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Photo Credit: Vancouver Canucks/Twitter

The Canucks Can’t Afford To Keep Making Mistakes Like the Gagner Contract

Just 15 months ago, Sam Gagner was the Canucks big free agent addition.

It feels like it’s been a lifetime.

The decision is, in some ways, an indication the front office is willing to move on from its mistakes. Whether it’s due to Gagner’s own deficiencies or the team’s unwillingness to put him in a position to succeed, it was clear from the beginning he was a poor fit.

Unfortunately, the team also should have seen this coming, and the decision to cut bait with Gagner is also an indication of just how far the Canucks’ pro scouting department has to come if they want to be competitive in the near future.

Throwing away money in free agency is something smart teams have learned not to do. Teams can get away with the occasional big play for a truly elite player like John Tavares or Marian Hossa, or they can try to improve along the margins by signing undervalued depth players. Either way, for a team to have sustained success, they have to be smart in free agency – even if that means doing nothing at all.

Let’s use the most recent Stanley Cup champions as an example. Out of the 26 players who appeared on the roster for the Washington Capitals during the Cup Final, 6 were acquired through free agency (Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brooks Orpik, Alex Chiasson, and Jay Beagle), for a combined annual average value of $16.46 million. Contrast that with the Canucks, who will also have six players on their roster this season, but are paying them a combined $23.875 million per year.

There are two obvious reasons why free agency is the worst of the three ways NHL teams acquire new players. First, players that are not under team control have more leverage in contract negotiations, which leads teams to give up more money and term than they would to players within their organization. More importantly, free agents are on average much older than players acquired through the draft or via trade. The vast majority of the players available to a team through free agency are in their late twenties or older. Given what we know about aging curves, this makes them less valuable . According to research conducted by EvolvingWild of Hockey-Graphs, players decline rapidly after age thirty:

It’s a big part of the reason teams are usually advised to avoid long-term deals for older players: the first few years of that contract may not look so bad, but by the end of the deal your asset had depreciated dramatically, and that’s assuming age hasn’t caught up to them to the point that they have to stop playing entirely. That’s why, if teams do decide to wade into the waters of free agency, they should only swing for the fences when their window is open. A team looking to win a Stanley Cup in year one or two of a newly-inked deal can usually live with the drop-off in years three, four, five, etc. That’s why outside of the rare case of John Tavares-calibre free agent, these players are usually acquired to be complimentary players. Surround the strong young core you’ve built through the draft with good signings and you get an up-and-coming contender like the Winnipeg Jets; surround it with over-the-hill free agent signings and you get a perpetual disappointment like the Edmonton Oilers.

So why have the Canucks, a team miles away from contention, consistently been big spenders on July 1? Why is a team projected to finish in the bottom five going to spend more money on players acquired through free agency this season than last year’s Stanley Cup Winners?

The team is quickly running out of excuses for wasting vast sums of money every year in early July. At first, the market was told it needed to patient due to the dearth of young talent in the system. To their credit, the team has graduated multiple young players to the NHL, but the on-ice product has only gotten worse over time. Then some argued the signings were necessary to insulate the kids, but by and large the kids have been the only reason to tune in in recent memory. Finally, we heard for four years that the Canucks couldn’t undergo a proper rebuild until Henrik and Daniel Sedin had retired. So the organization did what any team that had finally accepted a rebuild would do: they went out on July 1 this year and signed three bottom-six players to significant money and term.

At some point, one has to consider the possibility that the team has not been handcuffed into making poor decisions. They’ve gone into those decisions ready, willing, and able to improve the team. It just hasn’t worked. The future looks bright, but the pro scouting department looks every bit as dysfunctional as the amateur department was when they took over. The Canucks have been the league’s worst team over the past three years, and done so largely due to the play of veterans acquired in free agency or via trade. What have they done to indicate they can flip the switch and make shrewd moves once they’re supposed to be competitive again?

If this recent turn in Sam Gagner’s career is any indication of how much the Canucks will over-commit to player who doesn’t fit in to the long-term picture, this could be a preview of what’s to come for some of the teams other recent signings. Sure, it’s great that they can move on from their mistakes, but how long will it be before the team is paying millions of dollars against the cap to loan Loui Eriksson or Jay Beagle or a to-be-determined 2019 free agent to another organization?

The team currently has nine million dollars in cap space, but they’ll find it can dwindle away rather quickly when you have to extend young, dynamic players like Brock Boeser. Carrying around millions of dollars in dead salary makes those deals harder to ink, and leaves less money left over to sign players who can actually help this team in the future. Unfortunately, expressing contrition in this instance isn’t enough to undo a pattern of poor decision making in free agency that started with Loui Eriksson and continued with the signings this offseason.

Whether any of these deals actually harm the Canucks in the long-term remains to be seen, but the team has shown a stunning inability to target useful players in free agency or to simply put down their phones when things get out of hand. There’s no reason to think that behaviour will stop when the team is good again and they can no longer afford to make these kinds of mistakes.

  • Ronning4ever

    Did I miss something about Gagner’s last year? I always felt he was brought in to provide secondary scoring…which he totally did. Didn’t hit 50 points again, but 31 put him in the top 40% of UFA’s on a cost per point basis. He was worth the $3 mil. Sure, the flip side was that he sicked defensively, but you can say that about a lot of the Nux.

    I thought all the signings on July 1st last year were solid, low-end, short term signings. This year was a different kettle of fish with Rousell and Beagle, but Rousell can play and I kind of feel Beagle could fetch a good return on the trade market. Eriksson is the only real long-term black mark IMHO. But if he can somehow rebound, I’ll be singing a different tune.

    • Gagner gets slagged more than he deserved. When you factor in reduced ice-time, his actual points matches his career average. When you compare his $3.1M salary to comparables via Capfriendly, he’s not far off at 31 points. Gagner gets a bum rap because he came off a league minimum contract and didn’t surprise like Vanek. His problem is that his skill set doesn’t compensate for his lack of tenacity and robustness.

  • Killer Marmot

    Teams can get away with the occasional big play for a truly elite player like John Tavares or Marian Hossa, or they can try to improve along the margins by signing undervalued depth players.

    The Tavares deal may have screwed the Leafs. Their inability to come to an agreement with Nylander is likely because they have some huge contracts coming up next summer (Matthews, Marner, maybe Gardiner) and they are feeling a cap space squeeze.

    • Goon

      I have a hard time believing this is the case. Leafs management wouldn’t want to overpay Nylander regardless of whether they landed Tavares or not. They should have come into the summer with a number they were willing to pay him, independent of whether they landed Tavares or another major player. Saying “well we missed Tavares, lets throw an extra $2 million at Nylander, Matthews, and Marner” isn’t good management and doesn’t strike me as something Shanahan and co. would do.

      Leafs are actually in a decent cap situation going forward. Marleau is signed for one more year, but his salary is almost entirely signing bonus paid on July 1, so they can pay Marleau his $6 million on July 1st and then move him to a cap floor team and get 100% cap relief, while the team they move him to pays none of his salary. That’ll give them almost $40 million in cap space next year to divide between Nylander, Marner, Matthews, Gardiner, and a couple of depth players.

      • Killer Marmot

        Marleau has a No Movement Clause, so good luck on that.

        So far as not suffering a cap hit in 2018-2019, Cap Friendly shows a $6,250,000 cap hit for Marleau for that year, and some team is going to have to carry it. I’m skeptical that your prestidigitations will make that rabbit disappear.

      • Killer Marmot

        Sorry, on second reading you were proposing a cap dump for Marleau at the end of this year. I misinterpreted your suggestion as a way to make his cap disappear.

        Still, that NMC does not make a cap dump a certainty.

    • East van canuck

      Who cares about the Leafs – take it to LN ffs, this has no relevance to the Canucks or the disaster of Sam Gagner whatsoever.

      Speaking of who, some commenters here actually THINK Gagner skating for the Marlies is magically going to bring his NHL value so high he will bring back an amazing return to the nuks… you know, when 30 NHL teams already passed on him for free with no assets to give up! You just couldn’t make it up could ya…

    • I agree with Killer Marmot. Toronto is suffering from too much of a good thing. Just throwing out some arbitrary numbers and an $80M cap but between Tavares ($11M), Matthews ($11M), Marner ($8M), Nylander ($7M), Marleau ($6.25M), Kadri ($4.5M), Reilly ($5M), Zaitzev ($4.5M), and Andersen ($5M), that’s 77% of the cap for 9 players next year. That leaves 17M for 14 players. Hyman ($2.3M), Brown ($2.2M) and Kessel’s retained salary ($1.2M) doesn’t help either. They’ll lose Gardiner as well because they can’t afford to pay $4M+ when he becomes a UFA. They’ll be lucky that Liljegren and Sandin will be ELC’s when Marleau’s contract expires but the team is too top heavy. They should trade some forwards and invest in another top pairing defenceman.

      • Beer Can Boyd

        Remember the old fashioned blockbuster trade? If I were the Leaves (sic), I would trade Matthews and Nylander to Arizona for Eckman-Larsen and Keller. Keller is going to be way better than Nylander, and the Leaves would finally have the 25 minute stud d-man that they are missing. And Arizona would have the hometown superstar in their lineup. Win-win.

  • Killer Marmot

    You want to see a team with real contract problems, take a look at the Kings. Aging stars with massive long-term contracts, and not much of a prospect pool to provide relief. They’re on the whole good players, but things could go down in a hill in a hurry, and the climb back up will be long and painful.

    • Settlebower

      I find no comfort in the fact that other teams have been more inept.The moves made by the Canucks on July 1 were simply not necessary. All the issues that were expressed when signing these players could have been addressed for far less money and far less term. Of all the free agent signings, this years are the most frightening because it just magnifies the lack of foresight from the front office. This team will need some good free agents in two or three years and they will be up against the cap. It just seems so obvious……sigh……..

      • Killer Marmot

        Something had to happen on July 1. The Canucks did not have enough forward depth to get through the season unless they assumed that prospects like Dahlen, Palmu, Jasek, Lind, and Gadjovich would all be NHL-ready when injuries struck, the very definition of wishful thinking.

        Had the Beagle contract been for two years rather than four, I wouldn’t have an argument with any of the deals this summer.

        • Freud

          Gaunce, Boucher, Gagner or anyone off the waiver wire would have easily filled any forward depth issues. The difference between them and the 3 guys they signed is maybe 4-8pts in the standings, if that. So, you’re going to take a big risk of saddling yourself with future problems so you can finish 26th instead of 29th? This is how morons would plan.

          Leaving a flexible roster and cap space when rebuilding is always the best move. You can take advantage of teams that don’t have flexibility or need cap help in September, while filling your bottom 6 spots with the players they need to dump. Maybe you can get a pick or two out of them for solving their problems at the same time.

          It’s not rocket science, but it does take some creative thinking and patience. Somehow this management team keeps making the same July 1st mistakes over and over again. And the same excuses keep getting trotted out.

          • Canuck4Life20

            Well, the smartest guy on Canucks Army has spoken.

            Now I’m no genius like you, so maybe you can explain to me how taking another teams player to fill out your bottom six at the start of the season will result in draft picks coming back as well? Does Benning give up nothing in return in your fantasy world? Can you give one example where this has happened? When he traded for Pouliot last year to fill out the defence you and the rest of the computer boys were howling about the 4th round pick and KHL prospect that went the other way.

            Next time you want to start with your childish name-calling, at least come up with a scenario that is actually possible. Otherwise you just look like a moron yourself – what else is new?

          • Killer Marmot

            Gaunce, Boucher, Gagner or anyone off the waiver wire would have easily filled any forward depth issues.

            1. If Benning had not signed Beagle, Rousel, and Schaller then Gagner and Gaunce would be on the roster as we speak, and thus would be unavailable as call-up players.
            2. Boucher is not NHL caliber.
            3. It takes far more depth to complete the season than many realize. The club will need around 50% more players than the roster size.

            But thanks for playing,

          • canuckfan

            Last night against Calgary we found out the value with Beagle. He was brought in to win face offs and help with the penalty kill.
            As we go on with the rebuild they will plug holes the best they can. Some work some don’t. But at least the team got on with it and ripped the band aid off and moved on.
            The other two players have not played yet from this years free agent signings. I am happy with Beagle and will wait for the others to play before judging but have faith in Benning.
            We know the team is going to have to work hard to get any points this year and we will be happy when the team wins. But if we just filled in spots with waiver wire picks and players who didn’t make the team through training camp we would be a total disaster and know one will watch the games. Placing last doesn’t give you a guaranteed first pick just gives you better odds.
            Benning is doing a decent job much better team than what he started with which includes some depth to draw on and develop. Gillis had the team in a mess. They could make the playoffs but that was it and they were getting older with players wanted out because they could see a future of winning slipping away at a fast pace.

      • crofton

        No way they are up against the cap in 2 or 3 years. Horvat is good until 23/23. Sutter and Baertschi become UFA’s in 21/22 and likely get traded, Edler is a FA next year, not likely to 1 be kept or 2 signed for much more. The same applies to Tanev the next year. Gudbranson is a UFA in 21/22, and unless his play improves, he either won’t be re-signed, or if so, not for much more, or he gets traded. Hutton next year? He either really shows well this year or if he gets re-signed, won’t cost much. Ditto for Pouliot. Markstom may be gone, Nisson will be for sure. About ten of the prospects are good for 2 or 3 years and they are all RFA’s. Boeser will require a large raise, yes, and maybe Goldobin…depending. Otherwise they are in great shape cap wise

  • speering major

    Yeah it’s now reached a point where they can’t afford bad contracts. Boeser, Petterson, and Hughes will all potentially be up for big contracts over the next few years.

    The good news is that Gagner, Gudbranson, MDZ, Hutton, Schaller, and Sutter will all be rolling off the books over the next 3 season. Then Eriksson, Beagle, Roussel, and Luongo the year after that. The Canucks will be fine as long as they don’t keep signing guys for 4+ years in the off season. Benning spelled his plan out to secure a bottom 6 and give the kids a chance to score so I think the paranoia is a bit of willful blindness

    • neal

      That’s great news that these contracts will be off the books in three years if the Nucks don’t sign more free agents next year. This will mean that we are in year eleven on the rebuild.

  • Kanuckhotep

    July 1st free agent will never be the “kid in candy store” scenario it may have been at one time, if it ever was. 31 GMs now wake up in a cold sweat nightmare haunted by the memory of stellar signings like David Clarkson and Nathan Horton and don’t want to go there anymore. Tavares was a rare exception in terms of his caliber and availability but greats like Sidney, Ovie, Doughty, Stamkos, Bergeron and likely Ekblad, Hedman and McDavid will never ever play for another organization. Teams lock up these types for the duration. So what’s available July 1st from now on IMO will never glean significant impact players the way it should. Ain’t happening.

    • Bud Poile

      Jackson is having a hard time figuring out that FA’s go to rebuilding teams for extra bucks and some security.
      There are wives,kids and careers to figure into any potential signings.
      1,000 players,a few dozen GM’s makes a small community.
      Gagner wasn’t a fit here so they’re trying to do their best for him.
      Treating FA’s with some respect means far more than many writers understand.
      Waxing on like this is some tragedy is telling.

      • tyhee

        Do you realize that Jackson’s article was not about Gagner being assigned to the Marlies and had nothing to do with it? Are you commenting on something completely outside this article?

    • tyhee

      I think you missed the point of the article.

      It wasn’t that the Canucks will go over the cap this season.

      It is that they have too many bad signings over a number of years. Bad signings have long term effects.

      -they take up cap space for the future, resulting in less money to sign players as their entry level contracts expire, less money to sign other good players, less flexibility to acquire future assets by taking on a bad contract (since we’ve created our own bad contracts) and fewer useful open contract spaces in the limit of 50.

      Not this season. Probably not even next. Probably pretty soon after that, though.

      Gagner’s contract was an example of a bad signing. It wasn’t aimed at saying it was the problem-just a part of it.

  • Defenceman Factory

    Glad to see the Canucks have found roster spots for the young players who have earned it. Gagner is waived and Schaller is a healthy scratch for the season opener.

    I generally agree there have free agent signings for too much money and term with Ericksson being the most egregious signing. I think most agree the 4 year term for Beagle could also become regrettable by the end.

    Everyone should go back to last July and read the CanucksArmy take on the 2017 signings. Jackson himself gave the Canucks a B+ overall for the depth signings and low cost additions. He gave the Gagner signing a C+.

    The Canucks now have decent roster depth particularly at forward and good young players to ease into the line-up. They still need to upgrade and build depth on defence. I hope they swing a trade or two to get that done but an FA signing of a Dman next off season wouldn’t be unreasonable. I hope the professional scouts get it right.

  • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

    Amazing how CA continuously puts out pieces constantly trashing Bennings decision making, and yet anytime I hate on Benning I get a ton of down votes. Good thing I guess that fans can’t downvote entire articles…. Love how Erik Gudbransson opened the game playing like he’s been reading my hate comments for him all summer….where was that tenacity the past 2yrs Erik?!?!? You could be earning Erik Karlsson/Drew Doughty money from Benning if you’d been playing like that the last 700 days or so.

  • LTFan

    There have been a number of poor FA signings by JB. However IMO some of the blame for these signings has to be on the shoulders of the Pro scouting group. They are the guys who are scouting the other teams for possible FA signings. What they seem to have missed in Gagne’s and Eriksson’s cases is who they were playing with the season before the Canucks’ signed them. That is a huge factor when looking at a player – who do the Canucks’ have that is similar to or will compliment the FA they want to sign. For Gagne there wasn’t a fit. Maybe Eriksson will fit with Pettersson – hopefully. Eriksson had 2 assists in the game tonight.

    • bmg01

      I think that Eriksson’s only hope will be with Pettersson. He looked really comfortable tonight, made a good pass to Petterson to set up that beautiful goal, and could be seen chatting to Pettersson throughout the night on the bench. Eriksson can be a great leader for Petterson even if he doesn’t perform to what he is being paid.

      • Giant-Nation

        “Ericsson looks comfortable” all the excuses he has had won’t roll..when he wants to go home to Sweden his Countrymen will not respect him if he can’t get it rolling with one of the Country’s best off all time hockey exports, already best ever in SHL @19

  • TD

    This comment is post game, but the pk went 7 for 7. There are lots of games to go, but if the pk becomes half decent this year, then the signings may provide some stability for the kids to develop in. I’m not sold, but last year a seven penalty night was a minimum of 2 goals against. Freud commented that Gaunce, Boucher and Gagner should have been used instead of the free agent signings. Gaunce was ok on the pk while Boucher and Gagner were defensive liabilities. The bottom two lines played a ton with all the penalities and did well. They may have lost the game without Beagle and others.

    It’s a long season and there will be lots of losing, but tonight they won and the newly signed penalty killers did well.

    Sorry, it was a fun game to watch and I don’t want to be negative.

  • Whatthe...

    Don’t agree with the rationale outlined in this article. Once again very little context is provided to counter a clearly biased viewpoint. Gagner was always going to be a placeholder, the fact that Pettersson is ready this year instead of next year is a good thing. Gagner can still be called up as insurance but if Leipsic, Motte, Goldy, etc. keep performing then all the better.

    Also, as more and more draft picks start to hit the NHL lineup, placeholder FAs won’t be required. Benning has his weaknesses but he can’t be blamed for the decade plus lack of prospects…he has done an admirable job building a depth of players in various age groups (a must in the cap era).

  • RobG

    I don’t understand why people are so hung up on the money spent in free agency. Most of their core young players are still on their ELC’s and the team is 20M+ below the cap. signing these free agents to decent term and money has not affected their ability to keep their best young players and Ownership has deep enough pockets where they can count the full value of the salary cap as a sunk cost and have likely budgeted for a full salary cap anyway. There have been zero negative side effects from their free agent spending to date, so what’s the big deal?

    • Cageyvet

      The big deal is Jackson can’t find anything negative about game one to build an article on, so it’s the usual CA dig into the past and write the same tired pieces ragging on management. The last thing this team has to worry about is cap space. Sure, they will have to be more prudent as the young guys need bigger contracts, but the only contract that will hurt the team is Erikkson’s as both term and dollar are at the high end. No other contract is that much of a burden, and history has shown that contracts much worse than Beagle’s can be dumped with a little creativity. How about an article pointing out that Motte is looking like good value for Vanek, and that a guy who plays in the league is statistically already a win versus a 3rd or 4th rounder that we had hoped for in return who has a low chance of becoming a player? Nah, that would be too positive and destroy the CA narrative that Benning just makes blunder after blunder.

  • grickbeil

    https://canucksarmy.com/2017/07/01/canucks-sign-sam-gagner-to-three-year-contract/

    I’ll just leave this here…

    “The term isn’t long, and given that Gagner is turning 28-years-old this summer, the deal will be done before he turns 31. The dollar amount is close to the average salary for the league, so although the $3.15M feels high at first glance, it isn’t.

    The Canucks have mentioned that they wanted to improve their offensive depth and add players who can play with speed. Gagner checks those boxes and gives them a player who can play anywhere in their lineup.

    There is some concern about his play at five-on-five, but it’s a calculated move that if Gagner can continue his production could be a home run. But more importantly, it isn’t a move that will hurt the team in the long run.”

      • grickbeil

        Right, so you want to be able to support a management decision early on then dump on it when it goes wrong. Real gutsy of you… Have you considered that management is doing exactly what you yourself advocate. With kids coming up Gagner isn’t needed. The 2.15 mill in cap space is no big deal this year or next. I get why they thought he was necessary last year and why they think he isn’t this year. They changed their minds. Was the signing the best move on earth, no, but it isn’t some disaster either.

        The big difference is management has to actually make and live with their decisions while Canucks Army can just sit back and freak out about each one they disagree with without putting their own reputations on the line.

      • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

        Hindsight is always 20/20 Jackson, dont concern yourself with people dissecting your articles after the fact. I gave Guddy praise and CA regulars still hate on me. Aint no thang. Millenials gonna millenial.

      • Cageyvet

        I don’t know about the poster you are responding to, but I at least reference my past opinion and don’t act like a child when someone points out the discrepancy between my past and present comments. It seems that every day is a clean sheet for you and other CA writers, while Benning and company have the smallest mistakes pinned to them forever. This site is free, and I know why. Who would pay to read this?

  • LACANUCK

    Gagne’s salary or term wasn’t onerous, in fact he was beat out by the scouting depts acquisition Motte. He played center, wing, PP and could move up and down the line up. It was worth the chance to get veteran secondary scoring while the twins were still valuable on the PP. Every year coming up Vet salaries will be dropped off the books ie: Edler and replaced with rookies ie: Hughes, so salary cap won’t be a problem for a while.
    What was confusing was MacDonald said that some people want to insulate the rookies but the rookies are the only reason to tune in? Player development and marketing are completely different departments. I guarantee no player development guy cares one whiff how many butts are in the seats and eyes are on the tube. Putting your young players in a position to be successful is what matters. The fans and ratings will follow

  • MM

    I wish they’d fire the pro scouts already. It’s been obvious to fans for years now. How hard can it be to pick a couple teams that consistently hit on FAs and give those scouts a big raise to come over?!

  • Killer Marmot

    There are worse things than not making the best free agent deal.

    And that is, being afraid to correct a mistake because it would draw attention to your original mistake. Kudos to Benning for not doubling down on an iffy deal.

  • Captain Video

    My main concerns were that management signed Gags without having a clear idea as to his role on the squad and a better use for the cap space would have been to weaponize it to nab a draft pick or two.

  • Bufflumber

    For the record Beagle and Roussel are just what the doctor ordered. If the Canucks are going to start icing their rookies in waves the next couple years Elias, Boeser, Hughes, Dahlen, Juolevi, Gaudette, Lind, Palmu etc are gonna need the support of Beagle, Roussel, Guddy, Virtanen, and leadership of Bo, Sutter to survive in the west.