If the Canucks can wait, the 2024 UFA class offers better defenders than 2023
Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
It’s late April already, and the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline remains unretooled as of yet.
Which means we’ve still got plenty of time to sneak in a couple more editions of Retooling the Blueline.
We’ve already determined that, before the Canucks can say they’ve effectively retooled, they’re going to need to add at least one, and probably two, more top-four defenders to the mix.
We’ve also reckoned that the asset-poor Canucks are probably far better off acquiring said defenders through the draft or free agency, as opposed to the trade market.
When last we met, we took a look at the 2023 UFA class, and found it to be largely lacking in the quality of defenders that Vancouver might be looking for.
Fortunately, nobody ever said that GM Patrik Allvin and Co. would have to complete their retool in a single offseason.
We’ve already mentioned that there’s a good chance that the Canucks jut roll out the same, or a very similar, blueline in 2023/24 that they employed in 2022/23. That means some combination of Quinn Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and a blend of Akito Hirose, Christian Wolanin, and Jack Rathbone on the left, and a combination of Filip Hronek, Ethan Bear, and Tyler Myers on the right.
The Canucks aren’t planning to compete right away, anyway. If anything, they might ditch Myers and attempt to replace him with a better, younger defender this summer. But the acquisition of blueline talent could also stand to wait a year, and if the Canucks’ themselves can also manage the patience, they should find a 2024 UFA class that offers much higher-quality D than 2023 will.
Before we look at the 2024 market, however, a word of caution. A lot can happen in a year, and the players listed here won’t become free agents until July 1, 2024. Technically, none of them are even eligible for extensions yet, but some of them will inevitably sign them between now and then. In other words, not all of these players will make it to the open market.
That said, there’s also the possibility that other names are added to the 2024 UFA list. For example, if an RFA of the right age and experience level signs a one-year deal this summer, they could bring themselves to UFA status by next summer.
Another thing worth noting is that all of the stats you’ll see in this article are for the 2022/23 regular season. So, make sure to add a year’s worth of age and wear-and-tear to your considerations for each player.
And now, without any further ado, the class of 2024, featuring several top-four D on both the left and right side.
The 2024 UFA Market for Top-Four LHDs
The Canucks have Quinn Hughes in place, and they hope that Akito Hirose can continue to play like a top-four talent in the long-term. Oliver Ekman-Larsson can ideally be bought out this offseason or next, which should theoretically make room for a sizeable acquisition on the left.
LHD, 29, 6’1”, 191lb
Toews is the gold standard of the 2024 UFA market. He’s spent the last couple of seasons being a top-pairing defender for the best team in hockey, and he’ll still be just a few months past his 30th birthday when and if he hits UFA. On that front, the Avalanche’s litany of high-priced contracts actually gives Toews a decent chance of making it to market. And as a nice extra bonus, he’s from Abbotsford, so there’s a hometown connection available for the Canucks to exploit.
We don’t have to spend too much time extolling Toews virtues here, because there’s basically nothing he doesn’t do well. He might not be aged quite right to align with the Canucks’ established core, but he is about the same age as JT Miller, and does play a cerebral game that should age well. Signing Toews makes any team instantly better, and the Canucks would be no exception.
LHD, 26, 6’3”, 207lb
A lesser, but also much younger, top-pairing option is Hanifin. He’s also an all-around talent, who uses his combination of size and skating ability to great effect in Calgary, and who has really come into his own in his mid-‘20s.
The Flames are at a bit of a crisis point, and organizational changes will be many in the year to come. That could entail Hanifin’s departure, and that could lead in turn to the Canucks scooping up an ultra-talented defender around the same age as Hughes and Elias Pettersson. A Hanifin/Hronek pairing sounds like a delight for the Canucks and a nightmare for opposing top-sixes.
LHD, 29, 6’3”, 210lb
Skjei hits the list with a blend of the attributes of the previous two players. He’s the same age as Toews, and has also been a major contributor on a top-notch team for several seasons running. He’s got the same size and skating prowess as Hanifin, along with the same exact point total. Skjei might not technically be on the top-pairing, but that’s only because the Hurricanes have perhaps the deepest blueline in the NHL. Skjei is still the third two-way stud with top-pairing-quality play on the list, and that’s really saying something. He spent much of this past season shutting down opposing top lines alongside Brett Pesce, and thus brings something to the table that the Canucks are currently lacking.
LHD, 32, 6’2”, 187lb
Brodie is a unique specimen in that he can play either side of the blueline, but typically prefers skating on his off-hand on the right. Either way, he’s long been a steady and reliable top-four defender, if one who’s a step down from the aforementioned three at this point in his career.
Really, it’s just age holding Brodie back at this point. A couple seasons ago, he would have been a perfect acquisition for the Canucks. The prospect of handing him a UFA contract at the age of 34 (he turns 33 in June) is not an inviting one. As a short-term fill-in, sure, but the Canucks are hoping for more than that in their next signing.
LHD, 29, 5’10”, 176lb
Plus/minus is a bit like blood pressure. Without proper context, it’s mostly just a number that doesn’t really mean anything, but sometimes it’s just so high that it must been something. That’s definitely the case with Grzelcyk and his +46 rating for the league-leading Bruins this season, which was second in the NHL behind teammate Hampus Lindholm.
Grzelcyk might not be a household name yet, but that’s probably at least partly due to pronounceability. He’s developed into a genuine top-four talent in Boston that could probably play even higher up the lineup on a thinner depth chart. He’s already built up a reputation of being someone difficult to play against, and the Bruins are currently missing his presence dearly in the playoffs.
LHD, 28, 6’0”, 186lb
Hello, old friend. The Canucks once dumped a recently-drafted Forsling for the already-busted Adam Clendening, and then had to watch him develop into a top-four defender a few stops later in Florida. But there’s no use crying over spilled draft picks, and especially not when re-acquiring Forsling is on the table.
For someone once considered an NHL longshot, Forsling has been on an upward trajectory for quite some time now, and might have just reached his peak. He was probably the Panthers’ single best all-around defender in 2022/23, and his steadiness — to say nothing of that out-of-nowhere offensive talent — was a major reason why they were able to push back into a playoff position. There’s very little that Forsling doesn’t do well, so maybe it’s high time he start doing it for the team that first believed in him.
LHD, 28, 6’6”, 248lb
Unlike the other names on the list, Zadorov can never be construed as a top-pairing-quality defender. He might not even really even be a top-four on a contending team for too much longer. But Zadorov does bring some unique attributes to the mix that the others don’t, and those attributes are height, weight, and what he can do with them.
Zadorov is a physical monster, easily one of the best and most-feared hitters in all of hockey. His defensive coverage is adequate, his offence is so-so, but Zadorov sets out to punish his opponents on a nightly basis, and often succeeds. That’s something that the Canucks currently lack, but it’s also a quality that tends to get players overpaid come free agency. Zadorov really seems like someone who will sign a regrettable contract in the very near future, and is thus someone to probably be avoided.
The 2024 UFA Market for Top-Four RHDs
As much as the Canucks would love to add more talent on the left side of their blueline, the right has to remain a priority. Filip Hronek will soon be locked into place, but Tyler Myers is on the way out, and Ethan Bear is a temporary top-four solution, at best. Another RHD, and preferably one capable of joining Hughes on a long-term top-pairing, is still a necessity.
RHD, 28, 6’3”, 206lb
If Toews isn’t the gold standard of this UFA class, then it’s Pesce. He might not be as exciting, but he’s long been recognized as one of the best defensive defenders in hockey, and he’ll still be on this side of 30 when and if he becomes a free agent.
Pesce can play the game any way you like it, but is at his best when matching up against opposing top lines. His skating ability and defensive focus might just make him the perfect partner for Hughes, but Pesce is the kind of talent that makes a blueline better no matter where he’s placed. He’s a one-man difference-maker on defence, and should remain so for a very long time.
RHD, 29, 6’0”, 194lb
Montour has really come out of nowhere to be a top-flight offensive defender. Two years ago, the Panthers acquired Montour from the Sabres for a third round pick. A month ago, Montour set a Florida franchise scoring record for blueliners. That’s quite a turnaround.
Signing Montour this upcoming summer would be a nightmare. He’s clearly just experienced a career season, and would thus be horrifically overpaid. But he’ll almost certainly regress, at least statistically, in 2023/24, and that could bring his price range down to something more reasonable.
Montour is definitely a defender with a more offensive bent, but he’s not lost in his own zone by any means. He might not be exactly what the Canucks are looking for, but he’s still a sizeable upgrade, talent-wise.
RHD, 33, 6’2”, 193lb
Speaking of old friends, how about Tanev? Believe it or not, he’s only got better since leaving Vancouver, and is still widely recognized as one of the best shutdown defenders in hockey. He’ll be hitting UFA status at age 34, and most will think he’s past his prime at that point, but they said the same when he hit UFA at age 30, and look at him now.
In reality, Tanev will not be a long-term solution for the retool. He’s just too old. But if a temporary fill-in is what is desired — say in the instance of the Canucks drafting a top-notch RHD prospect who needs development time — there’s no funner option out there than a Tanev reunion tour.
RHD, 28, 6’1”, 205lb
|2022/23||Los Angeles||$3.15 mil||82||9||17||26||+8||52.3%|
Roy is one of those defenders who is hard to gauge because of who he plays behind. He’s definitely a top-four D, at the very least, but could he be more if he weren’t slotted after Drew “30 Minutes-a-Night” Doughty? Someone will attempt to find out if and when Roy hits free agency.
Roy is often described as some blend of quiet/steady/underrated/unassuming, and is the kind of defender who does everything well and without flash. He can match up with top-sixes, he can move the puck up the ice effectively, and he can provide a modicum of offence. Because of that, he won’t necessarily break the bank as a UFA, and someone might end up walking away with a rare non-overpaid free agent if they secure his services.
RHD, 31, 5’11”, 197lb
|2022/23||Edmonton/ Nashville||$4.5 mil||85||13||42||55||-7||48.2%|
As a local talent who has spent his entire career in various top-fours, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Barrie here. But given that he’s largely developed into an all-offence, little-defence sort of blueliner, it’s safe to say that he’s not what the Canucks are currently looking for, nor will he be when he becomes a UFA days before his 33rd birthday.
Someone will take Barrie, and they’ll probably give him too much money, but it should not be the Canucks. Consider that the Oilers, well on their way to a postseason run, had no issue trading Barrie away at the Trade Deadline. That speaks volumes.
RHD, 26, 6’1”, 188lb
Okay, we swear we’re not trying to make a point here. It’s mostly just a coincidence that Chatfield is the third “one who got away” on the list. He is a defensively-sound defender who can move around the ice well and who hits like a truck. He’s been unable to ascend beyond the bottom pairing in Carolina, but that’s probably to be expect. That Chatfield is contributing so much to the best blueline in hockey still says a lot, and it will earn him some serious suitors when he hits UFA at age 28.
In reality, the Canucks never should have let Chatfield go. A reunion probably doesn’t move the needle too much in 2024, but Chatfield might have made a difference over the last couple of seasons.
Okay, maybe we are trying to make a point.
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