Offseason Transactions Deep Dive: Free Agent Frenzy Signings


If it feels like it has been quite some time since the frenzy of moves the Vancouver Canucks made in that hectic stretch bridging the end of June and beginning of July, it’s because it has been. With the summer now officially having been put in the rearview mirror as training camps are set to begin across the league, we’re running a 5-part series reviewing what the Canucks did this summer, and what it means for them moving forward.

This deep dive was executed by the excellent MoneyPuck_ on Twitter, who has contributed content for us in the past.

Ryan Miller (3 years, $6M AAV)

The Canucks went into the summer having traded two elite, fan favourite goaltenders in the past twelve months. With a rapidly deteriorating season ticket holder base, Benning and Linden needed to bring home a brand name to sell the “Change is Coming” message. They set their sights on Ryan Miller immediately, ultimately inking the 34 year-old to a three year, $18M contract.

It was clear that there was no way the Canucks should go into the 2014-2015 season with a Eddie Lack/Jacob Markstrom goaltending tandem that had less than a full season’s worth of games between them in the NHL. However, that wasn’t necessarily because Eddie Lack isn’t ready to be an NHL starter, as management has recently suggested; it had more to do with concern stemming from whether Markstrom could handle a backup gig effectively. 

What may have been overlooked by Canucks management during the death throes of the Tortorella Era was just how good a goaltender Eddie Lack was in the first half of the season. For those who have blocked out the painful memories of 2014 Canucks hockey, Torts chose Lack to start in the Heritage classic over Luongo, thus igniting Canucks goalie drama 2.0. After the dust settled, Luongo was shipped to Florida, Eddie Lack was anointed as starter, and Jacob Markstrom was inserted as his backup.

Before the heritage classic, Lack was posting a .925% save percentage on a backups starting rotation where he had five rest days for every game day. If he had maintained this save percentage throughout the remainder of the season he would have finished with the fourth highest mark in the league, behind only Tuuka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, and Carey Price, and would have presumably been a potential Calder trophy nominee. However, with Luongo gone Torts decided to run Lack into the ground, providing only one rest day for each game day. Unsurprisingly, Lack’s save percentage took a beating as effects of this ridiculous workload wore him down:

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 9.47.21 AM

As shown above, a typical starter will see about 2.3 rest days for each game day, so clearly the 1.12:1 ratio Lack was saddled with was ridiculous, unsustainable, and predictably lead to poorer results. With this in mind, you would think that Lack showed enough in the first 24 games of the season to get a shot at the starter’s role this year, rather than spending $18M on Miller, who is now a middle of the pack starter more than anything else. 

Amongst the 25 goalies who played over 41 games last year Miller was 12th in Sv% and 21st in even strength Sv%. By comparison, Lack ranked 20th and 14th in those categories, respectively, despite the disastrous schedule in the second half.

While Miller was the most well-known goalie on the market this summer, he was by no means the only quality netminder available. Below are the top goalies available this summer and the amounts they signed for:

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My preference would have been to sign a goaltender like Thomas Greiss to a backup role, allowing Lack to see if he can replicate the .925 sv% we saw in the first half of last season. Obviously, neither Lack nor Greiss have accumulated the same body of work that Miller has over his career, so there would be risk associated going with a less proven tandem. However, from where I sit, considering the Canucks scored the third fewest goals in the league last year, signing Miller is a $6M a year solution to the wrong problem.

Radim Vrbata (2 years, $5M AAV)

Having one of the worst offenses in the league last year, addressing goal scoring via free agency was an absolute must for the Canucks this summer. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to choose from to begin with. Here are the 2014 UFA forward who scored 20 or more goals last year:

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On the positive side, Vrbata has been one of the best possession players amongst this group for the past three seasons. He’s an obvious upgrade to the top six, and the Canucks didn’t have to overpay in terms of contact length (2 years) or AAV ($5M) to sign him when considered in the context of other high scoring UFAs available this summer.

Management is selling Vrbata as the Sedin’s new winger, and that is where I think there are some pretty interesting question marks:

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As we can see from the table above, Vrbata is a perimeter shooter who takes a significant amount of long distance (61% of shots greater than 30 feet from the net), low percentage shots (sh% 4% from greater than 30 feet). Generally, we’ve seen that the further away from the net you shoot, the lower the chance the puck actually goes in the net. 

Now this doesn’t mean he’s an inferior player, as this can be an effective strategy with many of these shot attempts at least being given a chance to turn into goals off of rebounds or deflections. Vrbata’s center for most of his time in Phoenix was Martin Hanzal, and we can see from his shot data that Phoenix’s coaching strategy enabled him to take a fair amount of shots closer to the net (presumably many resulting deflections and second chances initiated by Vrbata):

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The thing is: over the course of the past four seasons, part of the success of the Sedin’s top line has been having Alex Burrows clean up the scraps in front of the net:

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Over the past four years, Burrows has taken 53% of his shots from inside the 20-foot mark. He has been a very high percentage shooter in these situations, contributing greatly to the success of the line overall. This is a very different style of play as compared to Radim Vrbata, who only took 20% of his shots from those same distances.

Are we really going to see a future where Vrbata fires a ton of low-percentage perimeter shots, with the Sedins up front looking for rebounds and deflections?

Maybe Vrbata will be able to play the type of style that made the Sedin line so successful when Burrows was playing his best, but I think there’s at least some reason to question whether Vrbata would be a better fit on the second line with Bonino, who plays a style complementary to what made Vrbata successful in the desert:

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Conclusion

Miller will accomplish a lot for the Canucks when it comes to building credibility with the fan base going into next season. However, looking at the other options available it’s hard not to think their salary cap money could have been used better elsewhere if they signed a promising young backstop for lower dollars. 

It was clear that they were hoping to land Iginla, which would have been a much better fit with the Sedins than Vrbata. That didn’t work out, but they still managed to get one of the better forward options available, when you consider it in the context of salary and term. He’s not a perfect fit for the twins, but he is clearly a very solid addition to the top six. The fact that they only had to give 2 years instead of 3 must also be taken into account as a win for the team.

Previously in this series:

  • Eregs

    You’re assuming there was more talent available for upgrades in other areas if the Canucks hadn’t signed Miller. I agree that it wasn’t a pressing need but I also don’t see how they could have addressed the scoring issue much more than they did (without also overpaying and saddling themselves with a far bigger problem than an average goalie with a 3 year fat contract — like being stuck with Bolland or Clarkson for 5-7 or Luongo forever. I suppose if this diminishes our capacity to resign people in the next years or acquire other FA on the market Miller’s a bad signing, but let’s face it, most teams lock up their stars before they’ll hit the market. Getting the Lecavaliers of the world isn’t going to solve the Canucks problems.

    • JCDavies

      Other than a fantasy Johannsen offer sheet, which would undoubtedly be matched anyway, the Miller cap hit isn’t really preventing them from doing anything since impact players are rarely available.

      And the Canucks have enough middle of the roster talent which precludes the Clarkson/Bolland insanity you mention.

      But the 3rd year of that contract – heck, maybe even the 2nd year, are the bigger issues with locking up an average starter.

      Not that there’s anything wrong with an average starter.

      If the goal of ownership/management is to make the playoffs, there’s less of a risk with a known commodity like Miller than Lack or one of the UFA backups that have only had “success” in small samples with sheltered roles.

      And Lack hasn’t done anything to show he’s a top 30 NHL goalie that deserves a starting role…

      This is all Dmitri’s fault, really.

      He was given an opportunity to follow through on his assertion that Halak would take less money and a smaller role to bring his talents to the lower mainland.

      And he failed miserably…

    • My sentiments exactly! The Canucks are a spend to the cap team, and I’m not sure where else they spend with more effect. I like Eddie Lack, but it is much better to have an experienced starter for a team that is coming off a bad year, has seen significant roster turnover, and may also see some first time NHLers on the roster. There is a risk that Lack could become Devan Dubnyk if he does not have protected minutes. As long as he gets 25+ games, this is better for his development.

      • Eregs

        Where could they spend $6M to greater effect? Um, how about basically anywhere else? How about that exact contract offered to Christian Ehrhoff instead? It probably wouldn’t even take $6M AAV given he signed for 4, but it would result in a far greater net benefit to the hockey team.

        Hell, Mikhail Grabovski, even. It was a bad FA crop but guys were available who would have provided more than what is probably a marginal goaltending upgrade.

  • Eregs

    One of the big issues I have with Vrbata on a line with the Sedin’s is addressed here. Burrows lives in those mucky areas down low and in the corners which gives space for the twins to do their thing. Vrbata not being overly physical, and as is shown, not being one to score a lot down low might make him a better fit with Bonino.

  • JCDavies

    Another really great discussion, MoneyPuck_! I hadn’t thought of those questions with Vrbata. I guess the question for me now is how much Vrbata’s shot selection had to do with Vrbata’s own “style” and how much it had to do with the Coyotes’ system, and in particular how much Vrbata was playing off of Hanzal or other linemates’ strengths? Not sure there’s data available to decide. In any case, I’m happy with the pick up.

    I don’t get the Miller acquisition, except as a well-known goalie to sell to season ticket holders. It’s true that most impact players are signed, but what happens if a trade becomes available because a star is unhappy (see Kesler)? I don’t see the point in spending cap dollars because there’s no one better to spend on. I really hope that Benning doesn’t actually believe his own rhetoric, and he only did this to sell tickets.

    • Eregs

      Even when impact players do become available, the acquiring team typically is able to shed dollars (peverley in the seguin deal, sbisa in the Kesler deal.

      And there are maybe 1-2 of these “impact” deals per off season.

      Allocating the miller money to another backup goalie and middle of the roster forward isn’t going to make the 2014-2015 canucks any better.

      The bigger issue is Miller maintaining his average starter status through the duration of the contract…

  • Eregs

    Very interesting work on the shooting tendencies of Vrbata vs. Burrows; a consideration I would have taken a long time of game watching to think about. Thanks for the insight.

    And to NMnoooooo!: Lack has in fact shown that he is definitely worth consideration as a starting goalie, provided he is given a new starting goalie’s workload with competent support from the backup position. Don’t bother replying, it won’t be read by me – I have work, family, and recreation to attend to, rather than return to a blogpost a second time to argue with trolls.

  • JCDavies

    Good article Dimitri,I too thought that the money could have been better spent elsewhere.Like, if the Canucks and Willie really want to play an uptempo game.why didn`t they try get a bonafide puck carrying defenseman?Erhoff was bought out.This team seems intent on keeping Alex Edler.Why did they not try to sign Erhoff?Edlers best years were when they played together.I know that Erhoff signed with Pittsburg.For 4 mil.So maybe they had no chance to sign him?

  • JCDavies

    Mr. Filipovic, normally I find your articles quite good and logical but in this case I must disagree, for several reasons. Let us start with Miller. The term of the deal is reasonable, and from what I understand the third year is optional. The price is a bit high, but given the $ under the cap the team is it is reasonable. I am a huge Lack fan, and I believe in 2 or 3 years he will be one of the better goalies in the league, but his psyche suffered serious damage the last 2 months under Torts. He needs time to heal, without the pressure of being No. 1. If he were top goalie and this year went badly, the idiots in this market would crucify him. Miller is a good foil for that stuff. Miller also had a bad end of year, but remember at one point he was playing on a St. Louis team missing half the regulars on the team, HALF. So his save % suffered. I don’t think he is a top 5 goalie anymore, but he could be top 10. I think the team also needs the confidence an experienced go to guy provides. This year I see a 65-35 split and 55-45% next year with Lack in charge in the third year. As far as Vrbata, I disagree with your analysis on the type of scorer the Sedins need. Over half of Daniel’s goals have come from in close the last few years and he is becoming more a passer so they need a true shooter, which is what Vrbata provides, a gun. Burrows is not what he was three years ago, lot of hard miles, but I think he will do well with less pressure on a line with Bonino and Kassian, back on the left side which was his natural side till he joined Sedins. I also like whole lines on the power play together and I see the first two lines intact on power play.

    • Dimitri Filipovic

      Where did you see 3rd year optional, and optional for who? Even if St. Louis had half there regulars out, that team and system is still better than in buffalo. Miller flat out did not play well at the end of last season and playoffs, Benning is gambling that Miller can return to top 5 form, anything less is a failure when you commit to that term.

  • JCDavies

    I don’t find the Miller cap hit too concerning but I’m not really sure I like the way the Canucks have set up their future in goal.

    If Miller doesn’t play well and doesn’t live up to his contract, then the Canucks would be stuck with an overpaid under-performing goalie and they would likely have to eat salary if they wanted to move him. Or they could keep him and live with the satisfactory results and the large cap hit.

    If Miller plays well and lives up to his contact, why would Lack want to stay after next year? He would probably want to go somewhere where he can start.

    There is a not unreasonable chance that the Miller signing costs the Canucks both Lack and Markstrom (lost through waivers, probably) and leaves them with a choice between a 37 yr old well-past-his-prime goaltender and whatever’s available in free agency.

    If Demko is ready to start in 2017 (I don’t think he will be), then this might make more sense…

    • Dimitri Filipovic

      “If Miller plays well and lives up to his contact, why would Lack want to stay after next year? He would probably want to go somewhere where he can start.”

      Why exactly is Lack a top 30 (top 15-20, really) NHL goalie worthy of a starting gig now or in the next 2 years?

      And Markstrom would have been lost if the Canucks had acquired someone like Greiss/Reimer as well.

      Nice to see you’ve come to your senses on Miller’s cap hit, though…

      • JCDavies

        “Why exactly is Lack a top 30 (top 15-20, really) NHL goalie worthy of a starting gig now or in the next 2 years?”

        I didn’t say Lack was a starting goalie (until he is given a chance, we don’t know what he is).

        What I said was that the Canucks don’t appear to have a clear post-Miller plan in goal.

        “And Markstrom would have been lost if the Canucks had acquired someone like Greiss/Reimer as well.”

        Neither Greiss nor Reimer will be 37 in three years. They could conceivably bridge the gap until Demko is ready.

        “Nice to see you’ve come to your senses on Miller’s cap hit, though…”

        I have never criticized Miller’s cap hit. I criticized you for being inconsistent in your critique of the Canucks.

        • JCDavies

          “If Miller plays well and lives up to his contact, why would Lack want to stay after next year? He would probably want to go somewhere where he can start.”

          The implication being that Lack will be good enough to go somewhere where he can start.

          “Neither Greiss nor Reimer will be 37 in three years. They could conceivably bridge the gap until Demko is ready.”

          And Reimer/Greiss may not be capable of being average NHL starters irrespective of their relative youth.

          Demko is a lottery ticket. There’s no need to bridge a gap to him…

          “I have never criticized Miller’s cap hit.”

          False.

          “I criticized you for being inconsistent in your critique of the Canucks.”

          Yes that’s what that was…

          • JCDavies

            “The implication being that Lack will be good enough to go somewhere where he can start.”

            The implication being that if Lack is good enough to start, why would he want to stay?

            I didn’t make any claims as to which (or if any) of the goalies you mentioned would be good enough to start in three years, only that the Canucks appear to be lacking a clear plan post-Miller.

            “”I have never criticized Miller’s cap hit.”

            False.”

            I have never criticized Miller’s cap hit. If you believe different, then backup your baseless claim with proof.

          • JCDavies

            If you are interested in this “proof”, go back to the discussion on this topic from a few months back and you will see your comments on the Miller contract.

            Miller hasn’t played a game yet and the Canucks goaltending situation remains the same as it did after he was signed.

            There is no reason to be inconsistent with your comments when the situation hasn’t changed…

            As for the Canucks lacking a goaltending option 3 years down the road, most every NHL team is in the same situation including teams like LA & Chicago that have goalies locked up for many years.

            Not to mention the team that signed Greiss for $1 million to be a backup goalie as opposed to some theoretical bridge to a “goalie of the future”.

            The kind of plan you want often requires locking up non-elite goalies to 3+ year contracts.

            No thank you…

          • JCDavies

            “If you are interested in this “proof”, go back to the discussion on this topic from a few months back and you will see your comments on the Miller contract.

            Miller hasn’t played a game yet and the Canucks goaltending situation remains the same as it did after he was signed.

            There is no reason to be inconsistent with your comments when the situation hasn’t changed…”

            Nowhere in that July 2 thread did I offer my opinion on Miller’s cap hit.

            “The kind of plan you want often requires locking up non-elite goalies to 3+ year contracts.”

            I didn’t state a desire for any particular plan, only that the Canucks don’t appear to have a clear plan going forward.

            If you want to suggest that the most prudent course of action for the Canucks is for them to have no plan for their goaltending situation post Miller, then be my guest.

            Quick is under contract for 9 more seasons; to suggest that LA doesn’t have a plan in goal for their 2017-18 season is hilarious.

          • JCDavies

            What assurances are there that either Quick or Crawford are average (or better) starters in 3 years?

            They’re run of the mill goalies right now and the goaltending position has evolved quite a bit in the last few years.

            Locking up an elite goalie (Luongo, Lundqvist, Rask) long term isn’t the greatest bet to make.

            Locking up an average starter just to have a plan (on paper only) is insane…

          • JCDavies

            Are there ever assurances in sports?

            There are lots of different paths a team could take to fill the goaltending position, of which you have named only two.

            If you want to suggest that not having a plan is better than having one, then go for it.

  • Dimitri Filipovic

    I would have preferred to see spending under the cap and lower ticket prices. Keeping Lack as a starter and a veteran backup behind him. Put a couple of the promising kids on the team and wait for the Top 1-3 lottery pick for the NHL draft this year (franchise center on McDavid or franchise Dman in Eichel). Way quicker way to rebuild than to muddle along for the next 3-4 years….

    • Dimitri Filipovic

      Eichel is a forward and this team has a better chance of picking 27-30 than 1-3. As bad as last season was, we still had 16 points on the 27th team edm and 31 on dead last buf.

      • Mantastic

        you’re saying that the canucks are more likely to be in the WCF and/or winning the stanley cup this season than bottoming out or winning the draft lottery? i don’t think so.

        • Mantastic

          I think this team has a better chance of being a top 3 team than a bottom 3 team in the regular season, is what I’m saying. I should of said that and I know drafting is determined by playoffs not reg season.

          To be a top team in this league takes hard work and good stewardship but luck also plays a large role whether that be injuries or hot streaks. To be a bottom feeder bad luck can only bring a team down so far(last year).To be as bad as the buf/edm etc you need to really work at it.

  • JCDavies

    Ehrhoff went to Pittsburgh because that is conceivably a Stanley Cup contender. That’s a much loftier goal than simply making the playoffs. The same could be said for Iginla.

    And really, what would the two have provided but more offence but no real hope of winning a cup? Miller doesn’t help with that either, but clearly — and perhaps worryingly — that’s not his main priority. I think for him, it’s make a healthy living, provide an opportunity for his wife to pursue her career and live in a comfortable setting. Vancouver — for the wealthy — isn’t a shabby place to be. Iginla and Ehrhoff are in position to chase something.

    Especially, Ehrhoff who is moving to Pittsburgh with a sweet pay-out via Terry Pegula and an extra $4 million hard this year. Ehrhoff was never coming back and it made no sense to believe he would.

    And at the end of the day, the Canucks plan on playing younger players at skater spots. Horvat will likely get an opportunity, and we don’t know what the impact of someone like Linden Vey will be. They aren’t sure bets, but someone like Mikael Grabovski isn’t a sure bet either — and the Islanders, yes, your Garth Snow-led Islanders, paid big scratch for his services. They are on the hook for $6 million this year and next. And the entire worth of the deal is $27 million. And that’s tied to a so-so centre. I’d much rather see what Vey can do, personally. This way the Canucks will have cap flexibility. They have $14 million after this season.

    • JCDavies

      $14 Million? To slot in 3 regular NHL defenseman signed, an entire 4th line and another centre at the very least. All that money will be eaten up by re-signing RFA’s and replacing departed UFA’s. I figure that the Canucks will have the amount that the cap increases (3-5M?) to sign a second line centre (if needed). With the rate of inflation on productive centres, it will not be enough. I would rather the Canucks had signed Hiller to his deal at $4.5M x 2, pending a trainer grasping Hiller’s head and shaking it for loose change. Perhaps he took a discount for Burke and wouldn’t have been available to the Canucks at 4.5? Regardless, I think Miller’s deal is about $1M too much per season, especially when you consider the third year.

      This notion that another commenter posted that Miller’s third year is an option is fantastical. I would be so pumped if it was, but have not seen anything about this.

      It is still too early to tell how this all shakes out. If Bonino truly is a 2nd line centre then there is amazing value there at 1.9M and it will cover the opportunity lost by overpaying Miller. Management may yet makes some deals that changes this whole discussion. I’m excited to see how the season goes. I fear it will be painful at times but hopefully should be exciting- Think more bipolar than cyclothymic.

      I was very pleased with the insight about shooting distances in this article. Excellent work! A more cogent argument supported by facts than the regurgitation a fair portion of this blog has become lately.

      • JCDavies

        So long as his health is not a concern, Hiller and his contract would have been by far the best option for the Canucks.

        Much better than giving Miller an extra year or hoping that one of Greiss/Lack evolve into a starting goalie…

  • JCDavies

    The moves Benning made are very very good in my eyes.

    Millers contract is a little steep at 6 mil per year, but a Lack/Markstrom would have been a disaster. The key with Millers contract is that Benning put in a 5 team trade clause which in any year will give him the flexibility to trade Miller. We won’t get much, but he I was a FA …. Then Boom, 6 mil in cap room.

    Also I like Vrbata’s upside a lot more concerning age and production Vs Iggy. Injuries will eventually catch up to him and I really believe Radims style will compliment the twins. Let’s face it Arizona was almost as bad as the Canucks in scoring and he tallied 20 goals playing next to Hanzal. To think a PP with Dan and Hank won’t up those totals is ridiculous. Add in hi great % at SOS and he was a great fit for the price. Iggy played with a very good team in Boston and Vrbata was very good w marginal players.

  • JCDavies

    Definitely curious to dig deeper on the Vrbata shooting selection. The Coyotes being a trapping system, I imagine he took perimeter shots because he couldn’t penetrate the opposition defense with so many of the opposing players in his way. He seems to have no problem getting deep in what I’ve seen of him. Also his linemates were pretty bad so with low possession, perhaps lower percentage shots were the way to generate goals.