Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
Vancouver Canucks checking centre Brad Richardson, a pending unrestricted free agent, is undergoing surgery today to repair the ankle injury that cost him the second half of his season and probably several million dollars on the open market, according to News 1130 Sports.
Richardson, 30, managed eight goals and 21 points in 45 games while playing thoroughly excellent hockey on the penalty kill and holding down a key defensive role for the club. He’s a useful depth piece, and has provided the club with tremendous value since signing a two-year deal with an annual average value of $1.15 million as an unrestricted free agent in the cap-crunch summer of 2013.
It seems probable that Richardson is on his way out the door, but might his ill-timed and frustratingly persistent ankle injury make it more likely that he’s in a Canucks uniform again next season?
Even had Richardson remained healthy throughout the season, he was likely to leave as a free agent this summer just based on the structural composition of Vancouver’s roster and prospect pipeline.
With Bo Horvat’s emergence, there’s a natural replacement on a cheap entry-level contract. Horvat might be ready ready to supplant Richardson’s third-line role at even-strength and handle more minutes on the penalty kill even were Richardson to return.
There’s also Linden Vey, a player the club invested a second-round draft pick to acquire last summer. Vey was a blackhole offensively in his first full season in the league, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s play away from the puck appeared to take something of a step forward as the year went along.
As Jason Botchford pointed out recently, the club was actually less permissive at 5-on-5 with Vey on the ice, than they were with either Horvat or Richardson:
Lacking the size or the flash of Horvat, Vey quietly stitched together this decent two-way season.
There is actually something to build on.
Opponents averaged 55.37 shot attempts for every 60 minutes he played.
He ranked ahead of Brad Richardson, against whom opponents averaged 57.88 shot attempts, and Horvat, who was last on the team at 61.29.
Vey’s goals-against-per-60-minutes played was 2.47, which was better than both Richardson (2.54) and Horvat (2.81).
The problem with playing Vey at centre is that he’s prone to getting schooled on draws by bigger, veteran centreman. The impact that faceoffs have on actually winning games is debatable, but it’s certainly an issue if you’re forecasting Vey as the club’s third- or fourth-line pivot next season.
Consider that 141 NHL forwards took at least 100 defensive zone faceoffs at 5-on-5 last season. Only two of those 141 NHL forwards had a worse faceoff winning percentage than Vey did in those situations, and those two players – Calgary Flames rookie Markus Granlund, and New Jersey Devils veteran Patrik Elias – aren’t actually centremen.
If you prefer to look at the shot based impact of faceoff losses rather than raw winning percentage, the Canucks permitted .185 shots against per Linden Vey defensive zone draw (within 10 seconds of the faceoff occurring). That puts Vey in the 13th percentile, the 123rd best forward out of the 141 players that qualify, according to faceoffs.net.
Richardson isn’t necessarily an ace in the faceoff circle, but he’s capable of credibly handling those tough assignments. Not that it matters all that much when the Canucks are coached by Willie Desjardins, who didn’t discernibly zone match in his first year on the job.
Tactical concerns aren’t likely to determine whether or not Richardson is back in Vancouver though. Like most business decisions, market value and money will probably prove to be the decisive forces here.
As mentioned previously, Horvat is on an affordable entry-level deal, while Vey is a restricted free agent with minimal leverage. If need be the Canucks can probably grind Vey’s salary figure down on a one-year deal that comes out pretty close to his qualifying offer (though that hasn’t really been Jim Benning’s style).
With Vey and Horvat waiting in the wings at bargain basement prices, Richardson is likely to prove expensive relative to his teammates. The 30-year-old handled a bona fide third-line role at even-strength, is an ace penalty killer, and would’ve scored 10 goals if he’d stayed healthy. Throw in ‘Stanley Cup winner’ and ‘versatile enough to play either wing position’ and you’ve got the resume of a player worth close to $2 million on the open market.
As valuable as Richardson has been, as crucial as it is to have depth down the middle, and as effective as the 30-year-old veteran has been in 4-on-5 situations, Richardson is very probably not worth $1 million more than either Horvat or Vey (at the bottom of a roster, he might not be worth $500,000 more).
It would seem that unless Richardson’s injury has truly sapped his market value, parting ways this summer probably still makes the most sense for both sides.