How the Canucks can use salary retention to maximize their returns on trades this offseason

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
Although they’ve run a much tighter ship, leak-wise, than fans of the Vancouver Canucks are used to, POHO Jim Rutherford and GM Patrik Allvin have let their general managerial intentions be known to the public.
They’re in Vancouver for the long haul, and are set on building the Canucks up into a long-term contender. To most observers, they have made it clear that they’re perfectly alright with the team taking a step back next year, if doing so facilitates the development of a stronger core of players. They’re not going to rush the process, and that’s a good thing.
Specifically, Rutherford and Allvin have made it a goal to replete the depleted organizational prospect cupboard by trading for young players and draft picks.
Now, most would agree that that’s a worthy goal, and a necessary one. The Canucks’ collection of future assets is among the weakest in the league, and a big part of contending in a salary-capped sports league is having a constant influx of youthful talent on entry-level contracts.
But it’s also a goal that, somewhat paradoxically, needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.
The longer the new front office waits to add future assets, the longer they’ll have to wait for those future assets to actually make an impact at the NHL level.
A player drafted in 2020 could be ready to play big-league minutes as soon as next season. A draft pick in 2024 might not be ready until the end of the decade.
If the Canucks want this retool to only last a season or two, and for the window of contention to open up in about 2025, they need those picks and prospects ASAP.
Fortunately, they’ve got a handful of methods through which to achieve that goal, including some that are a little counterintuitive.
One of them is retaining salary.
Hockey fans seem to have an interesting aversion to the concept of salary retention. They think of it as a taboo of some sort, a tacit admission of a bad contract signed in the past. Good players don’t get their salary retained! That’s something that only happens to past-their-prime plugs like Milan Lucic and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, right? Is it not a bit of an insult to have one’s salary retained?
Those notions are, of course, a little foolish, and not really in keeping with how salary retention has been used in recent years. Sure, it can be used to turn an untradeable asset into a tradeable one, but it can also be used to turn an already-tradeable asset into an EVEN MORE tradeable one.
Salary retention can and historically has been used to maximize the return on trades that involve exchanging an established player for future assets. Contending teams — the teams that traditionally trade future assets for established players — absolutely love picking up talent at a reduced cap hit.
See where we’re going with this?
The Canucks don’t just need future assets, they need as many future assets as they can get their hands on as quickly as possible. They need to maximize their returns this offseason, and next, in order to lay the foundation for the team to start contending in the latter half of this decade.
Retaining salary now helps get that job done, and it does so with relatively little consequence.
The Canucks almost certainly won’t be competing for the Stanley Cup in the 2022/23 season. They might make another improbable run toward the playoffs on the strength of Thatcher Demko’s goaltending and Bruce Boudreau’s coaching, but most have already accepted a bit of a step back as the organization resets and re-evaluates.
The 2023/24 season looks a little brighter, but probably won’t include a massive leap forward into contention.
The 2024/25 season is a fine target to re-open the window. Coincidentally enough, that’s exactly when Elias Pettersson will need a new contact, and the point at which having some ELCs to insert into the roster will be vitally important.
In the meantime, the Canucks should be able to afford some salary retention. They shouldn’t be hunting high-priced UFAs or trade acquisitions quite yet, and they should be shaving some existing high-salaried players off the payroll. If the money that they open up goes toward maximizing returns on future assets via salary retention, that’s probably the single best way it can be spent.
The opportunities to do so are numerous, with some being more obvious than others.
J.T. Miller is the first, and best, opportunity. At his current cap hit of $5.25 million for another season, Miller is already one of the hottest commodities in the league.
But Miller at $2.625 million? That would constitute one of the most valuable assets to be put on the market in recent memory. Any team could afford to add Miller at that price, and every team would want to. The more teams pursuing Miller, the better. As the retention-induced bidding war kicks off, the Canucks get to cash out with even more future assets.
Is having an extra $2.625 on the Canucks’ books for next season worth an extra draft pick or two, or an extra prospect with high potential?
You bet it is. What else were they going to spend that cap space on, if not a Miller extension?
But the potential for salary retention goes beyond Miller.
What about Tyler Myers? Recent reports have suggested that, against all odds, there is indeed a trade market out there for Myers.
Most assume that, because of his $6 million cap hit for the next two seasons, the Canucks would either have to pay to get rid of Myers or accept little to no return for him. But if they were to reduce his contract by half, that could change the situation drastically.
We’d go as far as to say that there would be a genuinely strong interest leaguewide in a $3 million Myers. That could kick off another bidding war, and while it wouldn’t reach anywhere near the heights of the Miller bidding war, it could again mean another future asset in the pocket of the Canucks.
They can definitely afford the $3 million of dead cap next season. It becomes a little trickier in 2023/24, with players like Bo Horvat needing new contracts, but the end of the Braden Holtby and Jake Virtanen buyout penalties at that point should make it manageable.
The Canucks still won’t be competing then, anyway. When they’re ready to start pursuing more expensive additions in anticipation of a 2025-or-later run, the salary retention will be off the books.
Plenty of other names could be thrown on the potentially-retained pile. Maybe Tanner Pearson draws significant interest with a million shaved off his contract. Maybe it’s Jason Dickinson. Maybe the Canucks get a larger-than-expected return for Travis Dermott by cutting his cap hit down to league minimum and flipping him to a top-tier contender.
The Canucks could even get really fancy and act as the third party in a double-retention transaction at the 2023 Trade Deadline.
The possibilities are there.
Really, though it has a bit of a bad reputation, salary retention represents one of the least complicated methods through which the Canucks can greatly increase the number of future assets they pick up in the weeks and months to come.
If that’s truly the new organizational goal, there’s no reason not to at least explore salary retention as an option moving forward.
No one likes to see dead cap on the books, but an empty prospect cupboard looks even worse. If you’ve got to pick between the two, go with the latter.
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