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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports

How the Canucks can Weaponize their Cap Space and Shore up their Goaltending

The Dallas Stars made a splash earlier this week, acquiring the rights to pending unrestricted free agent goaltender Ben Bishop from the Los Angeles Kings.

This might seem like an insignificant transaction from the Vancouver Canucks’ perspective, but there’s more than meets the eye. Let’s dive into why this might open a window for the Canucks to play salary vulture and pick off pieces from the Stars’ sickly crease.

The obvious implication is that Dallas is going to sign Bishop — who played his junior hockey in Texas and preferred the Stars to other suitors in any trade from Tampa Bay — to shore up their single greatest area of need going into this off-season: goaltending.

We can safely assume that means adding somewhere in the $5-million to $6-million range annually for a not yet determined number of years. Under normal circumstances, that’s not an issue in and of itself. Nothing about the way the Stars have approached their goaltending for the last three-plus seasons has been ordinary, though.

You’d never guess it by looking at the Stars finish last season as the second most permissive team by surrendering goals, but they led the league in salary cap expenditure on goaltending. The duo of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen combined for $10.4-million in cap charges and led the Stars to a league-worst .893 save percentage in all situations. And they’re both signed for next season.

It’s hard to argue that there’s a more inefficient way to go about building your last line of defence than the Stars have. They can add Bishop’s $5-million-plus salary annually and still leave off better for it without erasing one of Lehtonen or Niemi from their books.

I don’t think that’s the plan, though. In fact, I’m of the mind that this Bishop acquisition, if nothing else, signals Stars general manager Jim Nill’s conviction about turning his team around, and fast. What other reason does someone acquire a 30-year-old goaltender who can command the type of high-end starter’s salary a goaltender with Bishop’s resume surely will.

That’s hard to do with close to $15-million tied up in goaltending. The most obvious answer is to just buyout Niemi, who’s buyout cap charge is $1.1-million fewer than Lehtonen for the following two seasons. Again, though, that doesn’t fix the Stars problem. If they chart that course, they’re still investing about $12.4-million, and that’s using a conservative estimate on Bishop’s figure.

The Stars want to win next season, and winning in the NHL is the ultimate efficiency contest from the general manager’s perspective. For the Stars, a team with something of an internal budget, investing as much money as they currently project to on goaltending next season might disqualify them. It’s an albatross around their necks with the potential to suffocate Stanley Cup aspirations.

This is where a rebuilding franchise with cap space and financial flexibility comes to the rescue. Can you think of a team that checks those boxes?

With just Bo Horvat and Erik Gudbranson as priority free agents this offseason, Vancouver has about $17-million in cap space. If we adjust that figure to account for the likelihood of the Vegas Golden Knights taking Luca Sbisa’s $3.6-million off the books, that number is closer to $21-million.

The Canucks have the flexibility — so that’s not an issue. And if we want to approach this from a hockey perspective, hell, they have an immediate need for a stopgap goaltender to at least work in tandem with Jacob Markstrom. They have an alibi.

I don’t know what saving the Stars from anywhere between $4.5-million to $5.9-million in a year’s salary is worth, but I know it’s worth finding out. In this case, even, it’s worth dictating.

There can’t be a long list of teams capable of pulling off this trade. I just don’t think your average rebuilding team can sell ownership on this kind of short-term pain for long-term profit. If the Canucks can get ownership on board with this kind of trade, they are the market.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning doesn’t even need to look outside his division for a precedent. Last year the Arizona Coyotes picked up Pavel Datsyuk’s cap charge (not the salary itself) for the final year of his deal from the Detroit Red Wings to move up five draft picks in the draft. The difference in five picks? Arizona selected Jacob Chychrun, and he played 68 games for them this season; Detroit selected Dennis Cholowski, who just left college after an up-and-down season and has a long road ahead of him to the NHL.

How much higher are the stakes if the Canucks are leveraging their cap space to Dallas to move up from fifth overall to third, as one example? One care dare to dream.

Much of this hinges on the Canucks’ willingness to double-down on short-term pain. Their language this offseason suggests they’ve at least accepted losing as an inevitability. Trading for a dead weight goaltender like Lehtonen or Niemi is a move that actively makes the Canucks worse. It’s tanking.

At the end of the day, though, Vancouver’s ownership holds the cards here. This type of trade is a lot easier to suggest from #mybasement because it’s not my money on the line. And to that exact end, I certainly couldn’t begrudge the Canucks for not being on board.

Can you think of a better way for the Canucks to announce their investment in a rebuild, though? They talk about that word — the one we make so much about — as something they’re willing to let the fan base use as a rallying point. Why not start it with a bang?

  • @RationalCanuck

    Going to combine my WWYDW answer and your astute points around Dallas’ goalie clutter/cap crunch and suggest the following:

    Offer Tanev and our 2nd Round Pick 2017 ( 33rd overall)
    for
    Lehtonen and Dallas 3rd & 39th overall in 2017.

    Canucks get to pick their top D and Top C on their 2017 Draft board (I’d love Mittlestadt or Glass & Makar or Liljegren) and fill 2nd goalie spot with “weaponized” cap space.

    Dallas gets out from under their most expensive goalie, upgrades their 2nd round pick and gets a shutdown RHS D to stabilize their back end during Seguin/Benn peak years.

      • pheenster

        Agreed. they would need to include Nichuskin (remember when CA wanted us to draft him over Horvat and then wouldn’t shut up about it for three years?) and another prospect to make that fly. Even that would require some consideration.

    • Dan B

      The picks are pretty much a wash. Tanev for the 3# pick is an awful deal. Look at the Hall trade. Hall is better than a #3 pick in a weak draft year, and Tanev is way better than Larson. Having to take Lehtonen’s salary makes the deal even worse.

      • truthseeker

        More like we offer
        Tanev, (and MAYBE a 3rd or 4th round pick) and we take one of their goalies + Radek Faksa, + their first round pick, plus a pick next year. They get the D they so desperately need plus they get relief.

        If we don’t get back a producing NHL young center then Tanev should not be traded.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    If Vegas can sign any RFA without compensating the affected team, do the Canucks have to worry about Vegas signing Horvat out from under them? Should Canucks be trying to wrap up a deal as soon as possible with Horvat?

    • DJ_44

      We would if Vegas could sign any RFA without compensating the affected team. However they cannot. In fact they are restricted to drafting 15 (i think) non signed RFAs that are unprotected by their teams (think Gaunce, Boucher). Horvat will be protected by the Canucks. The only risk of not signing Bo are potential offer sheets (and the canucks would surely match); and that possibility is pretty low.

      • Neil B

        There is no actual restriction on RFAs in the expansion draft. However, Vegas must select a minimum of 20 players who *are* under contract for the 2017-18 season (so, only 10 FAs, max). Further, if they sign an RFA (or UFA) who had a valid 2016-17 contract with an NHL team, that signing *is* their selection from the former team. Also, to my understanding, any pre-draft FA signing is *not* included in the 60% ($43.8 mill) minimum salary requirement from the expansion draft.

  • defenceman factory

    Lot’s of intriguing ideas here on how to use cap space to acquire more picks and unfortunately a bunch more with the boring repetitive whine about Benning’s incompetence.

    Both narratives don’t adequately factor in that the Canucks are a business. I think everyone expects the Canucks to lose money next year and taking on one of the Dallas goalies means they will lose more. JD appropriately acknowledged this in his article. Wins bring ticket sales. Without Tanev the financial loss gets even bigger. Resigning Miller has to be moderately enticing for ownership. A new coach, new systems and special teams and a bunch of young forwards playing in front of a semi competent defence and decent goal tending means the losses might be at least interesting and some tickets get sold.

    I hope the Canucks can maneuver some more picks but lets not pretend Aquilini’s wallet doesn’t factor into
    the extent Benning tanks this team next season.

  • Neil B

    1. Niemi has a 15-team no trade list. That’s what, a 50% chance that we’re not on it? Does adding Vegas to the league increase or decrease our odds?

    2. Lehtonen has a modified NTC; since the team missed the playoffs, he can submit an 8-team list of no-fly zones. We on that list, too?

    3. Ownership.

    So, yeah. That’s not happening. However…. However, we might have a dance partner in Washington. They need cap space. They need to give raises to Alzner, Shattenkirk, Grubauer, probably Orlov, Burakovski, Kuznetsov, and one of Oshie or Williams. If we took Johansson and Orpik off their hands, that would give us another decent middle-6 F (a natural C who plays both wings) and a dud contract for two seasons. Washington would have a hair over $10 mill to distribute.

    Orpik would probably be a 4th-6th; essentially a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, of course we’re swapping players. Johansson would require an actual investment. Plus, he’d be 27 when the next dance starts, so he’d be over 30 when we were competitive again. Still, a second and a couple decent prospects *might* do it, if they were desperate enough to clear cap space.

    Of course, that’s all assuming that Washington doesn’t just give Vegas a 2nd to take Orpik in the expansion draft.

    • Spiel

      Niemi and Lehtonen will probably want to go somewhere where they have a chance of playing significant minutes. They both know that in Dallas, they will be Bishop’s backup. I’d imagine that when they sit down and look at the goaltending situations around the league, the Canucks will find their way on to at least one of their lists. Calgary will be a team that is likely on both their lists.