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Grading The Canucks’ Free Agent Signings

The Canucks generated buzz on the first day of NHL free agency by adding five new players into the mix. The early reviews out of Vancouver were quietly optimistic, but opinions among the national media were more mixed. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News among their notable detractors, labeling the Canucks “losers” for their performance on July 1st:

It seemed as though the Canucks thought they might be able to snow everyone by making a flurry of moves. Just because you’re looking busy doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing much. The Canucks, it seems, don’t really have a clear direction on where they want to go and they appear to be still clinging to the fact they can rebuild on the fly while they still have the Sedin twins in their lineup. The Canucks were identified as a loser on July 1 this year and retain that dubious distinction.

The sentiment was echoed by the TSN panel, including ex-NHL and Leafs Lunch host Jeff O’Neill, who also selected the Canucks as his losers of day one of free agency:

“I’m gonna say the Vanouver Canucks are my loser just because I don’t even know really what they are. I see some of their pressers and they talk about being in a rebuild and some of their young guys… but then I feel this sense that they have this obligation that they gotta provide the Sedins with some type of players so the Sedins are gonna do something… make a playoff run… it’s simply not going to happen and I have no idea what the Canucks are as of right now.”

To be fair, they’re merely parroting what’s been said by a number of Canucks fans for the past three years or so, but bot Campbell and O’Neill appear to be about 4-5 months behind on the happenings in Vancouver. The Canucks appear, for the time being, to have charted a course for a more traditional, long-term rebuild, something that deserves tentative praise.

This isn’t the first time Ken Campbell and Jeff O’Neill have struggled to understand something. Whether it’s the ins & outs of how Corsi works and what it’s supposed to measure, or how a tweet comparing the Sedin twins to pussycats is going to be interpreted, the two have a long history of struggling to grasp things the rest of us can pick up pretty quickly.

Canucks Army has traditionally been an educational space, so in the interest of higher learning, I thought I would dive into each individual signing and explaining the reasoning behind each one. I’ve even attached helpful letter grades to each player to give an overall score of that player’s costs and benefits to the Canucks’ organization:

Alex Burmistrov: 

I have to admit, with all the interesting reclamation projects on the market this offseason, I was a little disappointed, and maybe even confused that this was the direction in which the Canucks chose to go. At 25, it’s unlikely Burmistrov has much more to show at the NHL level, and what he has shown is that he’s more or less a replacement-level forward.

Burmistrov once looked like a fairly promising youngster in the Winnipeg Jet’s organization, but his underlying numbers never really improved, and his ability to produce offense stagnated. That is, until he was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Coyotes and put up a surprising 14 points in 26 games to close out the season.

I’m not convinced Burmistrov’s late-season surge is anything more than a mirage, but this is exactly the type of bet the Canucks should be placing right now. Even if there were other, more intriguing options available, Burmistrov comes at a dirt-cheap price tag and offers a potentially decent level of reward for next to no risk.

Grade: B

Michael Del Zotto: 

Somehow, in the Canucks’ search for a replacement for Luca Sbisa, they managed to find one of the few options on the open market who’s arguably worse than Sbisa from a defensive standpoint. In his own zone, Del Zotto can be careless with the puck, lax on defensive coverage, and prone to mistakes. Luckily, he more than makes up for those deficiencies, putting up top-pairing-level offensive numbers at even-strength. In that sense, he represents a sizeable upgrade on Sbisa on the left side.

Del Zotto will give the Canucks some much-needed offensive punch from the back-end, as well as helping insulate 23-year-old Ben Hutton, who was thrown to the wolves last season in a tough second-pairing role. At two years and an average annual value of $3 million, Del Zotto’s contract is short and reasonable, as well as highly tradeable, and has the added advantage of buying the Canucks some time to bring Olli Juolevi along slowly.

Grade: A

Sam Gagner:

If there’s been one signing to quibble about, this is the one. Gagner was never really able to live up to the potential he flashed in his rookie year, but he’s still a very useful player, and traditionally one that’s been tremendously underrated. That is, until his most recent season in Columbus, where he was able to carve out a niche as a powerplay specialist, and finished the season with 50 points in 81 games.

At three years and an AAV of $3.15 million, the value on Gagner’s contract is fair. The real question is whether or not it really makes sense for the Canucks at this stage in their life-cycle. Gagner would have been a tremendous addition to a contender, but the Canucks are closer to contention for a lottery pick than a playoff berth. Gagner’s industry and the Canucks’ organizational makeup could potentially conspire to make Gagner’s deal look a little silly by year 3, but he’ll offer the Canucks some insurance and a contingency plan for Henrik Sedin should they need one.

If things go the way the organization is hoping they should have a number of centres competing for Gagner’s spot by the time he’s nearing the end of his contract, and it would be a shame to see a player like Adam Gaudette or Elias Pettersson get blocked from progressing into a top-nine role because players like Gagner and Sutter are standing in their way.

Still, it’s hard to get too upset about a three-year contract at league-average salary with no trade protection. While the fit may not be a natural one, at least the Canucks won’t have to worry about rushing any young players into the lineup now. And if Gagner plays well, he may even be worth a decent package at the trade deadline a year or two down the road.

Grade: C+

Anders Nilsson: 

In spite of how much controversy Ryan Miller’s contract and status as undisputed #1 goaltender caused over his time in Vancouver, he was the least of the team’s worries during his tenure here, and actually exceeded expectations, even if he never lived up to his $6 million cap hit. With that in mind, it’s likely that the Canucks actually downgraded in net this offseason. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Given the Canucks’ current position, they can afford to sacrifice stability in favor of upside, and icing a Markstrom-Nilsson tandem next season will do just that. Nilsson is far from established, but had an impressive .923 save percentage in 26 games last season and looks like a good bet to at least perform at the level of an average backup for the length of his contract. He’ll also provide the Canucks with some insurance on Jacob Markstrom, who hasn’t proven he’s capable of taking on a starter’s workload.

Next season, the Canucks will spend only about $100,000 more on two goaltenders than they did on Ryan Miller. For a team that never needed to spend big money on goaltending, Nilsson looks like a worthwhile gamble that won’t cost them anything in the long run.

Grade: B

Patrick Wiercioch :

It’s probably a little dramatic to call the signing of a depth-defender who may not even make an impact the best signing of Jim Benning’s tenure in Vancouver, but I’m still tempted to do it. Wiercioch put up strong underlying for most of his six-year stint in Ottawa, but he struggled to find a consistent spot in the Senators’ lineup, and was a frequent healthy scratch.

Wiercioch’s possession numbers atrophied during his season in Colorado, but given that the Avalanche were a historically awful team last season, it’s likely his poor showing was a one-off. The deal costs the Canucks next to nothing, and has the potential to pay dividends in the long run, giving the Canucks added flexibility on the blueline and the potential make a trade at the deadline without exposing any of their prospects before they’re ready.

Grade: A+

Overall Grade: B+. The Canucks have been the targets of frequent criticism since Jim Benning has taken over as GM, most of it earned. But they appear to have finally decided which side of the rebuild/compete divide to plant their flag on. The signings they made on Saturday aren’t designed to turn the team into a contender overnight.

If you pay attention for longer than 30 seconds, it’s actually pretty easy to understand what the Canucks are doing. They’re in the process of rebuilding, but lack NHL-ready prospects to step into the lineup, especially on the blue line. They addressed the departures of Luca Sbisa, Nikita Tryamkin, and Ryan Miller, added an insurance policy for Henrik Sedin, and increased their pool of tradeable assets. They didn’t tie themselves to anything long-term, and most importantly, they didn’t put themselves in a position like the one they were in two years ago where they were forced to rush prospects into the NHL. If the Canucks were “losers” on Saturday, one can’t help but wonder what they could have possibly done to avoid such a label.

  • Jabs

    This was a very good and very fair assessment.

    I liked the signing of Gagner. He has generally been quite good on faceoffs and has been a shootout specialist.
    He allows the Canucks to not have to be Chaput’ed to death this year so I welcome him here.

  • Silverback

    Jeff O’Neill is a blowhards who likes the sound of his own voice. Doesn’t have clue about anything canucks. Does no research before making any comments . Complete idiot.

  • Gregthehockeynut

    Gagner- PP help yes!
    Delzotto Wiercioch- pp/pk help yes!
    Nilsson -youth in net better fit than Miller
    Burmistrov? bottom six pk checker faceoff specialist? At 180lbs and a poor career faceoff win percentage he is a long shot to make the team in that role and I don’t see him making the top six. Where does he fit?

  • Missing Lou

    Hey what race was Donald Brashear? Anyone? You guys may be forgetting who the new head coach is. I think we will see the comets in the NHL that Green thinks are ready.

  • RandomScrub

    This article fails to prove any point you may attempt to be making. While nobody (rational) would deny that racism exists and black NHL players have commonly been targets of it from fans, mostly (as that article shows), or the narratives that grow out of social media, the claim that you are making puts the onus on you to substantiate that Travis Green is down on Jordan Subban for racially motivated reasons, which you’ve so far failed to do.