Retooling the Blueline: The Canucks will find the UFA market thin on quality D in 2023
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
Welcome back to another exciting episode of Retooling the Blueline, our summer series in which we, step-by-step, attempt to predict the moves of the Vancouver Canucks as they, step-by-step, attempt to retool their beleaguered blueline into a far more competitive shape.
When last we met, we discussed the club’s announced intention to not buyout Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and what that might mean for the retool.
We reckoned that, with OEL still in the fold and Akito Hirose finding a surprising amount of early success, perhaps the Canucks would focus primarily on adding talent to their right side in the 2023 offseason.
But the old maxim holds true that beggars can’t be choosers, and we all know that the Canucks are begging for more quality defenders. With just Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek in hand as definitive, set-in-stone top-four blueliners, the club will be on the lookout to add at least one, and maybe two, other defenders capable of handling major minutes in the near future.
Here’s the catch: quality D are typically pretty expensive to acquire, and the Canucks are a little asset poor at the moment after already having spent a first and a second on Hronek — to say nothing of the first and second previously spent on Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland two summers prior.
What that means is that the Canucks will struggle to put together enough of a compelling trade package to garner the sort of additional D they really need to add to the roster. Which means, in turn, that the UFA market becomes even more important to their endeavors than it usually is.
Signing UFAs, you see, does not require the expenditure of assets.
It does, however, generally require the handing out of large contracts. And when it comes to the UFA class of 2023, it’s difficult to find many candidates that seem worth the financial commitment.
The 2023 UFA Market for Top-Four LHDs
As we covered last time, there’s a good chance that the Canucks just roll into 2023/24 with its current left-side depth chart of Hughes/Ekman-Larsson/Hirose and one of Christian Wolanin or Jack Rathbone.
Doing so would allow them to focus entirely on adding RHD talent, but that’s sometimes easier said than done.
If it comes down to it, the Canucks won’t find it much of a compromise to add a high-quality LHD to the roster instead…if they can get their hands on one, that is.
Vladislav GavrikovLHD, 27, 6’3”, 221lb
|2022/23||Columbus/ LA||$2.8 mil||72||6||13||19||+4||47.9%|
As a client of unofficial Vancouver AGM Dan Milstein, Gavrikov’s name has already been linked to the Canucks several times over. He’s got the size, the defensive acumen, and the two-way skill to slide neatly into their top-four behind Hughes. We can definitely envision him meshing well on a shutdown pairing with Hronek.
If there’s anything counting against Gavrikov here, it’s all that attention that he garnered as a rental at the 2023 Trade Deadline. That probably translates into a bit of a bidding war if he hits UFA status, and that could result in a surprisingly high salary for someone without that long of a track record as a top-four option. That could price him out of Vancouver, especially with OEL still on the books.
Dmitry OrlovLHD, 31, 5’11”, 214lb
|2022/23||Washington/ Boston||$5.1 mil||66||7||29||36||+12||52.9%|
If Gavrikov is going to price himself out of Vancouver, the same can almost certainly be said for Orlov. He’s a head shorter than Gavrikov, but has otherwise put together a much better and much longer resume as a top-pairing D in the NHL.
Orlov can put up big points, hits like a truck, and has already played a major role on a Stanley Cup winner. Another playoff run with the Bruins probably leaves Orlov as the most-sought-after UFA D on the market, and that’s almost inevitably going to lead to an overpayment.
The Canucks can’t afford to overpay on a 31-year-old, even one so proven.
Ryan GravesLHD, 27, 6’5”, 220lb
|2022/23||New Jersey||$3.167 mil||78||8||18||26||+34||51.1%|
Graves has really come into his own as a top-four defender in New Jersey. There’s always the chance that he’s playing a bit over his head as a member of a strong blueline overall, but those numbers speak volumes about Graves’ individual contributions.
There’s a lot to like here: Graves is enormous, he can move around the ice well for his size, and he’s become relied on for his physical matchup play. At just 27, Graves is hitting free agency right smack in the middle of his prime, and that’s timing that works very well for the Canucks’ intentions.
That said, Graves can count on at least doubling his salary this offseason, and that could be a problem to a team already paying Hughes and OEL a combined $15 million on the left side.
Carson SoucyLHD, 28, 6’5”, 208lb
Fully having broken out into a top-four role in Seattle after having his development suppressed a bit in Minnesota, Soucy has played a major part in the Kraken’s surprising run to the playoffs. He’s nothing fancy, but he is a sizeable and ornery shutdown-type defender capable of handling big minutes against big matchups. In many ways, Soucy is the sort of defender that’s almost custom-built for the postseason.
At age 28, Soucy is aged right for a UFA. That said, he’s only on his fourth NHL season, so the lack of a track record could be seen as reason for caution. Someone will double Soucy’s salary, and then it’ll be up to him to maintain his level of play throughout the contract.
Aside from perhaps Graves, Soucy looks like the Canucks’ best blend of fit and affordability on the left.
Brian DumoulinLHD, 31, 6’4”, 207lb
Big, strong, defensively-sound, and capable of holding down top-pairing minutes, with a multiple Stanley Cup resume, to boot. Dumoulin would be a perfect target for the Canucks as a UFA…if he weren’t already 31 years old.
Unfortunately, Dumoulin is already well onto the downslide of his career, which is probably why Pittsburgh is expected to move on from him in the offseason. If he’s too old for the Penguins, he’s definitely too old for the Canucks.
Niko MikkolaLHD, 26, 6’4”, 209lb
|2022/23||St. Louis/ New York||$1.9 mil||81||1||5||6||+6||42.8%|
Here, the quality of the list begins to drop off shortly. Mikkola makes the list as one of the youngest UFA defenders on the market, and as a sizeable two-way talent currently holding his own on a playoff roster. Make no mistake, however: Mikkola has yet to prove himself as a top-four talent in the NHL, and he may never.
This is the sort of signing the Canucks might make as a bit of a gamble if they miss out on several other free agents. It’s a medium-risk, medium-reward sort of proposition…and, ultimately, not one that moves the needle much for this franchise.
Connor MackeyLHD, 26, 6’2”, 197lb
You can pretty much copy-and-paste what we put for Mikkola into this section, too. Mackey is still just 26, he’s ultra-physical, and he was once thought of as someone with top-four potential. Having failed to make much noise in Arizona shouldn’t be held against Mackey too much, but it will harm his marketability this summer, and that could make him a convenient low-budget option.
In the end, the Canucks are probably better off saving a spot on the roster for Hirose than wasting too much time on a Mackey.
The 2023 UFA Market for Top-Four RHDs
Even with Hronek and a re-signed Ethan Bear in place, the right-side of the defence corps definitely needs work…and that becomes doubly true if Tyler Myers is sold off for cap space, as most expect will happen.
Here, the Canucks would love to find someone capable of partnering with Hughes in a true top-pairing situation, allowing Hronek and Bear to hold down their own pairings lower on the depth chart.
Of course, as we’ve alluded to several times, finding a RHD of that quality may prove challenging, especially on the open market.
Matt DumbaRHD, 28, 6’0”, 181lb
Dumba’s is a name that has been attached to the Canucks’ RHD needs for some time now, but it almost feels like the moment has passed. Dumba has stagnated a fair bit in Minnesota, and is now really just a top-four defender in name only. There’s still a chance that he rebounds in a new city, but is that really a chance the Canucks want to take with a UFA? Especially a UFA that is still one of the top RHDs on the market, and will thus garner a decent salary, no matter what.
Dumba remains a minute-muncher and one of the best hitters in the league, and he would constitute an upgrade on RHD for Vancouver…but not enough of one to be worth the risk.
Damon SeversonRHD, 28, 6’2”, 205lb
|2022/23||New Jersey||$4.167 mil||81||7||26||33||+9||56.5%|
After helping lead the New Jersey blueline to one of the best records in hockey this season, Severson might just be the top UFA D on the market, period. Severson is a two-way stud who might lean toward the offensive, but proved ultra-capable in either end in 2022/23.
There’s some question as to how Severson would handle himself on a blueline on which he didn’t share the right side with Dougie Hamilton and John Marino, but that won’t be enough to scare away any suitors.
If the Canucks were the only team in the running for Severson, he’d be a slam-dunk to pursue. As it stands, he’s one that they should monitor the market for closely, and probably put in an offer on — so long as things stay within a reasonable range.
Scott MayfieldRHD, 30, 6’5”, 220lb
|2022/23||New York||$1.45 mil||82||6||18||24||+8||48.0%|
Mayfield is huge, he’s mean, and he’s a shutdown warrior built for playoff hockey…with a decent amount of offence, to boot. At 30, he’s a little older than the Canucks might want to target, but he’s otherwise fairly perfect for their purposes as one of the few defensively-inclined D out there capable of keeping up with Hughes.
The only problem is that Mayfield has spent the past several seasons being one of the most-underpaid players in the entire NHL, and that means he’ll be looking to cash in big-time as a UFA this summer. Can the Canucks afford to be the highest bidder on a player who will be 31 before he arrives in Vancouver? Probably not, unfortunately.
Connor CliftonRHD, 27, 5’11”, 190lb
Clifton has been on the periphery of the Boston top-four for a few years running now, but that shouldn’t be held against him, as the Bruins have been a powerhouse throughout. An all-around talent, Clifton is a little smaller than what the Canucks would ideally like to add to their roster, but otherwise checks off the boxes of being able to move the puck and being dedicated in his own end.
That he could handle a top-four role in Vancouver is probably a certainty. That he’d be an upgrade worth paying for remains to be seen, and that keeps him from being a first-choice option.
Radko GudasRHD, 32, 6’0”, 208lb
Here, the quality of the list starts to deteriorate. Gudas is a beast, no doubt about it, but a beast who is probably best served remaining in a bottom-pairing role on a contending team. Signing the 32-year-old Gudas and expecting him to play higher in the lineup than he’s used to seems like a recipe for disaster, as much fun as it would be seeing him steamroll opponents in Vancouver for the next few years.
Justin HollRHD, 31, 6’3”,197lb
Holl might be the whipping boy in Toronto these days, but he’s still made it into their playoff lineup over some very talented teammates, and he’s been nothing short of reliable over the years. Ultimately, Holl doesn’t make enough of a difference for the Canucks to target him — not when they’ve already got Bear in place as a quasi-top-four RHD — but they could certainly do worse.
He might be the kind of option they eventually circle back on.
Luke SchennRHD, 33, 6’2”, 225lb
When in doubt, go with what you know. Schenn has, at the very least, already proven capable of partnering with Hughes and probably won’t break the bank, even as a top-seven RHD UFA.
Still, if the Canucks actually hope to improve on their 2022/23 blueline, we know that Schenn can’t be the answer.
Not happy with the 2023 crop of UFAs? Tune in later this week as we take a look even further into the future…all the way to 2024!
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