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Photo Credit: Matthew Henderson

Monday Mailbag: Rebuilding the defence, Virtanen’s next contract, and Toffoli’s value

Another week, another mailbag. Let’s see what you wonderful people asked this week!

I try not to answer questions that I’ve answered in past mailbags, but this one may be something people are hoping I have some sort of update on.

To my knowledge, there have been no new developments or updates on a league-wide compliance buyout — which would allow all teams to rid themselves of one contract with no consequences to their cap hit. This may not be something we see for a while as the NHL is clearly focusing all their attention on making their return to play go as smoothly as possible, first and foremost.

But for the sake of answering the question, as I mentioned in a past mailbag, the Canucks would be wise to use this buyout on Loui Eriksson. That being said, in the event they don’t get a free buyout, they’re still going to need to free up some cap space. Speaking of which, that is almost a perfect segue into our next question:

I’ve seen a lot of people suggest that Eriksson is going to retire this offseason. This claim seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of some Canucks fans.

What the Canucks can do to free up some cap space while subsequently ridding themselves from Eriksson (well, sort of) is burying his contract in the minors.

One doesn’t need to look hard for past examples of the Canucks doing this. They did it with Sam Gagner last season during the second year of his three year deal, and they did it with Sven Baertschi — who was also entering the second year of a three year contract — at the beginning of this season.

Burying a contract is done when a team assigns a player on a one-way deal to the AHL, or loans said player to a team in another professional league, for example, the Swedish Hockey League. This provides NHL clubs with some cap relief, as explained here:

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The players salary cap hit, minus the sum of the minimum NHL salary for the respective season and $375,000, still counts towards the team’s salary cap total.
The cap hit relief is therefore equal to the minimum salary of the respective season + $375,000:

  • 2014-15: $550,000 + $375,000 = $925,000
  • 2015-16: $575,000 + $375,000 = $950,000
  • 2016-17: $575,000 + $375,000 = $950,000
  • 2017-18: $650,000 + $375,000 = $1,025,000
  • 2018-19: $650,000 + $375,000 = $1,025,000
  • 2019-20: $700,000 + $375,000 = $1,075,000
  • 2020-21: $700,000 + $375,000 = $1,075,000
  • 2021-22: $750,000 + $375,000 = $1,125,000

Baertschi’s cap hit this season would have been $3.36 million had he stayed up with the big club. Because he was assigned to the minors, the cap hit of Baertschi’s contract instead took $2.29 million off the Canucks’ books.

If the club chooses to bury Eriksson in the minors next year, the cap hit of that contract will take up $4.93 million of the Canucks’ cap space as opposed to $6 million if he stays up with the big club.

Brett Lee did an article where he looked at statistical comparables to determine what Adam Gaudette’s next contract could look like. Both Gaudette and Jake Virtanen are restricted free agents this offseason. Both will be 24 years of age at the beginning of next season.

Gaudette tallied 12 goals and 21 assists in 59 games — 33 points — while Virtanen put up 18 goals and 18 assists in 69 games. For those keeping score at home, that’s three more total points than Gaudette.

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Brett determined the following:

Using the other three comparables for Gaudette, it would appear a two-year deal in the range of $1,630,000 to $2,241,250 cap hit would be Vancouver’s best option given precedent.

Will Jake get much more than that? My guess is no.

I think these two contracts will look similar to each other, and I simply cannot see the organization forking out more than $3 million per year to Virtanen. Whether it’s a bridge deal — as many think Gaudette’s will be — remains to be seen, but I’m not so sure the Canucks have seen enough from Virtanen through five pro seasons to hitch their wagon to him long term.

Given how Benning and Assistant GM Chris Gear have been able to get RFA deals done at team-friendly amounts in the past, I’ll say Virtanen’s contract is two or three years at $2.5 million.

Since we’re on the topic of contracts, why not discuss who many believe to be the Canucks’ biggest free agent this offseason?

Tyler Toffoli fared well in the ten games he played with the Canucks after they traded for him before the trade deadline. He looked right at home on the Pettersson line, and bolstered the Canucks’ top six greatly. The top six became even more dangerous, and arguably one of the best in the league, when Brock Boeser returned from injury shortly before the season was halted due to Covid-19.

When the Canucks traded for Toffoli, they were under the impression that the cap would be going up roughly $4 million next season. The goal was always to re-sign Toffoli after the season ended. We all know what happened next.

With the cap likely not going up at all and teams presumably not going to be looking to spend any big money this offseason, folks in the hockey world have suggested that free agents will take a shorter-term deal at a decreased cap hit in hopes of cashing in on their big payday when the world eventually goes back to normal.

I think a dollar amount that the Canucks simply wouldn’t be willing to agree to is $6 million. Toffoli’s current cap hit is $4.6 million, and while he’s certainly due for a raise, I don’t think the Canucks will be willing to get in a bidding war if the number is much higher than $5 million.

Toffoli brings a solid two-way game and a lethal shot, but he did also struggle earlier on this season. Three of his 18 goals came in the Kings’ stadium series matchup against the Nashville Predators, just two days prior to the Canucks making the move to acquire him. He kept up that high level of play and scored six goals in his final ten games of the 2019-20 campaign.

But did he just get hot at the right time?

Prior to February, Toffoli had 13 goals and 15 assists through 51 games. Yes, he was on a terrible LA Kings team, but those numbers certainly don’t help Toffoli’s case when it comes to cashing in on a big payday.

You know what would though?

Playing a full season or two on Elias Pettersson’s wing and putting up 50+ points — a point total Toffoli hasn’t reached since the 2015-16 season.

The Canucks’ greatest weakness is their defence corps and they’re going to need to deal from a position of strength, or give up some draft picks in order to acquire any player who can really be a difference-maker.

If that player is right-handed and flourishes in his new role presumably playing alongside Quinn Hughes? Sign me up.

Very, very low — at least, for the Canucks. The organization and Palmu’s agent, Todd Diamond, who also represents Nikita Tryamkin, seem to agree that it would be best for Palmu to play hockey overseas once again next season.

The only avenue I could see for Palmu finding his way back to the NHL is by lighting it up in Finland and catching the attention of another NHL club.

Palmu’s ELC with the Canucks is up after next season, and although he’ll be a restricted free agent, I can’t see the organization being all that interested in bringing him back.

*cracks knuckles*

Let’s start from the bottom and move our way up. Brogan Rafferty looks like he should be able to step in and be effective as a 7th d-man or bottom pairing defenceman as soon as next year. Chris Faber did a deep dive on Rafferty’s game and why he will transition to the NHL seamlessly.

One important note on Rafferty, he’s right-handed but played the left side all throughout his collegiate career, and told Canucks Army that he’s comfortable playing both with ease. That versatility should help him appear in more games next year with the big club.

That being said, improving the 6th/7th d-man position isn’t going to make a sizeable difference. The Canucks’ need to improve their top four. Let’s look at what they currently have in terms of players who aren’t going anywhere and can play in the top four.

Quinn Hughes – Tyler Myers

Alex Edler – TBD

The Canucks would not be unwise to at least flirt with the idea of walking away from Chris Tanev in favour of trading for a younger defenceman. Which brings me to my next point.

If the team truly wants to improve their defence significantly, they’re going to have to pull off a trade or throw money at a free agent.

And the price for both of those avenues isn’t going to be cheap.

Free agency

Obviously the big name defenceman on the open market this offseason is Tyson Barrie. However, a name that intrigues me when it comes to defencemen who won’t cost nearly as much as Barrie for the Canucks to sign is Radko Gudas of the Washington Capitals.

Granted he won’t improve the Canucks’ defence group nearly as much as Barrie would, he might just be a good fit.

Gudas is one of those players who fans hate if he’s up against your team, but is typically loved by fans of the team he plays on.

He brings toughness and physicality, but actually has a good underlying profile which would suggest that he can help drive the play while also being responsible enough to match up against the opposition’s best.

He wasn’t quite as effective as Tanev on the penalty kill, but at even strength, Gudas looks like an improvement at both ends of the ice:

The problem with Gudas defensively is his slow foot speed and lack of ability to defend against the rush. Offensively, the biggest knock on Gudas’ game is his inability to effectively transition the puck up the ice.

If he’s paired with Hughes, the Canucks’ hockey ops department better be confident that it’s a good fit, because Gudas has yet to be tested in a top pairing role during his career, although he has been relied upon as a second pairing d-man in the past.

Gudas’ cap hit this season was $3.35 million, and is coming off a rather underwhelming year with the Washington Capitals. This is just one avenue the Canucks can take, but if they want to really improve, they’re going to need to deal from a position of strength and pull off a trade.

Trade targets

Harman Dayal of The Athletic highlighted defencemen the Canucks would be wise to trade for — among them were Vince Dunn and Caleb Jones.

Keep in mind, this is the same author who highlighted both Tyler Toffoli and J.T. Miller as good fits for the Canucks to trade for, months before the club actually pulled the trigger on both deals. We all know how well those two fit into the Canucks’ top six this season. Maybe we should listen.

Dunn and Jones are the names that intrigue me the most, not only because they’re both relatively young left shot d-men with good underlying profiles, but because they’re both RFA’s at the end of this season.

Essentially, the Canucks would be trading for their negotiating rights, which should slightly decrease their acquisition cost.

For a team such as St. Louis, who will likely be focused on bringing back their captain and number one defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, moving Dunn could be something the Blues explore, if the return coming back is a good fit, of course.

Acquiring a player of Dunn’s calibre likely sees the Canucks giving up Virtanen or Tanner Pearson along with some draft capital. Dunn has a good shot at growing into a top-pairing NHL defenceman, and having a one-two punch of Dunn and Hughes on the backend for years to come would give the Canucks a legitimate chance to construct one of the best top-4’s in the league.

That being said, Dunn is going to cost more to acquire than Jones will from Edmonton.

Jones won’t improve the defence as significantly as Dunn would, but Jones is much younger and already a significant improvement over Jordie Benn — who, as it stands, would be the Canucks’ third pairing defenceman heading into next season.

I’d like to see the Canucks target one of these players, but no matter what they do, they can’t get away from the fact that their defensive group needs some serious work if they hope to be a legitimate contender in the coming years.

Thanks to everyone who asked questions in this particularly long mailbag. To ask a question in a future mailbag, look out for my weekly Friday tweet on Twitter @QuadreIli!