The Vancouver Canucks enter free agency with close to $11-million in salary cap space to burn and Jim Benning is ready to break the bank for the right top six winger. As eager as Benning may be, though, there are no guarantees in free agency and playoff push or not there’s always the distinct possibility that they strike out on their primary targets, a list which includes Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer and Mikkel Boedker.
While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest as much, but missing out on these players could work out in the Canucks favour because of the alternative avenues of roster development it would force them to unearth from the bargain bin. As frenzied as free agency promises to be when the festivities kick off Friday, a suddenly slow growing salary cap, Las Vegas expansion team and a limited number of teams with significant cap space could conspire against a number of free agents looking to cash in on new contracts.
There’s always enough money for the top guys, but there is only so much of it to go around. Once the top players get their slice of the pie, there often isn’t much left. Compounding matters are the internal budgets certain teams impose on themselves — like the Devils, Coyotes and Hurricanes. Then you have the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets as examples of teams that are slightly less frugal than their thrifty peers, but also internally budgeted. This all adds up to a situation where a number of decent players will likely be available for pennies on the dollars for those patient enough to wait.
The best case scenario for the Canucks in the clearance aisle is a potential top six winger on a one-year contract. If that player can score at a top-six rate, the Canucks will reap rewards in the trade market even if they aren’t competitive. It also buys time for the next wave of Canucks talent, like Jake Virtanen and Brock Boeser, without hindering their ability to field a competitive team when those players are in their prime years. Cap flexibility matters with the expansion draft looming, which says nothing of the new contracts they’ll have to draft for Bo Horvat, Ben Hutton and Jacob Markstrom. With that in mind, here are seven players who fit the bill.
David Perron – LW/RW – Shoots Right
David Perron really struggled in Pittsburgh to start last season — scoring only 4 goals in 43 games — but once he was traded to the Ducks he regained his scoring touch and went on to score 8 goals in 28 games to begin resembling the player we’ve seen in the past. In many ways Perron has failed to live up to expectations after making the NHL as a teenager but now he’s 28 and entering free agency after having put together two mediocre seasons by his standards, failing to reach the 20 goal mark since scoring 28 goals in 2014. The Canucks have a clear need on the right side, especially on their power play, and it’s not crazy to suggest Perron as a possible fit with the Sedin twins on the first unit as a right handed shot. Perron could be looking for a one or two-year contract in order to set himself up for another potential payday before he enters his 30s.
Thomas Vanek – RW – Shoots Right
Vanek is a player you stay away from in free agency unless he signs a one year contract. All the same, I can think of worse players to take a flyer on if you’re looking for a relatively low-risk gamble. It would be risky business giving Vanek anything more than a one-year contract because he’s already 32-years-old and regressing as an all around player. One thing Vanek can still do however is find the back of the net at a fairly impress rate despite only scoring 18 goals last season. Vanek’s shooting percentage was 12.3 in 2015-2016, not far off from his career average of 14.4% and Vanek’s 5 v 5 goals per 60 minutes is .67, which is better than what Boedker, Ladd and Brouwer managed last season. Vanek can still score goals at an efficient rate and the Sedin twins are looking for a finisher with a right-handed shot on the power play. Vanek may not be the impact player he once was but he’s the type of player who can still convert if he has an opening.
Kris Versteeg – RW – Shoots Right
We may not think of Kris Vertseeg as a potential top sx winger but he’s been a solid second line player in his career and is coming off a 15 goal season where he scored .71 goals per 60 minutes 5 v 5, which is within striking distance of the .81 goals Lucic put up. Versteeg is already 30-years-old and has banked a significant amount of money in his career so he could simply be looking for the best fit and a chance to win, but if he’s searching for a short-term deal on a team where he can get an opportunity to score over 20 goals, Vancouver could be a wise choice. Versteeg would get a shot in the top six and would receive ample power-play time. A solid season in Vancouver could allow him to enter the summer of 2018 with a chance to earn one more big contract before he enters the twilight of his career.
Lee Stempniak – RW – Shoots Right
Stempniak is coming off one of the best seasons of his career after scoring 19 goals and 51 points but at the same time he’s 33 years old and has been inconsistent in past seasons which could work against him in free agency. It’s more likely Stempniak gets a two-year contract from some team but even a two-year deal wouldn’t necessarily be the worst investment for a team desperate for someone to fill a hole in the top six. Teams have shown they value Stempniak at the deadline, last season he was traded to the Bruins by the Devils for a second round pick and a fourth round pick, in 2015 he was traded by the Rangers to the Jets for prospect Carl Klingberg and in 2014 the Flames sent him to the Penguins for a third round pick.
Brandon Pirri – C/LW/RW – Shoots Left
It’s somewhat alarming seeing the Panthers give up on Pirri a year after he scored 22 goals in 49 games but the Ducks appear set to do the same with the 25-year-old forward after declining to give him a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. Pirri is tied with Sean Monahan and Brandon Saad with goals per 60 5 v 5 at .95 over the last three years. One drawback for the Canucks is Pirri not being a natural right winger and he doesn’t have the right handed shot the Canucks are looking for on the power play but PIrri is an interesting talent and could be a high-value pickup if he can realize his potential.
Jiri Hudler – C/RW – Shoots Left
If Hudler had become a free agent last summer after he scored 31 goals for the Flames he would have been one of the most sought-after players in free agency but he failed to replicate that season and find himself in the secondary market coming off a 16 goal season at the age of 32. Despite scoring 15 fewer goals than he did in 2015, Hudler compares nicely to Lucic and Eriksson when it comes to goals per 60 minutes at 5 v 5, scoring at a clip of .79, which is just a hair behind Lucic at .81 and Eriksson with .85. Hudler is talented and smart enough to find a way to work with the Sedin twins on the power play but Hudler is a left-handed shot and probably isn’t an ideal fit for the Canucks top unit. What Hudler can do is play all three forward positions while providing some skill to a top six group desperate for some talent. It’s conceivable that a team offers Hudler a multi-year contract but he’s not a player the Canucks should pursue beyond one year, or two at the very most.
Teddy Purcell – RW – Shoots Right
Purcell only mustered 14 goals last season and he may not score 20 goals but at the very least you know you’re getting a forward capable of scoring 30-50 points in a top nine role. He wouldn’t be the most natural fit to play on the power play for the Canucks but he offers a right handed shot and decent vision with the puck. At 5 v 5 Purcell compares favourably to Boedker and Brouwer when it comes to goal scoring per 60 minutes with a rate of .6. Purcell wouldn’t be my first choice but his contract would be much less onerous than a potential multi-year contract to a player such as Troy Brouwer who may provide the same level of production next season for appreciably more money and term.