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Patience will be key for the Vancouver Canucks this offseason

The Vancouver Canucks have a pretty up-and-down history with free agents recently. The team seems to love to stub their toe on the opening day of free agency specifically, as here are the notable contracts given out by the Canucks to UFAs since 2016 on day one of free agency:

2016

  • Loui Eriksson – 6 years, $6 million AAV

2017

  • Sam Gagner – 3 years, $3.15 million AAV
  • Michael Del Zotto – 2 years, $3 million AAV
  • Anders Nilsson – 2 years, $2.5 million AAV

2018

  • Jay Beagle – 4 years, $3 million AAV
  • Antoine Roussel – 4 years, $3 million AAV
  • Tim Schaller – 2 years, $1.9 million AAV

2019

  • Tyler Myers – 5 years, $6 million AAV
  • Jordie Benn – 2 years, $2 million AAV

2020

  • Braden Holtby – 2 years, $4.3 million AAV

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Josh, that doesn’t seem very good!”

Before we jump to conclusions, let me tell you their numbers. In 974 combined games played with the Canucks those skaters have put up 101 goals, 197 assists, for a grand total of 298 points. That means that every three or four games throughout their tenures in Vancouver just one of those players would get a point, as they have a combined points per game of 0.306. The skaters alone also accounted for an average of $20.65 million of the Canucks’ cap space over the past three seasons. That’s not good!

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The question is then, why does Jim Benning keep overpaying players on day one of free agency when it hasn’t worked for the last five years? I’m not sure. It does seem a bit silly to me too, but it’s a trait that isn’t specific to Benning. General managers all around the NHL tend to open their wallets and commit too much term to players who generally don’t deserve it. Free agency is usually where players get their big payday, but every year there are a few diamonds in the rough who outperform their contract and end up being a steal for their team. These players are almost never signed on July 1st. Take last offseason, for example. These were some of the contracts signed on October 9th (day one of free agency):

  • Torey Krug – 7 years, $6.5 million AAV
  • Jacob Markstrom – 6 years, $6 million AAV
  • T.J. Brodie – 4 years, $5 million AAV
  • Christopher Tanev – 4 years, $4.5 million AAV
  • Kevin Shattenkirk – 3 years, $3.9 million AAV
  • Radko Gudas – 3 years, $2.5 million AAV
  • Carter Verhaeghe – 2 years, $1 million AAV

It’s hard to argue that most players on that list aren’t good players, but I would only want two of those contracts on my team. Verhaeghe had an unbelievable breakout season in Florida, putting up 36 points in 53 games, and he’s only 25 years old, so that’s somebody that any GM would love to have on their team. Gudas is the other player I’d like, as he had relatively solid numbers both offensively and defensively. The other players do have skill — and we all know what Markstrom and Tanev can do — but each player on that list is either overpaid or signed for too long. That’s the common theme on day one of free agency, term and dollars are given out like candy on Halloween as NHL GMs scramble to make deals before all the porch lights turn off.

What I want to see from the Canucks this offseason, especially given their current cap situation, is patience. The team showed they can do it last year as they waited until January to sign Travis Hamonic to a one-year deal, and he showed well in his time with the Canucks. Other players that were signed outside of the first month of free agency last offseason included:

  • Erik Haula – 1 year, $1.75 million AAV
  • Anthony Duclair – 1 year, $1.7 million AAV
  • Andreas Athanasiou – 1 year, $1.2 million AAV
  • Corey Perry – 1 year, $750,000 AAV
  • Conor Sheary – 1 year, $735,000 AAV

Obviously, not all of these deals were home runs, but all of them were at least contributing at an NHL level, and these are the kind of low-risk moves that can really put a team over the top. Duclair for example spent time on the top line with the Panthers and put up 32 points in 43 games, outscoring all but four Canucks players in 2021.

Perry was a big piece of a Canadiens team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, and provided the “veteran presence’ that the Canucks have been searching for, just without the big price tag. This strategy also gives teams the benefit of seeing where their salary situation is heading into the regular season, while players start to get a little bit desperate. The circumstances in 2020 were definitely unique, but the same limitations exist this year for teams around the NHL as the salary cap remains flat.

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That doesn’t mean every move made outside the first day or so of free agency will work out, but generally, when you sign a player closer to a season their salary expectation has dropped and they’re more willing to take “prove it” deals. I’m also not saying every deal signed on day one of free agency will be a dud — Verhaeghe is a great of example of a steal — but lately, Benning has had his sights set on the wrong targets annually.

It’s hard to predict what players will slip through the cracks and make it past July 28th unsigned, but odds are there will be a couple of low-risk, medium-reward targets like Duclair that are still looking for homes a month before the regular season. From a Canucks perspective, waiting for those players would not only be beneficial for the cap-strapped team in the upcoming season where they may be a bubble playoff team, but it could also help out in the long run by keeping anchor contracts off the books as Vancouver tries to put the pieces together for what is hopefully a Cup contender. So if Benning can put the phone away on day one and practice patience this offseason it may help the team find its way back to the playoffs, and may entice future free agents to want to take a discount to play in Vancouver, something they’ve struggled with during Benning’s tenure.