If it ever was a secret, it certainly isn’t one any longer — the Canucks are on the cusp of a cap crisis. The realities of at least two more seasons of a flat salary cap have sunk in rather quickly for the Vancouver fanbase and mediasphere. A lot of suggestions about how best to deal with the impending salary crunch have been floated over the past couple of weeks — including ideas as unrealistic as convincing Loui Eriksson to retire and as asinine as trading Brock Boeser — but few have hit upon the player that the Canucks should be most interested in trading this upcoming offseason.
It’s Tanner Pearson, and here are the many reasons why.
There’s no doubt that we’re currently experiencing Tanner Pearson’s peak as a hockey player. When he arrived in Vancouver at the 2019 Trade Deadline, Pearson went on a tear — scoring nine goals and 12 points in just 19 games, easily the greatest sustained pace of his career.
He followed that up by posting a career high 45 points in just 69 games in 2019/20, and almost certainly would have earned career highs across the statistical board had the season come to a natural conclusion.
But that’s the thing about peaks — they don’t last forever.
Pearson will be 28 when the 2020/21 season kicks off. That’s far from over-the-hill, and Pearson no doubt has plenty of good hockey left in him — certainly enough to finish out his current contract, which expires in the summer of 2021.
The reality is, however, that Pearson will eventually see his production regress back to the 0.5 PPG rate it has been at for the bulk of his career, and then it will dip even lower than that. The fact that Pearson has enjoyed a shooting percentage that is 3.5% higher than his average while in Vancouver — and his penchant for cashing in on empty nets of late — make it all the more likely that said regression will come sooner, rather than later.
Which leads us to the conclusion that…
The Impossibility Of An Extension In 2021
There’s just no way the Canucks will be re-signing Pearson when his contract expires in 2021.
As was outlined in the last section, Pearson will be about to enter the downside of his career at that point and, as a first-time UFA, he’ll also be looking to cash in on a long-term deal. Traditionally, that’s a bad mix.
There are also the brand-new contracts for Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes that will be on the books by that point to consider, despite the cap remaining frozen at $81.5 million. That’s the point at which the Canucks will have to start replacing replaceable veterans — like Pearson — with entry-level contracts.
When Pearson gets paid in the 2021 offseason, he’s going to be paid based on the best stint of offensive production of his life, even if he’s not likely to repeat it. It would be best if the Canucks were not the ones signing that cheque.
Pearson has been an excellent fit on Bo Horvat’s left wing, and it’s unlikely that anyone else on the roster — aside from perhaps JT Miller — would be as successful there in the short-term. However, that doesn’t mean that Pearson isn’t replaceable, especially in the long-term.
Both Jake Virtanen and Tyler Toffoli can play the left-wing if necessary, though it’s less than ideal. Micheal Ferland, if healthy, is also a legitimate option there, especially if he returns to anything approaching his old form.
If Josh Leivo is re-signed at a bargain price, he’s also a cheap stop-gap on either wing.
Down the road, however, and perhaps as soon as next season, the logical long-term replacement for Pearson is Nils Hoglander. The 19-year-old natural left winger is on his way to North America for 2020/21, and it’s unlikely he’ll spend any longer than a single season in Utica. The Canucks would be wise to throw Hoglander into a scoring role as soon as possible — and Pearson’s current spot is the best fit since Miller isn’t going anywhere.
The Market For Pearson
Perhaps most important of all to mention when discussing the possible trade of Pearson is that there should actually be a market of some sort for his services. Right now, Pearson looks like a legitimate top-six winger whose cap hit — $3.75 million — doesn’t break the bank. For any team, looking to upgrade their offence this offseason under the auspices of a flat cap, Pearson has to be an appealing acquisition.
He’s probably not enough by himself to get the Canucks another crack at the first round, but he’d undoubtedly recoup something like a second-round pick or a “B” prospect. Even better, the Canucks could probably trade him without having to take any salary back or attach any assets, which will prove important in our very next section.
Why Pearson, And Not Someone Else?
We know what you’re thinking.
“If Tanner Pearson is still effective, a good fit on the team, and reasonably-priced for his role, why would the Canucks want to trade him? Why not trade someone else?”
Well, there’s a couple of good reasons for that.
For one, while Pearson is important to the current makeup of the team, he’s just not as uniquely talented as a Boeser or a Toffoli. Or in as important a role as the potentially departing Chris Tanev and Jacob Markstrom.
He also doesn’t have the same upward potential as a Virtanen or an Adam Gaudette.
Of course, the option of trading someone like Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Brandon Sutter, or even Micheal Ferland instead of Pearson is far more appealing. But, as has been discussed ad nauseum on this site and elsewhere, the chances of dumping those players pretty much went out the window with the announcement of the flat cap. Most of these players are now functionally unmoveable, and those that the Canucks would be able to flip would require a future asset or two to do so — not something that the organization currently has in abundance.
Chances are good the Canucks are going to have to get rid of multiple players this offseason, so getting to move at least one for “free” should definitely be a priority.
Pearson is that player.
What Could The Canucks Do With The Cap Space?
Losing Pearson’s $3.75 million cap hit, not taking any salary back in return, and replacing him on the roster with a player making close to the minimum — like Hoglander or Zack MacEwen — would yield the Canucks a little less than $3 million in extra space.
That might not seem like a lot, but every dollar counts in a flat cap world.
With an extra $3 million, the Canucks could accommodate raises to two of their current players — say Markstrom and Gaudette. They could squeeze Toffoli into the picture even with Ferland still on the books. They wouldn’t have to look so hard at cutting Troy Stecher loose.
In the long-term, of course, more space for Pettersson and Hughes is always welcome.
No, $3 million would not be enough to make room for all of Markstrom, Toffoli, Tanev, Gaudette, Virtanen, and Stecher to re-up.
But it would be a start.
The Tyler Toffoli Factor
As a quick aside, everyone knows that Pearson and Toffoli are close friends, and that Pearson is one of the reasons that Toffoli might want to stick around in Vancouver. There is the notion, then, that signing Toffoli to an extension and then dealing his buddy would constitute some dirty pool.
With that being said, hockey is a business, and Pearson will be a pending UFA with little chance of extending when Toffoli becomes a UFA himself this offseason. To be blunt, if he’s signing in Vancouver based solely on the possibility of playing with Pearson long-term, he should not sign in Vancouver.
Tanner Pearson is, in essence, the most replaceable and least vital of the current Canucks to still hold value.
He’s also the top-six option with the least long-term upside, the one whose production is most likely to dip in the immediate future, and the least likely for the Canucks to retain beyond this year.
In general, smart asset management means selling high, and especially smart asset management means selling high just before an asset’s value declines.
That’s where the Canucks find themselves with Tanner Pearson heading into the 2020 offseason, and that’s why trading him is the smartest move they can manage.