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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.