While the average training camp typically provides enough media fodder all on its own, there are a couple of extra wrinkles for the Canucks this season. One is that Troy Stecher, who probably should have been around ninth or tenth on the Canucks’ defensive depth, has been pretty clearly better than all but three or four Canuck defencemen this preseason, opening up the conversation about waiving players that we didn’t think we’re going to get waived.
A second wrinkle that has caught Vancouver’s attention in the past couple of days is the games played threshold for exposure in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft. How serious of an issue is this for the Canucks, and what sort of sneaky ways are there to work around it?
Before we dive in, let’s review the expansion rules. I wrote a pretty succinct summary of the process on the day that the rules were revealed to the public back in June, which can be found here. Here’s a quick bulleted breakdown of how it works.
Las Vegas will pick 30 players, one from each other NHL team.
They will pick 14 forwards, nine defencemen, and three goaltenders.
20 of the 30 selected players must be under contract for the 2017-18 season.
Each NHL team can protect either seven forwards, three defencemen, and a goalie; or eight skaters and a goalie.
Players who have No-Movement clauses for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons (described as “currently effective and continuing”) must be protected.
Players who are just completing their first or second professional season (NHL or AHL) are exempt.
All teams must expose one defenseman who is a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
All teams must expose two forwards who are a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
All teams must expose one goaltender who is under contract in 2017-18 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2017-18.
There are other additional considerations relevant to the salary cap, buy outs, and qualifying RFA’s that aren’t relevant to the present discussion.
As we’ve discussed previously, it isn’t difficult to nail down the majority of most teams’ protection lists, and the Canucks are no exception. Here’s a list that should come as no surprise:
Forwards: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter, Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Anton Rodin
Defence: Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Erik Gudbranson
Goaltender: Jacob Markstrom
Note: In my previous list, I had Eriksson labeled as “offseason free agent signing”, and of course he’s a no-brainer now. I had question marks for the seventh forward, but after what we’ve seen in preseason, I’m willing to put Anton Rodin on this list already.
This leaves a long list of players who could be exposed: Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa, Philip Larsen, Emerson Etem, Markus Granlund, Brendan Gaunce, Alex Grenier, Alex Biega, Tom Nilsson.
While Las Vegas would have the option of taking any of these players, the Canucks must still comply with the games played threshold rules, and therein lies our current “problem”.
Who Meets the Games Played Threshold
We’ll breeze by the fact that forwards are not a concern. Derek Dorsett played 71 games with the Canucks last year, and thus is already above the threshold – he doesn’t even have to play a game this year (a guy can dream). Jannik Hansen requires just three games to meet the threshold, given you your two forwards right there. But, for the sake of being thorough, Emerson Etem requires 12 games to meet the threshold, Markus Granlund requires 27, Brendan Gaunce and Alex Grenier require 40. Like I said, forward are not a concern.
On defence, things get trickier. As it stands, none of the defencemen that the Canucks would look to expose are currently above the threshold. The closest is Alex Biega, who played 51 games last season – he needs just 19 more, however he isn’t expected to make the club out of camp. Luca Sbisa missed half of last season with injury, playing 41 games – he requires 29 more games to reach the threshold.
I’ve seen/heard rumblings of this issue over the past few days, but this morning it really seemed to come to a head on TSN 1040’s midday show, as Matt Sekeres and Blake Price got into it over what the Canucks will need to do to make sure that their top players are protected.
— Matthew Sekeres (@mattsekeres) October 5, 2016
Sekeres insisted that the Canucks must make absolutely that they meet the threshold as soon as possible, and in that vein, he postulated that the should – and in fact, will – keep Alex Biega to start the season in order to ensure that he will hit his 19 games.
You might be under the impression that Sekeres has forgotten about Luca Sbisa, who, despite been maligned among a good portion of the fanbase, is all but assured to not only break camp with the Canucks, but start on the third pairing. In fact, that isn’t the case: Mr. Sekeres is just being extra cautious, and is worried that a catastrophic injury might take Sbisa out of game action before he hits his 29 games.
Surely, if that unlikely and unfortunate event did take place, the Canucks could just call up Alex Biega, likely with plenty of time left in the season, and make sure he gets into his allotment of games. However, Sekeres is further concerned that Alex Biega would get claimed on waivers if the Canucks tried to send him down before the season began.
What we’re discussing here are two highly unlikely scenarios: one in which Luca Sbisa misses at least 53 games due to injury, and another in which Alex Biega, a lower depth defenceman who has terrible puck possession and offensive numbers and whose greatest asset is his work ethic, will get claimed by another NHL team that will be forced to keep him on their NHL roster. The likelihood of either of these events are occurring is vanishingly small. The likelihood of both of them occurring is almost too small to even bother contemplating.
Yet contemplate they did, with Sekeres going so far as to encourage the idea that waiving Andrey Pedan, a 22-year old 6-foot-5 defenceman who was both the hardest shooter AND the fastest skater at the Canucks 2016 Superskills competition (yes, he outskated Jannik fricken Hansen), is the prudent move, so that they can wedge Alex Biega into a lineup despite the fact that there are clearly a handful of better bottom pairing options, JUST IN CASE Luca Sbisa breaks every bone in his body before the Christmas break comes around. This is a bad, bad, bad take.
The Cost of Keeping Biega
With a probable bottom pairing of Sbisa and Philip Larsen, and extra defencemen Pedan and Nikita Tryamkin, things are going to get messy if you want to keep a different defenceman. Here are those options:
Don’t do this. It’s not that Pedan is a surefire bet to be a stud defencemen, or even that he’s guaranteed to get claimed – it’s probably more likely that he’s passes through. But why take the chance when you really don’t have to? I for one believe that Pedan still has plenty more to show in the NHL, and I’d rather him show it with Vancouver.
Reassigning Nikita Tryamkin
This actually isn’t that bad of an idea, given that he’s been a little underwhelming in preseason and could use some AHL seasoning. However, it’s well known that Tryamkin’s entry-level NHL contract comes with a nifty little out-clause that allows him to return to the KHL if the Canucks don’t keep him. Again though, would this been the worst thing for his development? He could just comes back again next year.
Waiving Luca Sbisa
I’m sure there are plenty of Vancouverites salivating over the idea of have a Sbisa-free Canucks squad. Of course, he’s the other guy that we’re trying to push to the threshold, so one of Biega or Sbisa HAS TO BE in the lineup, and to be honest, I’m not sure that Sbisa isn’t the better option. Besides, we all know that Jim Benning isn’t going to waive that $3.6 million dollar contract.
Waiving Philip Larsen
Larsen has been underwhelming so far in preseason play. Though he’s shown the ability to distribute pucks on the power play and force point through, his defensive play has been a bit alarming, particularly in the corners. That said, he’s pretty much bullet proof as far as this conversation goes. As a prized offseason acquisition that has had his tires pumped by Canucks management for months, the worst Larsen can do is play himself out of the top six. They aren’t waiving him.
Carrying Nine Defencemen
There’s nothing in the rule book preventing the Canucks from keeping nine defencemen on the roster, except of course that it requires them to go down to 12 forwards. This isn’t advisable at the best of times, with teams preferring the flexibility of a 13th forward that can come in and out of the lineup against certain teams. Furthermore, the forward group is having its own issues with numbers, as Gaunce looks to have earned a spot, and a couple of the PTO players, Jack Skille and Tuomo Ruutu, are making strong cases as well. In order to keep two of the above players, there’s already consideration being given to start an injured Jake Virtanen in Utica and waiving Emerson Etem, who’s been disappointing so far in September. And that still brings you to 13. 12 forwards is not a viable option, nor would it be a prudent one.
None of these moves are particularly palatable, with Tryamkin going back to Europe maybe being the least bad of five bad options. Even then, if you’re going to be making extra space, it really should be to accommodate Troy Stecher, who has been phenomenal thus far. Certainly not Biega. This was supposed to be a meritocracy after all.
Even if Biega was claimed and Sbisa did go down with injury, there are still better options that risking Andrey Pedan.
For starters, waive Alex Biega. There are no reasons to keep him around at this point, he’s better off as a vocal mentor in Utica where he can be recalled if the Canucks get a half dozen injuries on the blueline (don’t rule it out).
Another solution is to find another player that is currently on the market that is close to or has already met the threshold, and sign him to a two-way that goes through next season. Where would one find such a player?
Enter Matt Bartkowski! Yes, the very same Bartkowski that I advocated for staying far away from last season. For reasons that nobody can really understand, Bartkowski played 81 games last season – even if he doesn’t play a single NHL game this year, he’s already fodder for expansion exposure. And look, he happens to be available.
Bartkowski was just released from his PTO with the Senators. How did he play 80 games with the Canucks last season?
— Satiar Shah (@SatiarShah) October 5, 2016
There’s going to be a logjam in the defensive ranks, and since it’s Bartkowski, it would be best if he were waived and sent to toil in Utica. Perhaps a league minimum deal with a high AHL salary will woo Bartkowski and make him feel better about being an expansion pawn, like what the Canucks did with Richard Bachman’s contract.
Now, I’m not actually suggesting that the Canucks re-sign Bartkowski – we just got off that creaky roller coaster. I’m simply pointing out that there are other options out there. The Canucks could instead choose to trade for a player to expose, perhaps at the deadline for a draft pick, although this involves giving up an asset and is thus less than ideal. The waiver wire is another possibility, as there will likely be some veteran defencemen trying to slip through at some point in the season. And again, that’s making massive assumptions on the likelihoods of a Sbisa injury and Biega getting claimed.
One thing that we can pretty much be certain of though is that the Canucks are by no means handcuffed to Biega at the start of this season, and they don’t have to risk losing a 22-year old defenceman to do it. Even in the most dire of scenarios, there are still other – and better – options available.
When people are discussing Alex Biega as an expansion decoy, maybe it’s time for me to put the phone down and enjoy my vacation.
— J.D. Jerk (@JDylanBurke) October 5, 2016