The good, the bad, and the ugly of the trade that brought Riley Stillman to the Vancouver Canucks
Photo credit:© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
11 months ago
It just had to go down on a Friday ahead of a long weekend…
Yes, while the Vancouver Canucks were busy drubbing the Arizona Coyotes on the ice to the tune of 4-0, the front office made the surprise announcement of their first trade in more than six months.
GM Patrik Allvin completed and announced a transaction that sent forward Jason Dickinson and the Canucks’ 2024 second round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for defender Riley Stillman.
And, if we’re being honest, Allvin also kind of stole the thunder from his own team’s most dominant performance of the preseason schedule.
Almost immediately, #Canucks Twitter was up and running, coursing with lukewarm opinions and hot takes about the deal: some positive, some neutral, but the majority on the negative side of things.
Fine points have been made all around.
Now, two days later, we’re here to provide a full breakdown of The good, the bad, and the ugly of the trade that brought Riley Stillman to the Vancouver Canucks.
Jason Dickinson was outplayed by a half-dozen other bubble forwards in camp (GOOD)
We’ll start with the player heading out of town.
Dickinson was acquired from the Dallas Stars for the cost of a third round pick in the summer of 2021, and soon re-signed to a three-year, $2.65 million AAV contract. Fans and media alike were initially excited about Dickinson’s reported potential as a checking line center, but that role never really materialized for him in Vancouver.
Instead, Dickinson put up just 11 points in 62 games — most of them on the wing — and struggled to find a permanent spot in the lineup.
Still, Dickinson was penciled in to center the Canucks’ fourth line this season, probably between Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua. Then Training Camp 2022 hit, and Dickinson was outplayed by nearly every other forward surrounding him on the depth chart, including Lazar and Joshua.
Phil di Giuseppe, Sheldon Dries, and Linus Karlsson each outplayed Dickinson through camp and exhibition, and each arguably vaulted themselves up and over him in team rankings. But the player who had the most direct hand in stealing Dickinson’s spot was Nils Åman, a 22-year-old straight out of the SHL who now looks poised to skate into opening night as the Canucks’ fourth line center.
On the whole, it’s great that camp was so competitive, and it’s fantastic that the Canucks are making the moves required to ensure that the players who earned a spot are getting a spot. It’s a far better outcome than Dickinson just making the team because of his salary.
Dumping Dickinson opens up at least a million in cap space, and potentially more (GOOD)
Speaking of salary, moving Dickinson is clearly — and maybe primarily — a move to clear cap space. Both Dickinson and Stillman are signed for two more seasons, but Dickinson’s cap hit is nearly double Stillman’s: $2.65 million versus $1.35 million.
That looks like an instant savings of $1.3 million against the cap, but the reality isn’t quite that simple.
Were Dickinson to be buried in the minors and replaced by a near-league-minimum forward like Åman, the Canucks were already going to be able to save about $375,000 against the cap.
There’s also the issue of Stillman himself remaining on the roster. Right now, that doesn’t matter much, because Tyler Myers and Travis Dermott are out. But if the blueline ever gets healthy, and Stillman plays well enough to stay in the top-eight, it could mean that he replaces someone like Kyle Burroughs or Christian Wolanin making near-minimum, and that will incur an extra hit against the cap.
Any way you slice it, the Canucks should save about a million in cap expenditures for this season and next by making this trade, and potentially a little more, depending on how they construct their roster.
For a team who is already technically over the salary cap, that’s not nothing.
The deal opens up space in 2023, too, when Bo Horvat and Andrey Kuzmenko need extensions (GOOD)
The real key to this deal, however, is not the cap space opened up right now, but the cap space opened up tomorrow.
Dickinson off the roster for the 2023 offseason and Stillman on should open up at least $1.3 million in extra space for that summer. If the Canucks choose to trade Stillman or bury him in the minors in the interim, that number jumps up closer to $2 million.
And that $1.3-2 million could be invaluable, because the summer of 2023 is also the point at which the Canucks are going to have to extend both Bo Horvat and Andrey Kuzmenko; not to mention the need to accommodate space for JT Miller’s already-signed extension.
If the extra space is the difference between keeping either of those players or parting ways with them, it will be hard to criticize any cost incurred. Either way, this trade opens up cap space and flexibility when the Canucks need it most, and that’s undoubtedly a positive.
The second round pick is in 2024, and not in the loaded 2023 Draft (GOOD)
We’ll be getting to this later, but, yes, a second round pick is an AWFUL LOT to give up for what might not even amount to a full $1.3 million in cap space. That might be the reality of life under the flattish cap, but it still stings.
It would sting a lot more, however, if the pick traded had been for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, instead of the 2024 Draft. The 2023 Draft is supposedly one for the ages, and is said to be well-stocked with NHL talent deep into the second round.
The 2024 Draft isn’t just further down the road, it’s also far less hyped. If a second round pick had to be included, just be glad it wasn’t the Canucks’ next one up.
Riley Stillman is only 24, and showed potential while in Florida (GOOD)
Enough about what the Canucks gave up, what about what they got?
Plenty has been said about Stillman’s difficulties with the Blackhawks last season, and we’ll be saying more in a moment. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is an NHL defender who is still just 24 years old, and who has flashed big league potential on a number of occasions.
As a 21-year-old rookie, Stillman played 34 games and averaged 19:07 in ice-time for a Florida team that ended up missing the playoffs by a scant three points. During that time, he faced significantly-greater-than-average competition, started most of his shifts in the defensive end, and kept his head mostly above water on the fancy statline.
Stillman also began to develop a reputation as one of the heaviest and most willing hitters in the league.
The next year, the Panthers began to dramatically improve around him, and Stillman found himself sliding down the depth chart. A midseason trade sent him to the floundering Blackhawks, where Stillman held tough for half a season before seeming to collapse in 2021/22 under the strain of playing for a basement-dwelling franchise.
But at the age of 24, the potential still remains for Stillman to at least return to the quality of play he displayed as a rookie. And he’s got at least one local believer in his corner in Thomas Drance, who worked with Stillman down in Florida and speaks very highly of his character.
You won’t catch us describing Stillman as a “steal” or even a particularly valuable asset, but he’s also not an absolute throwaway or a negative. Whether he steps up or not, it’s reasonable for the Canucks to think they might have something useful in their newest defender.
Stillman brings a lot of what the left side of the Vancouver blueline lacks, including major physicality (GOOD)
Let’s not beat around the bush. Stillman does one thing very well, and that thing is sending opponents to the Phantom Zone with devastating open ice hits.
We don’t have to remind Canucks fans too much of this truth, because they saw it on display plenty during the 2021/22 season.
Stillman led the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueline in hits/60 last season with 9.34; not quite Luke Schenn numbers, but still impressive.
Even then, it’s not the sheer number of hits that counts, but the impact. And Stillman always makes an impact when he hits. It’s worth noting, too, that he is happy to back up his checks with his fists, and also to immediately respond when a teammate needs backing up.
Prior to this acquisition, the left side of the Canucks’ blueline looked something like Quinn Hughes/Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Travis Dermott/Jack Rathbone/Christian Wolanin. That’s a fine set of players, but it’s definitely lacking in the things that Stillman brings to the table. If anything, he balances the unit and ensures that opponents don’t have a free line down the Canucks’ ice all season long.
With Travis Dermott and Tyler Myers out to start the year, the Canucks needed a D (GOOD)
This point doesn’t require much elaboration, but it bears mentioning anyway. As it stands, the Canucks are slated to start the 2022/23 season without Myers and Dermott. There was talk of the need for a warm body, and speculation that the Canucks might even claim a defender on waivers to shore up their depth.
The acquisition of Stillman takes care of that problem, neatly.
Stillman was the worst defender on a bad Chicago team in 2021/22 (BAD)
We won’t mince words.
Karma came through, the Chicago Blackhawks were dreadful in 2021/22, and Stillman might have been the worst of the bunch.
Stillman played 52 games, and found himself an occasional scratch.
Of those who played a semi-regular role on the Chicago blueline, Stillman had the worst Corsi and the worst xG%. Only Jake McCabe had a worse control of overall scoring chances, and only Caleb Jones bled more high-danger chances.
Sure, Stillman only ended up a -8 on the year, but that’s with heavily-sheltered minutes. He almost exclusively played against bottom-six competition, and — for the first time in his career — started more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive.
The Canucks have learned, through Ekman-Larsson’s example, that it’s entirely possible for a defender to be bogged down by the quality of the team around them, and to immediately start playing better upon transferring to a better club.
Until that happens for Stillman, however, there’s ample reason for caution.
If Stillman remains on the roster, the cap savings are not immense (BAD)
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Stillman rebounds nicely in Vancouver, and works his way into the permanent top-six rotation. That’s great and all, but it also undercuts the primary purpose of this trade, which was to cut cap.
If Stillman remains on the roster, he’s probably taking the place of a defender who otherwise would have been making close to league minimum. Stillman makes about $600K more than the league minimum, so that goes against the cap.
Alternatively, just buying Dickinson out this next summer would have incurred a cap penalty of only $483K for the 2023/24 season.
Obviously, there are going to be a lot of moving parts here, but the basic fact of the matter is that, for the Canucks to truly save a meaningful amount of cap on this deal, they need to be rid of Stillman’s contract before next offseason. Thus, the better Stillman plays, the less cap space they gain — unless, of course, they parlay that better play into a trade out of town.
A second round pick is a lot to give up for that amount of savings (BAD)
Given what we just stated, about the total cap savings for this deal possibly amounting to the neighbourhood of $1 million per season, that second round pick toll starts looking mighty rich.
It might be in keeping with the league market. The Rangers gave up a second and a conditional third to be rid of Patrik Nemeth and his $2.5 million AAV this offseason, though they didn’t have to take any salary back in the equation. But it still feels like an awful lot to pay for cap space that might ultimately amount to a quarter of Kuzmenko’s extension or a seventh of Horvat’s.
And second round picks aren’t exactly something that the Canucks can afford to give up, either, but more on that later.
This may squeeze Jack Rathbone out of a roster spot (BAD)
The Canucks don’t have many NHL-ready prospects in their system, but Rathbone is probably number one on the list. He’s had a solid exhibition run after running rampant in the AHL as a rookie last season, but now this trade could land him back in Abbotsford through no real fault of his own.
Sure, it could be argued that Rathbone needed to show more in camp, but he’s already shown more than what Stillman displayed last year in Chicago, and Rathbone is the one loaded with potential. With little to prove in Abbotsford, consider it a minor disappointment if this trade results in a Rathbone demotion.
One of the most expensive bluelines in the NHL is now more expensive, and little better (BAD)
The Canucks already had one of the most expensive bluelines in the NHL, ranking in the top-ten in terms of cap hit, but far from it in terms of performance.
With this trade, Stillman presumably knocks someone like Wolanin out of the lineup, and knocks the overall cost of the blueline up by $600K. That might seem like small potatoes, but it brings the Canucks up to about eighth overall in blueline expenditures. And, until Stillman shows better in Vancouver, the extra cost would seem to have done very little to actually improve the blueline.
The trade appears to be as much about saving cash as saving cap (UGLY)
Alright, let’s get into the weeds.
Put as bluntly as we can muster, Dickinson was scheduled to be paid $5.95 million in actual salary over the next two seasons. Stillman, meanwhile, is only owed $2.7 million in base salary.
So, while the cap space savings may be negligible, the real cash savings stand at more than $3 million.
For the folks actually signing the paycheques, that’s good news.
For the fans buying the tickets and watching the product on the ice, that off-ice finances might have been a factor in this trade is a little harder to swallow.
The Canucks have only made four selections in the first three rounds over the past three drafts, and badly need future assets (UGLY)
POHO Jim Rutherford and GM Patrik Allvin arrived with announced intentions of restocking the Canucks’ cupboard of future assets. So far, that hasn’t really happened, and now they’re down a second rounder. Thanks to the actions of previous regimes, that’s probably a bigger problem than it should be.
The Canucks absolutely shed draft picks under the Jim Benning regime, including the third rounder it cost to bring Dickinson in in the first place. That’s no fault of Allvin and Co., but it’s still the situation that they were left with. From a fan’s perspective, it makes little difference who dealt which draft picks. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that the Canucks have made just four selections in the first three rounds of the past three drafts.
This team needs future assets as badly, if not badder, as it needs cap space. Losing a second round pick to earn a million and change sticks out as a losing endeavour, and looks even worse in the context of recent history.
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