5 Unusually Young Unrestricted Free Agents The Canucks Should Consider Pursuing

jonathan marshmellow

Free agency is nearly upon us, and the Vancouver Canucks are expected to be big players, especially when it comes to the household names.

The fact that this front office currently find themselves in the precarious position of attempting to both compete for the playoffs this season, and build a foundation for the future adds an interesting element to their plans for free agency this July 1st. While a Lucic or an Eriksson or an Okposo will certainly go a long way towards helping them achieve the former, one of those players is a lot less likely to stick around long enough to contribute significantly to the latter. 

Luckily for the Canucks, the prospect of an expansion draft on the horizon coupled with a relatively flat salary cap has resulted in a number of teams electing not to extend qualifying offers to some of their RFAs. While many of these teams are likely just trying to avoid salary arbitration and have the inside track on re-signing these players, the fact remains that there is an unprecedented amount of credible 24 and 25-year-old unrestricted free agents that will be available this off-season. If I’m Jim Benning, the opportunity to add players in that age range is an attractive one. It’s not often you can secure players that can help you achieve your short and long-term goals without giving up anything other than money and a contract slot. 

The players on this list are all basically known commodities at this point. Most players are reaching their peak by age 24, so these aren’t players you’re going to sign with the hopes that they’ll develop into top-of-the-lineup pieces. They’re players you sign so you can have the young, cost-controlled depth that allows you to spend the big money on your key pieces. That being said, some of these players were very highly-touted prospects at one point, and could be worth a dice roll in the hopes that they can develop into more than that. 

We’ll examine the 5 best fits for the Canucks out of those players after the jump.

brett connolly

BRETT CONNOLLY 

Brett Connolly, former sixth overall pick. Believe it. 

There was once a time when many scouts believed Connolly had the potential to be the game-breaking power forward every team covets. Unfortunately for him, he’s now better known for being drafted above players like Jeff Skinner, Mikael Granlund, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Ouch. 

 At 24, the clock is ticking on Brett Connolly the high-end power forward. Brett Connolly the useful depth player is still very much a reality, however, and it’s easy to see why Jim Benning might believe he’s worth a contract.

Story 1 (4)

Connolly’s already played over 200 games in the NHL despite his young age. That he’s been able to stick in the NHL in spite of his failure to live up to the lofty expectations that have been placed on him is a testament to his ability to drive play. He may not put up a ton of points, but he’s been in the black by possession metrics over the past two seasons. 

On a less tangible note, he the type of plays a hard-nosed physical game that both fans and GMs love. He’s also a native of Campbell River, BC and would likely be an easy sell to the Canucks’ fanbase.

beau bennett

BEAU BENNETT 

Beau Bennett is another player that some analysts often mistake for being bad as opposed to just disappointing. At one time, Bennett was a highly-touted offensive prospect, scoring a whopping 120 points in 56 games with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL en route to being the highest drafted born-and-bred Californian in NHL history. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career to the point where it’s unlikely he’ll ever live up to that potential. 

At this point, the ship has probably sailed in terms of Bennett ever being a top-six player, but his underlying numbers suggest he could still carve out a career as a high-end utility forward.

Story 1

Bennett has been a genuinely good two-way player during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins, posting a positive shot-attempt differential in three of his four seasons in the NHL. Perhaps more impressively, he’s also been a positive possession player relative to his teammates over the course of that time as well. That’s no easy feat, considering how stacked the Penguins have been at forward since Bennett has been in the lineup. He may not be the most exciting name on the market, but he’s still easily an upgrade over three or four of the players in the Canucks’ bottom six.

jonathan marshmellow

JONATHAN MARCHESSAULT 

Marchessault is a very interesting player. After spending five years scoring at a torrid pace in the AHL, Marchessault finally earned himself an extended look with the Tampa Bay Lightning, during which he played well enough to bump Jonathan Drouin out of the lineup.

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Marchessault proved to be a fantastic addition to the Lightning’s bottom-six, moving the needle significantly in the right direction from a possession standpoint. The sample size on Marchessault is small, but his AHL numbers and his impressive stint with the Lightning indicate that he’s likely a credible NHLer at the very least, and could provide more potential upside than whichever player would otherwise be slotted in as the Canucks 13th forward.

brandon pirri

BRANDON PIRRI 

If you airlifted Brandon Pirri and plopped him directly into the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup as currently constructed, there’s a legitimate case to be made that he’s in their top-six. Only four players have matched Pirri’s career high of 22 goals, and he’s just shy of a half-point-per-game over 166 games.

Story 1 (1) 

Pirri drives play and suppresses shots at the level of a bottom-six player, but can contribute offence at the rate of a credible second-line forward, something the Canucks could desperately use. Pirri’s toolkit is impressive enough that Canucks Army Managing Editor J.D. Burke identified him as a worthy trade target for the Canucks back when he was still with the Panthers: 

I’ve tracked a relatively significant amount of Panthers games and I can say with a certain amount of confidence that Pirri is a strong driver of success in the neutral zone. In fact, relative to his teammates, he was positively revelatory.
Beyond that, Pirri is a productive playmaker, with good vision and hands, who can fit quite literally into any spot in the lineup. Pirri is afforded this versatility by his comfort at every position other than defence. Originally a centre, Pirri has split time playing on opposite wings in Florida – a byproduct of solid centre depth more than anything.
I can’t say with any degree of certainty that Pirri’s defensive game is solvent, but the net value is positive for the Panthers relative to when he’s not on the ice. Hockey is a zero sum game and the Panthers fare better from a territorial standpoint with Pirri on the ice than off. 

Pirri provides exactly the type of depth scoring this team has been missing since Shawn Matthias left in free agency. He’s also likely the best forward on this list. If the Canucks can get him locked up for cheap, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t elect to do so.

patrick wiercioch 

PATRICK WIERCIOCH

There’s a reason why Patrick Wiercioch is the only defenceman on this list: the Canucks simply don’t have room on their blueline right now. The Canucks currently have more waiver-eligible defencemen on their roster than they do roster spots. That being said, when a young defenceman of Wiercioch’s quality is available for essentially nothing, you make room. Especially if you’re the Canucks.

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Wiercioch may not be a top-four defenceman on a cup contender, but he’s easily one on the Canucks. In fact, fourth is exactly where his unblocked-shot differential last season would have placed him among Canucks defencemen. 

Wiercioch has been an excellent generator and suppressor of shots relative to his spot in the Senators’ lineup , and prior to his disappointing performance last season, looked to be a credible producer of offence from the back-end as well. Should the Canucks manage to secure his services, he would become their best defenceman aged 25 or under not named Ben Hutton. That would go a long way toward shoring up this team’s blue line, and should one of Wiercioch or Hutton be willing to play their off-side, would push Gudbranson down to the third pairing where he likely belongs. 

CONCLUSION: 

What separates the good teams from the great teams perhaps more than the ability to land the big fish in free agency is the ability to identify and sign young, cost-controlled depth. In a salary cap world, you can afford to give in to a superstar’s demands. What you can’t afford to do is overpay players at the bottom of your depth chart. 

Should the Canucks choose to acquire some depth in free agency, they’ll be a bit of everything available: speed, physicality, and both offensive and defensive acumen. What makes this year so intriguing is that some of those players will be  under 25, and with upside to boot. If the team is truly serious about both competing and rebuilding this coming season, this is a unique opportunity they should be keen to seize.

    • Jackson McDonald

      I’m not sure how that affects my credibility at all. By what metric is Gudbranson better? It’s not shot suppression, or generation. It’s not production, considering Wiercioch has already eclipsed Gudbranson’s point totals in almost 100 less games. He’s certainly not better by any possession metrics, and even if you’re inclined towards the eye test, you’ll see that Wiercioch is a better skater and has better puck skills.

      He’s big, too. 6’6″ to Gudbranson’s 6’5″. I guess Gudbranson hits more, so if you think that is more importat than anything I just listed than I guess you could say he’s better.

      I’m not even slagging Gudbranson. Wiercioch is just a legitimately good young defender who’s been criminally underrated.

      • Cageyvet

        Jackson, I have the simplest of answers for you. In a league where defensemen are at a premium, he is available to the highest bidder, although his team could have prevented that and moved him for assets if they didn’t have room on the roster or a taste for his style of play.

        All the analytics in the world do not trump the opinion of the combined NHL GM’s. I’m not saying he can’t play, I’m saying he is considered far less valuable by the true experts compared to Gudbranson, Larrson, etc.

        P.S. You actually are slagging Gudbranson as you are saying Wiercioch would automatically push him to a 3rd pairing “where he likely belongs”. When you make that statement about a player who was playing over 20 minutes in the playoffs, and not due to injuries, I consider that slagging him.

        • Jackson McDonald

          Tbf, the Sens are an internal budget team with a penny-pinching owner. I don’t think they should be the litmus test for how much he’s valued around the league. A lot of good players were not given QOs. That’s more a reflection of the market for depth players with a flat cap and an impending expansion draft than it is an indictment of their play.

          • Cageyvet

            That response does not negate their option to sign and trade, perhaps for draft picks which would preserve their budget. Sorry, it doesn’t wash with me. Also, your response just labelled him a depth player, not top 4…..

          • Jackson McDonald

            You’re overestimating the Sens’ leverage.

            Why give up assets for something if you think you can get it for just cash and a contract slot? Especially when you know you’re dealing with a stingy team? Had the Sens elected to sign him with the intention of trading him, they would have risked being on the hook for all that money if a deal falls through. I don’t see Eugene Melnyk being very keen on that.

            Wiercioch is a top-4 d-man on the Canucks. That is all I said. The Canucks have a fairly weak blueline. There’s a big difference between being a top 4 on the Canucks and being a top 4 on the Predators.

            To make a broad generalization, I’d say he’s anywhere from a 3rd to a 6th D on most teams, from my perspective.

          • Cageyvet

            If you think a defenseman who can be a 3rd on any team in the league (don’t misread this, not all teams, but that valuable to one or more teams) should be left unqualified and allowed to potentially walk away for nothing, then please implore your colleagues to never again bash JB’s asset management.

            I haven’t researched his contract, but you certainly implied this list was all RFA’s who were not qualified, thus allowed to become UFA’s. The Canucks only did this with the Vey’s and Kenins’ of the world, who command little to nothing on the open market.

            My point is not about leverage, or an individual team’s gamble, but if you are suggesting any team should risk their 3rd to 5th defenseman in this market for very little gain (what’s the qualifier, a 10 per cent raise?) then I question your wisdom and anyone who gives your commentary here a thumbs up.

            What you are essentially saying is you’d be OK with the Canucks taking this approach with Hutton, just because they may have a little leverage. No thanks. On the other hand, if he’s your 6th or 7th, go for it.

            I’m at a loss as to how you can reconcile what a valuable asset he is with how casually they are risking exposing him. Something doesn’t add up, and my feeling is he’s not the stud you think he is. If he’s so good, no chance Melnyk is on the hook for the contract, because someone will take him, and surely you can get a later round pick, better than nothing right? Or will we hear this site shame JB endlessly for waiving Corrado and yet defend these moves?

            Lol, I managed to edit my spelling mistake and thumbs down my own comment….some mistakes you can’t undo..

  • Jackson McDonald

    I believe Benning will target a top line guy to play with the Twins, then be creative with the rest of the space…..

    I see him going after guys like Pirri or Connolly that could play middle six forwards. Also I wouldn’t be surprised to see a trade for a controlled forward that will need a pay increase. Lots of teams are at the cap and still want room to chase UFA… Hello Chicago!

    Next year we have more cap room, thanks Miller and Burr, that’s 10 mil right there. If Benning can land a third Twin and build some youth in the middle six, next yes FAs will start to look at the Canucks….

    Year after that the Twins salaries drop off, so look forward to cap space aplenty the next few years.

    BTW don’t be surprised if the Teins sign a series of one year club friendly deals after the big one expires.

    The future is bright no matter the CA doomsday cult!

    • TheRealRusty

      UFAs are absolutely the wrong way to go when when rebuilding a team. You are often paying for past instead of future production. The Canucks management would be wise to take a miss on the top tiered UFAs and exercise caution/patience during this silly season. Circle back after the feeding frenzy and pick up undervalued FAs (who are left) on 1 year contracts. They are often more desperate to sign (lower salary demands) and you can often flip them easier at the trade deadline for picks.

      As well, draft right shot defencemen and undersized scoring forwards after the 3rd round. We really shouldn’t be wasting picks on prospects whose ceilings are as 3rd/4th line players. Swing for the fences with these late picks since it’s a crap shot anyways. We can always pick up utility players for cheap but the costs to acquire scoring and RH defencemen seem to be prohibitive.

      • TheRealRusty

        The Sedins, despite injuries had a productive year in 15/16. Replace Hanson with a natural goal scorer and their production will be back in the 75-85 pt range.

        Sorry don’t like the swing for the fences in lower picks. Finding NHL players in the 3rd round and below is a WIN! 90% of those guys don’t play one NHL game.

        A solid system brings up guys that can play and hopefully fill in one rung above in injury situation.

  • pheenster

    Bennett is the kind of player for whom the phrase “injury-prone” was invented for. His goodbye/thank you message to Penguins fans literally included a joke about not breaking his thumbs while typing the message.

  • TheRealRusty

    The players in this article notwithstanding, these types of UFAs are exactly what we should be targeting this off season in order to fill the 24-26 age gap in our prospect pool. Management should have had an inkling that the salary cap increase would be minimal (due to the lower c$), creating an environment whereby RFAs would not be extended.

    I would have much rather we held onto Hunter instead of giving him up for a bottom 6 utility player like Grunland; which could have easily been acquired without having to give up a potential 20 goal scoring prospect to Calgary.

  • SaneCanucker

    What separates the good teams from the great teams perhaps more than the ability to land the big fish in free agency is the ability to identify and sign young, cost-controlled depth.

    Perhaps true, but the Canucks are up to their ass in young, cheap, bottom-six players. What they need now is one or two premium players to give them a legitimate second line.

  • Jackson McDonald

    What about Joe Colborne from Calgary. I heard Calgary will likely resign him, but if not he’s 6’5, 220 lbs, skates well and had 19 goals and 25 or so assists last year. Can play centre and wing.

    • TheRealRusty

      Completely agree. He’s still only 26 too. I would add a lot of the guys off this list too (if they were to be had for cheap). They are excellent depth pieces.

      I think I’d be more excited about signing a number of these guys over some of the higher priced FA types that’re considered tier 2.

  • TheRealRusty

    Why did the Leafs qualify Frank Corrado when they are just going to put him on waivers….I guess the not playing him for 3/4 of the season would have been a bad look.

  • Dirty30

    Should sign, can sign and do sign are all different ideas and outcomes.

    The first is dreaming, the second is what’s available in cap, roster and signed contract spaces and the third is what anyone of those players gets offered by other teams.

    If the Canucks want any of these guys they will need to air decent and reasonable offers and that might not be enough.

    Pirri looks intriguing but is he Etem or Kassian? Weir pouty would be a good pick up – can never have enough D

    I would stay away from Bennet — the West dig and the travel would likely kill him.

    And any ex Flames not named Baer can go crap in the woods!