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I wish we could’ve churned out more free-agent preview content this week ahead of Friday’s hockey news meltdown. Alas I only got back from New York (where I covered a marathon draft this past weekend) on Tuesday afternoon, I was then promptly as sick as a dog, and have spent the past two days moving, unpacking, assembling Ikea furniture and such.
But enough of my sob story, I have some time on this crazy day of hockey news (Grabovski buyout, Seguin trade, what?) to sit down and recap at length where the Canucks stand going into the opening of the free-agent market on Friday, what they need, and what players they might target.
Read past the jump.
The Canucks have some significant needs to address between now and the opening of training camp and we looked at them at length in mid-June:
Of course with the salary cap receding to 2011-12 levels the clubs hands are tied in terms of cap-space.
According to capgeek.com: if you pencil Eddie Lack into the opening night roster, the team has a blip under 7.5 million in cap-space with which to sign seven players. That’s an average of roughly $1,071,032 per player, and doesn’t leave the team with altogether that much wiggle room.
I don’t actually like that "7 players and 7.5 million to play with" wording though because it’s not a very good reflection of what the teams cap-situation really looks like. For example, the team is reportedly close to a deal with Dale Weise, and that should cost the club close to (or just over) one million against the cap next season. They’re also still working on an extension with Chris Tanev, and I’d expect that to come in somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million per season (though I’m sure the team is pushing the Marco Scandella comparable hard in negotiations).
The Canucks have extended qualifying offers to Anton Rodin (who has already signed in Sweden next season), Bill Sweatt, Kellan Lain, Darren Archibald, Yann Suave, and most importantly for our purposes: Jordan Schroeder. Of those names, I’d expect Schroeder – who is still recovering from offseason surgery – to be among the most likely to accept his qualifying offer (one year, 850k). I’d also expect to see Schroeder on the Canucks roster next season in some fashion, either as a top-nine centreman or as a top-six depth piece in the mold of a Jeff Tambellini or Andrew Ebbett.
So in terms of actual available cap-space, including assumed salaries for Schroeder (850k), Weise (1M) and Tanev (1.75 M) the Canucks have a littlle under four million to spend on four players to fill out the roster.
Having described the teams need for credible "Kesler insurance" as an existential issue over the past couple of months, I’d expect the bulk of the clubs limited available funds to be spent on some form of bottom-six centre depth. In an ideal world one of Schroeder, Gaunce, Lain or even Bo Horvat would be ready to contribute in the top-nine next season, but the Canucks shouldn’t be counting on that.
Beyond that the team needs to fill out their defence-corps by replacing Andrew Alberts and adding a depth piece or two. Ideally the club will find a third-pairing guy who can play the right-side so that Frank Corrado can spend the bulk of next season playing top-pairing minutes in the American Hockey League…
Additionally, while the team needs more secondary scoring, they also need an upgrade on the left-side of their fourth line. Ideally that player should have some offensive upside so that he can play up the lineup in the event of injury (like Dale Weise sort of can on the third-line).
FInding all of that for roughly four million against the cap is a tall task, but that’s the task facing Canucks management over the next week and beyond…
Who To Target
At this point, just a handful of hours before the market opens at 9 am PST on Friday, I think we can safely posit that all of Vancouver’s unsigned pending unrestricted free-agents will hit the open market and not return to Vancouver next season. That’s a list of players that includes Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, Derek Roy, Andrew Alberts, Mason Raymond and Cam Barker. There’s not a good deal of lost hockey value there, frankly, though Lapierre is a relatively capable fourth line centreman.
In terms of what players the Canucks could (and should) look at to fill their variety of needs? Let’s dive in.
Third Line Centre
The market for centreman looked barren just a couple of weeks ago, but then the buyout window opened. As Laurence Gilman predicted in a wide ranging conversation with the Sports Business Daily a few weeks ago, however, the compliance buyout mechanism created a "secondary market" of intriguing talent on the market on whom the Canucks might gamble.
Lecavalier is off the market already, Daniel Briere is apparently close to a decision and would prefer to stay in the East, and it’s tough to imagine the Canucks fitting Mikhail Grabovski under their salary cap (provided he even makes it through waivers). Still the presence of those players on the unrestricted free-agent market at least increases supply, and thus the odds the Canucks can land a useful piece of "Kesler Insurance" at an affordable rate…
Names like Tyler Bozak, Grabovski, Valtteri Filppula and Stephen Weiss are likely to come in at a price point beyond that which the Canucks can afford this summer. Grabovski is slightly better than Weiss who I’d modestly prefer to Filppula but all three would be excellent additions were they interested in an affordable one year deal to try and rebuild their respective values. Which, y’know, they totally won’t be.
More likely the Canucks will be looking at names like Boyd Gordon, Matt Cullen, Jerred Smithson, David Steckel, Mike Santorelli, Matthew Lombardi, Matt Hendricks, Nik Antropov and Eric Belanger on Friday. Of those names I just listed, I don’t necessarily see any of them as a significant upgrade on Jordan Schroeder.
Boyd Gordon, however, is by far the most intriguing name. Over the past couple of seasons he’s blossomed into a very serious defensive centreman under the tutelage of Dave Tippett in Phoenix. His sample of stellar performance isn’t particularly large, but at the very least he’s a face-off winner who can kill penalties and is a reasonable bet to come out even in tough minutes over the next two or three seasons. In terms of "a centreman who can take 400 defensive zone draws a season and come out even" I think Gordon is up there with Marcel Goc and Marcus Kruger on a short list of players that I think are capable of doing it with any degree of regularity…
I also quite like Matt Cullen, a really dependable centreman with top-six skill. He’s as good a piece of State Farm approved Kesler insurance as is available on the open market this summer.
Gordon or Cullen would be exceedingly useful, but can the Canucks get either player on a deal worth two million or less? Yep, even Boyd Gordon and Matt Cullen might qualify as "too rich for the Canucks’ blood" during this years free-agent frenzy…
Beyond those two, Santorelli is a local kid with some offensive skill and could be a fit at the right price, and I wouldn’t get too upset if the Canucks took an affordable flier on any of Lombardi, Steckel or Belanger either. Nik Antropov appears to be losing a step or two over the past couple of seasons and won’t help the team out in the circle, but the Canucks could do worse. For example they could sign Jerred Smithson…
Finally there’s been a lot of Matt Hendricks buzz in the Vancouver market of late (or at least a lot of buzz considering the player being buzzed about is Matt Hendricks), and I have to say I wouldn’t hate that addition. Hendricks is a pretty skilled player for a fourth liner, and is essentailly willing to do whatever it takes (drop the gloves, block shots etc.). He’s also an absolute wiz in the shootout…
As tough as this is to say, considering Vancouver’s total lack of offensive production in the postseason the past couple of years, I tend to think this is the need that might be most easily ignored by the Canucks in free-agency this summer.
There are some pretty good players on the market in Ryane Clowe, David Clarkson, Michael Ryder and Nathan Horton. Those are guys who might bolster the teams offensive chops and add some "bite" to the top-nine, but I don’t see how the Canucks find the cap-space to realistically chase a name asset. There’s also Iginla and Alfredsson and we all know that long-time captains of Canadian franchises love ending their careers in Vancouver… Finally there are some intriguing value options available in Clarke MacArthur, Nathan Gerbe and Brad Boyes, but I don’t know where the Canucks will find the money to sign a player like that and also fill out their defence corps.
Realistically I think the Canucks are going to have to hope that an improved power-play, internal improvements (from Zack Kassian in particular) and the return to health of Ryan Kesler and David Booth is sufficient to boost the teams offensive production. It’s not an insane gamble, but I’m sure it’s not the answer Canucks fans were hoping for.
Third Pairing Defenceman
Looking at the defenceman Vancouver currently has under contract, there appear to be five legitimate NHL options on the roster at the moment in Jason Garrison, Kevin Bieksa, Chris Tanev, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis. There’s also young Frank Corrado, and I think he’s a pretty safe bet to do okay against tertiary competition next season, if that’s what the Canucks require.
Ostensibly, I suppose, the team could simply bump Jason Garrison back to his natural left side and save some money by not chasing a player of Grant Clitsome or Tom Gilbert’s ilk.
The problem with this, in my view, is that from a player development perspective you’d much rather have Frank Corrado play twenty-five minutes a game in the American Hockey League next season, as opposed to holding down a fifteen minute per night (if that) role in the National Hockey League…
Still with Vancouver’s cap situation as dire as it appears at the moment, if the Canucks were to roll with, say, a Dan Hamhuis-Kevin Bieksa top-pairing, an Alex Edler-Chris Tanev second pairing, and a Jason Garrison-Frank Corrado third pairing (with Garrison occassionally filling in for both Bieksa and Edler situationally), then I think they could get away without committing any cap-space to an everyday third pairing defenceman this summer…
Even if the Canucks do ultimately decide to save money on the blue-line, they need to have better depth in tow than they had in place a season ago (when Cam Barker played in 30% of the teams contests). The team has already added AHL depth in Patrick Mullen and Jeremie Blain this offseason, but an additional player or two – and preferably an NHL caliber player or two – would make good sense. As Canucks management is fond of saying "you can never have too many defenceman."
On this end Jonathon Blum seems like a reasonable gamble, especially since he apparently seems well disposed towards coming to Vancouver and joining the Canucks. Blum has played roughly ninety-one games in his young NHL career and won’t turn twenty-five until mid-way through next season. Last year he played in 35 games for the Predators, facing secondary competition and coming out more or less even (when adjusted for how piss poor a possession team the Predators were a year ago). It was his best season from a possession stand point, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t particularly like Blum as an everyday NHLer, but he’s probably worth gambling on and at least makes it more likely that Corrado spends next season soaking up minutes in Utica…
Beyond Blum, I’m all aboard the Tyson Strachan train. I’ve also always liked Radek Martinek despite the long-time Islander’s complete inability to stay healthy. If the Canucks were able to get Scott Hannan under contract at a reasonable rate, I’d probably say that’s worthwhile too (though I wouldn’t have said that before he held his own with Brad Stuart this past postseason).
If Vancouver could lock up, say, Blum and Strachan affordably and push Corrado to eighth on the depth chart, that would help the team maintain the blue-line as a position of organizational strength…
Going into next season the Canucks have Tom Sestito pencilled into the top-twelve. I think Sestito is a bit better than most people realize but ideally you’d like to push him down a spot or two on the depth-chart, I think.
On that score gambling on Peter Regin as a reclamation project could have a lot of upside. A variety of shoulder injuries have atrophied Regin’s face-off abilities, and he’s really struggled to stay in the lineup the past three years. He also fell out of favour in a major way in Ottawa this past season. Still, when Regin’s been healthy he’s been a very good play driving forward with a whole whack of defensive value (and stone hands). As a converted, fourth line left-winger I think Regin could bring a lot to the table.
Another good possible value guy who has some offensive upside? Benoit Pouliot. I think the team would also be pretty happy if they could add a player like Eric Nystrom or Matt Cooke at the right price. Other lesser options would include local products like Chuck Kobasew, Brandon Yip, and Ben Maxwell.