucks tomorrow.
Some of the team’s needs could be addressed by a Luongo trade, whenever that is finally completed, while others could be addressed in-house. If the team goes into next season with Maxim Lapierre as their third line centre, and Chris Tanev in the top-four – they’re still an elite team. Mike Gillis and the management team have to be well aware of this, and I’d expect them to be conservative tomorrow as a result. Hopefully I’m wrong though, and the team surprises me with some serious "bold moves!"