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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks’ can of cap issues has only been kicked down the road

It’s only August — barely past the halfway point of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021 offseason — and Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Nate Schmidt, and, yes, even Loui Eriksson have all been shipped out of town.

Loui Eriksson!

The king of Vancouver’s salary cap issues is gone.

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Long live the king.

Jim Benning and Co.’s summer tinkering appears to be at an end, save for the key RFA signings of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Jason Dickinson (and, sure, Olli Juolevi, too). Once Micheal Ferland is placed on LTIR — and perhaps after some creative opening day roster maneuvring — the Canucks have left themselves with a little more than $18 million in cap space to get the job done. Most pundits agree that’s enough to get everyone under contract, albeit just barely, and probably only to short-term, bridge-type deals.

If that happens, that’s the end of the story, right? The Vancouver Canucks’ much-ballyhooed cap problems are finally at an end?

No. Of course not.

What, are you new here?

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Cap space now and in the years to come

The Canucks, post-RFA signings, stand to be what the kids call “capped out” heading into the 2021/22 season. They won’t even be able to accrue extra cap space for the deadline with Ferland on the IR, and even if they were, it’d be best saved for potential bonuses.

This roster, for better or for worse, is the best the Canucks can afford to ice this season.

We also know that the flat cap is not scheduled to increase by a significant amount over the next few years. That’s not great news for a team that is already at their spending limit in the present day and is still going to need to find a way to pay up for key players in the offseasons to come.

Right off the hop, the summer of 2022 will bring with it the need for a new Brock Boeser contract, and a presumedly deserved raise on his current $5.875 million AAV. Jack Rathbone will also need a sophomore contract that offseason, and Tyler Motte might be looking for a bump, too — though he’s replaceable by someone younger and cheaper like Will Lockwood.

All the while, the only thing of note to come off the books will be Roberto Luongo’s recapture penalty.

That in and of itself should come close to covering a trio of raises — but it actually doesn’t, as you’ll read later on in the article. And the need for more space doesn’t end in 2022, either.

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Come the summer of 2023, Bo Horvat and JT Miller become UFAs at the exact same time. Either could argue for a higher annual salary, and Horvat, in particular, seems likely to get it. Nils Höglander will also need a sophomore raise at that time, and a considerable one at that. Travis Hamonic and his $3 million is the only contract of note to end that offseason.

There’s also the possibility that Pettersson and Hughes sign two-year bridges, which would mean their contracts ending in 2023 as well. Three-year pacts are more likely, but then Benning and Co. are left standing in the 2024 offseason with another two massive contracts to sign and a flat cap still in place. At least Tyler Myers and Tanner Pearson come off the payroll at that point, but those are players who will have to be replaced by those making a more-than-modest salary. Oh, and Vasily Podkolzin is scheduled for a pay raise that summer, too.

The Canucks aren’t exactly doomed, but their fans are doomed to at least three more offseasons full of fraught discussion about the team’s finances.

Contracts in, contracts out

  2021/22 2022/23 2023/24 2024/25 2025/26 2026/27
Outgoing contracts of note $17.95 million $5.95 million $5.95 million $5.95 million $0 $0
Incoming contracts of note $17.71 million $17.71 million $14.71 million $14.71 million $12.21 million $7.26 million
Canucks cap space difference +$0.24 million -$11.76 million -$8.76 million -$8.76 million -$12.21 million -$7.26 million

Outgoing contracts of note: Loui Eriksson, Nate Schmidt, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle

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Incoming contracts of note: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Tucker Poolman, Travis Hamonic

The frank fact of the matter is that the Canucks only added a modicum of cap space for the upcoming season during this offseason, and they took on considerably more in each of the next five years.

Don’t get us twisted: the collection of incoming contracts up there will almost certainly perform better on the ice than the list of outgoing contracts. But Eriksson, Beagle, and Roussel’s deals were all ending after this season. The new batch of questionably valued contracts — namely those of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tucker Poolman — will be around for the next half-decade.

In the short term, these moves could be argued as necessary in order to get Petterson and Hughes under contract and still ice a competitive team.

But the long-term consequences are not insignificant.

The delayed cost of buyouts

Much of the Canucks’ extra cap space has come from the buyouts of Braden Holtby and Jake Virtanen. The transactions saved $6.3 million in raw cap space — not counting their replacements — but will ding the Canucks for a superfluous $2.4 million in 2022/23, further complicating the Boeser negotiations and almost negating the disappearance of the Luongo penalty.

Again, at the point at which the decisions were made, buyouts for Virtanen and Holtby were more or less necessary. Again, the true cost of them won’t be felt quite yet, but it will be felt.

The problem with bonuses

Of the $3.8 million in space gained by buying out Holtby, only $1.5 million of it was spent on the base salary of his replacement, Jaroslav Halak. Great news, that’s a total savings of $2.3 million!

Except it isn’t, really, because the 36-year-old Halak is eligible for bonuses, and he’ll pick up another $1.25 million in salary as soon as he plays his tenth game. A save percentage above .905 nets him another $250K.

Assuming Halak earns it — a fairly safe assumption — that money will have to hit the cap at some point. If the team is right up against the cap when Ferland hits the IR, they won’t be able to accrue enough to cover it in 2021/22. That would leave the bonus to spill over into 2022/23, wiping out any of the Luongo gain not already squandered by the twin buyout penalties.

Where is the space going to come from?

As is usually the case when feeling the crunch of the cap, there are no easy answers here.

Buyouts and bonuses will make it difficult to fit in raises for Boeser and Rathbone without jettisoning someone else — and then who?

By the time they get to new deals for Horvat, Miller, and Höglander, there’s just no way it gets done without some sort of sacrifice. Maybe a buyout of Ekman-Larsson or a high-cost dump of Myers buys them another year, but then the Pettersson/Hughes bridges come down and we do it all over again in 2024.

And then there’s the whole end-goal of it all to consider.

The Canucks do hope to be competitive with this core, and not in the barely-making-the-playoffs sense. They want to compete for the Stanley Cup, and most will agree that this roster, as currently composed, is not quite up to that task.

For the Canucks to get to the next level, it’s going to require either the acquisition of some serious further talent or the significant development of several talents within. Probably both. And those things cost money.

Brock Boeser becomes a point-per-game winger? Jack Rathbone proves to be a rock-solid top-four D? Hughes and Pettersson take the next step, becoming truly elite top-tier players?

Fantastic! The Canucks are now closer to winning it all — and miles above the salary ceiling they’re already struggling to duck their heads beneath.

The most optimistic among us can still see a path ahead to glory. But by kicking the salary cap can down the road, Benning and Co. have definitely made that path harder to climb — and ensured another series of bumpy offseasons, too.

Buckle up.