BTTF: With foresight and cap management, the Canucks could have retained Toffoli, Tanev, and more in 2021

Photo credit:© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
2 years ago
In this Back To/The Future series, Chris Faber and Stephan Roget are making a collaborative effort to learn from the mistakes of the Vancouver Canucks’ recent past and offer solutions to salvage their immediate future — you know, just like Marty McFly did that one time. Each weekly Roget Reverse/Future Faber two-parter will start out with a critical look at some component of the Canucks’ game that went wrong in 2021, and finish by making some suggestions as to how it could get better in 2021/22. Whether you like to grumble about bad things that have already happened or dream about the good things yet to come, CanucksArmy has got what you need.
We’re always trying to push the innovative envelope here at CanucksArmy, and today we’re going to try something completely different by putting the comments section ahead of the article.
“Pretty easy for you to say this now.”
“Hindsight is 20/20!”
“Armchair GMing at its finest.”
“No use crying over spilled Montreal Canadiens!”
We get it. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and by gazing at the foibles and fumbles of the 2021 season from the safety of the summer, we kind of can’t help but to know it all.
But there’s still value in learning from the mistakes of the past, if only so as not to repeat them in the future. Or, if you’re more cynically-oriented, if only to say “I told you so” when they’re repeated anyway.
So, yes, we’re out to embark on an exercise in which we retroactively assess the cap-related decisions made by Jim Benning and Co. in the 2020 offseason with the full benefit of a season’s worth of hindsight. And, yes, we acknowledge that to do so is a privilege Benning himself was not afforded when he made those same decisions.
That’s enough preamble for now.
There’s little to quarrel with about the initial moves of the “summer” of 2020, which began in October.
Re-signing Zack MacEwen to a two-year deal under a million was a no-brainer, and locking up playoff/everyday hero Tyler Motte to a bargain pact was a nice, early win for the Canucks front office.
Then came October 9, 2020, the latest Free Agent Frenzy in NHL history.
Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev flew the coop to Calgary, taking Louis Domingue and Josh Leivo with them in the days to come. Troy Stecher went to Detroit the next day and then, after much handwringing, Tyler Toffoli finally signed with the Montreal Canadiens on October 12, four days into free agency.
None of them, save Markstrom, reported receiving a contract offer from Vancouver at any juncture.
On their end, the Canucks signed Braden Holtby to a two-year, $4.3 million AAV contract to replace Markstrom. A couple of weeks later they’d pick up Jayce Hawryluk to a cheapie, and then in January, one the cusp of the season opener, they added Travis Hamonic to a one-year, $1.25 million deal.
There were further signings and re-signings to be had. Ashton Sautner, Jake Kielly, and Guillaume Brisebois all re-upped in October, and Jalen Chatfield, Tyler Graovac, and Justin Bailey followed in December.
The two extensions of most note were Jake Virtanen’s two years at $2.55 million AAV and Adam Gaudette’s one year at $950K.
Then, a trade to announce: Nate Schmidt and his remaining five years at $5.95 million from the Vegas Golden Knights for the low, low price of a third round pick in 2022.
Not all of these moves were regrettable, but enough of them were to offer up a tantalizing vision of a 2021 season that might have been. A season in which the Canucks were able to keep Toffoli and his seventh-most goals in the NHL, along with Chris Tanev, who put together the best season of his career at age 31.
Would such a thing have been possible?
Sadly, yes, and it might have only required a modicum of foresight to accomplish.

The cost to keep Toffoli and Tanev

We will note that, from the sounds of it, both Toffoli and Tanev were willing to stay in Vancouver on lesser deals than what they eventually signed with their new teams.
But since there is no hard evidence of that, we’ll assume for the purposes of this exercise that retaining the two of them would have cost exactly what it cost for Montreal and Calgary to sign them: four years at $4.25 million AAV for Toffoli and four years at $4.5 million AAV for Tanev.
On Tanev specifically, to say that the Canucks should have been able to predict his resurgent season is a bridge too far. There were plenty who saw him as a declining asset that the Canucks were wise to part ways with, and most of the reasons for keeping him were sentimental or based on “eye-test” observations of his impact on Quinn Hughes — though we will mention that those are two markets into which Benning and Co. regularly put great stock. To regret not signing him now is, admittedly, almost entirely hindsight from a logical perspective.
Toffoli’s brilliant debut season with the Habs, on the other hand, was something that many saw coming after his post-LA audition in Vancouver, and that the Canucks should have been able to see coming more clearly than anyone. We at CanucksArmy certainly have our receipts handy on the matter.
That covers why the Canucks should have been more interested in retaining Toffoli and Tanev’s services. Now we can get into why they shouldn’t have been interested in doing the things that they did instead.

Braden Holtby

Without a doubt, the Canucks’ worst allocation of cap space in the 2020 offseason was the $4.3 million salary they handed Holtby to backup Thatcher Demko.
The reasoning given at the time was that the team wasn’t yet sold on Demko as the full-time starter — but they really should have been.
For one, by allowing Markstrom to reach the open market, they’d clearly signalled that Demko would be the goaltender to see them through their pending competitive window.
For two, Demko had just put together three of the best playoff performances in franchise history.
One can argue that rolling the dice on Demko after such a short sample size was a gamble, but the dice had already been rolled by October 9. The dice-rolling was letting Markstrom walk. Picking up Holtby was more like a safety net if the bet went sour, and not a very sturdy one.
Holtby’s salary says that he was signed to serve as a “1B” sort of goalie, but his three straight years of declining performance and career-worst 2019/20 campaign said that was a role he couldn’t handle.
To summarize, the Canucks frivolously spent precious cap space on a 1B goalie they didn’t really need, and gave it to a guy who, by the numbers, wouldn’t even make a quality backup.
Even if the front office was determined to sign a veteran netminder to platoon with Demko, there were ample better and cheaper options available.
Someone like Anton Forsberg was signed for $700K, available on waivers multiple times, and still posted better numbers than Holtby while playing for the Ottawa Senators.
If the Canucks wanted someone with a little more of a track record, they surely could have acquired someone for a fifth round pick, which is what it cost for the San Jose Sharks to acquire a half-retained Devan Dubnyk. His stats with the Sharks were almost but not quiteas bad as Holtby’s.
So, let’s just say that by targeting a player other than Holtby, perhaps a player with a lesser track record but an equivalent current level of play, the Canucks could have saved at least $2 million on the cap for 2021.
That’s almost half a Toffoli!

Jake Virtanen

We’ll leave Virtanen’s off-ice situation aside, because it is not something that Benning and Co. could have foreseen when they signed him to a two-year contract extension in October of 2020.
But what they realistically could have seen coming was another disappointing season from the perpetually inconsistent winger.
Virtanen broke out in a big way in 2019/20, with 18 goals and 18 assists in 69 games to blow all his previous scoring rates out of the water.
But flashes of brilliance are something that Vancouver fans have seen from Virtanen before, and they traditionally haven’t been followed by anything resembling true progression.
Virtanen’s shooting percentage in 2019/20 had jumped up to 12% — not an astronomical leap, but still a decent amount above his career average. More worrying was his playoff performance in the bubble, where he managed three points in 16 games and found himself a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.
We’ll acknowledge hindsight for the zillionth time here, but there absolutely were those in the fanbase and mediasphere advocating to “sell high” on Virtanen in the 2020 offseason, including yours truly.
Let’s say that actually happened, and Virtanen’s $2.55 AAV became someone else’s problem.
The Canucks wouldn’t gain the entirety of that cap space necessarily, as Virtanen’s place on the roster would have to be taken by somebody else.
But combined with the wiser decision made on goaltending we mentioned above, trading Virtanen for draft picks would open up exactly enough space to have that replacement player be Toffoli.
The Canucks would lose out on Virtanen’s five goals, but gain Toffoli’s 28.
They’d probably be alright with that.

Adam Gaudette

As Gaudette signed for $950K, we won’t spend too much time discussing him here, as the most cap space the Canucks could have gained by replacing him with someone else would have been $200K.
But we will briefly note that, similar to Virtanen, there was an opportunity for the Canucks to sell Gaudette a little more high than Matthew Highmore had they dealt him in the 2020 offseason after his 33 points in 59 games.
That would, of course, have required the Canucks’ long-term faith in Gaudette to be pretty low — but given his deployment and subsequent trade in 2021, that seems to have been the case.
Either way, it’s not a cap-related concern.

Nate Schmidt

The only realistic method through which the Canucks could have retained both Toffoli and Tanev would have been to not trade for Schmidt.
There wouldn’t have really been a decision to be made, in a sense, because they’d have already inked both to contracts and would thus have no room for Schmidt left over. Vegas would have to go calling elsewhere.
Saying that the Canucks should have made this decision is a lot trickier to say.
On paper, a Schmidt-for-Tanev swap looked like an outrageously decisive victory for the Canucks. Schmidt had just completed three seasons for the Golden Knights in which he posted sparkling advanced stats under some of the toughest deployment in the league, sparking talks of him being one of the league’s best defensive defenders.
Though a left-hander, Schmidt was said to play his best hockey on the right.
Tanev, on the other hand, had seen his previously strong analytics game evaporate, splitting the fanbase between those who were certain he was done for and those who claimed to “see” how much he was covering for the rookie Hughes.
It would seem, however, that the latter crowd was the more correct of the two.
And it’s not even fair to call it a Schmidt-for-Tanev swap.
Schmidt, a year-and-a-half younger than Tanev, makes almost $1.5 million more than Tanev and is signed for an additional year.
Without Schmidt, the Canucks probably could have creatively squeezed both Tanev and Toffoli into the picture.
Without Schmidt, Holtby, and Virtanen, they could have fit Tanev and Toffoli in remarkably comfortable, and still had about $2 million in change to throw at another player. And that’s on top of them still being able to sign…

Travis Hamonic

Hamonic’s $1.25 million pact didn’t break the bank, and it would have been even easier to accommodate in the Toffoli+Tanev branch of the Canucks’ multiverse. A right side of Tanev, Tyler Myers, and Hamonic wouldn’t look too shabby at all, and would have fit nicely alongside a left of Hughes, Alex Edler, Olli Juolevi, and, eventually, Jack Rathbone.

All three of Toffoli, Tanev, and Schmidt?

Is there a scenario in which the Canucks could have signed Toffoli and Tanev, and then still had enough cap space left over to trade for Schmidt? As nice as the above-mentioned hypothetical blueline looks, it would undoubtedly look even better with Schmidt in the place of Hamonic.
The answer is a tentative and complicated “yes.”
Sign someone cheaper than Holtby. Trade Virtanen.
Don’t sign Hamonic.
Trade Jordie Benn at the start of the season, if possible, instead of at the deadline.
Do your best to deal Brandon Sutter, who reportedly drew interest throughout the season. Even with some retained salary, replacing Sutter in the lineup with MacEwen is net-neutral on the ice and means an extra million or two in space.
If you have to, be ruthless and demote Jay Beagle alongside Loui Eriksson at the outset of the season.
Such a scenario is unlikely, convoluted, and still might not quite do it when it comes to retaining and acquiring all three of Toffoli, Tanev, and Schmidt (Attorneys at Law).
But that it was even kind of, sort of, doable is a real bummer when compared to the reality of the Canucks’ 2021 season — as is the far more likely option of having Toffoli, Tanev, Hamonic, and a mystery box player for $2 million.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but they might have been off by a year.

Are the Canucks better off in the long-term anyway?

Now, after that torrent of negativity and woe-is-us what-ifs, surely we’re not about to tell you that, regardless of it all, the Canucks are still better off in the long-term for not having signed Toffoli and Tanev.
There’s just no way.
Only an absolute madman would come in here spouting such optimistic futurism.
Wait a minute, folks…
That’s Chris Faber’s music!

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