Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Should the Canucks demote Tucker Poolman?
1 year ago
A week out from opening night and with more than three dozen players still on their camp roster, the Vancouver Canucks have some cuts to make.
Up front, a series of injuries have made the job of the coaching staff and front office a little easier, taking care of some of the more difficult decisions for them.
On the blueline, where Travis Dermott is the only injured player of note and projects to return shortly, the choices will be a little trickier.
Quinn Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tyler Myers, and Luke Schenn are all locks, and combine to make up the team’s ad hoc top-four. That leaves up to four more spots left to be claimed, with Vancouver expected to carry a total of eight defenders, as per usual.
Dermott, when healthy, almost certainly gets one of those spots.
The same goes for Jack Rathbone, who has already done more than enough to show that he’s ready to graduate from the minor leagues.
That leaves a battle for the final two jobs between a whole host of depth defenders, including the pre-established Kyle Burroughs, and Tucker Poolman, he of the four-year, $10 million contract.
The smart money is still on Poolman making the team, even as an extra. The Canucks have invested a little too much salary and term into Poolman to render him a guilt and consequence-free cut. Yet, there have been continual calls throughout the offseason to send him down to Abbotsford regardless, and his play in the preseason has only intensified those calls.
Below, we’ll look at all the factors at play in the Poolman decision, and where they might lead the Canucks.
Health does not look like it will be one of those factors. By all accounts, Poolman’s migraine-related issues are behind him, and he’s in camp ready to play.
One would hope that quality of play alone is the primary factor at work when making training camp cuts, and although things are never quite that simple, we’ll start there.
Few would argue that Poolman has stood out as a top-six-quality defender thus far. All of those ranked ahead of him on the depth chart have handily outplayed him in preseason action, up to and including the rookie Rathbone.
Burroughs, meanwhile, has continued to display his ultra-physical and otherwise workmanlike style, and has the added benefit of being able to play either side of the blueline. As a seventh defender, he makes a lot more sense than Poolman in the current moment.
The eighth slot should be wide open, but there Poolman has been challenged by the likes of Christian Wolanin and Wyatt Kalynuk, along with longer shots Noah Juulsen and Brady Keeper.
Now, with the latter three cut or on waivers, it’s down to Poolman versus Wolanin.
Through two exhibition games thus far, Poolman is pointless — though that’s hardly a strike against him, what with only four points total scored by the entire Vancouver blueline through five preseason games. His -2 rating looks worse, but it’s also tied with Hughes and twice as good as Ekman-Larsson’s -4.
To get a real sense of how Poolman has been playing, we’ll have to turn to alternative sources of information. The first is the analytic line, where a two-game sample size must always be taken with a grain of salt, but that certainly doesn’t reflect well on Poolman as a player trying to make his team. His even-strength Corsi sits at 38.46%, his control of scoring chances at just 33.33% (repeating, of course), and his xG at a paltry 25.93%.
Only Juulsen and Guillaume Brisebois had worse possession metrics among blueliners. No defender had a worse grip on scoring chances than Poolman, not even the early-cut Jett Woo or the artist formerly known as Danny DeKeyser.
Compare that with the newly-signed Kalynuk, who is thus far sporting a Corsi of 58.82% and a scoring chance control rate of 62.5%. Or with Keeper and his 70.96% xG in game one. Sure, those are also small sample sizes, but what is the preseason if not a small sample size from which big decisions need to be made?
Compare them especially with Wolanin, who has an xG of 60.39% and a scoring chance control rate of 55.26%, to go along with a 64.71% on high-danger chances, specifically.
The contrast is clear, and it definitely doesn’t bode well for Poolman keeping his spot. And then there’s the eye-test.
A few blunders do not define a player, but the gaffes, goofs, and guffaw-inducing tumbles are still far too present in Poolman’s game. He’s blowing his coverage, he’s giving the puck away, and he’s creating odd-man rushes the wrong way out of nowhere; none of which are great qualities in a depth defender.
It’s pretty hard to walk away from the bulk of Training Camp 2022 and the first half of the exhibition schedule feeling like Poolman is one of the Canucks’ top eight defenders.
So, he gets cut, right? RHD Burroughs is the first extra, and then LHD Wolanin slots in at #8. Poolman hits waivers, and it’s as easy as that. Isn’t it?
Well, as we said at the outset, nothing is ever quite that simple.
That Poolman makes about three times as much as any of the defenders he’s competing with for a role should be a nonfactor. If anything, it’s all the more reason to be disappointed in his comparatively lackluster performance. Overpaying someone, and then overplaying them because you’ve already overpaid them, is bad business.
His term, on the other hand, cannot be ignored. Poolman is only one year into his $10 million contract, and still has this upcoming season and two more left on it. If the Canucks send him down now, they’re making it that much harder to part ways with his contract via trade, and more or less committing to three years of his salary being in the minors. Then again, there was never that much hope of trading him to begin with, so perhaps it’s time to cut their losses.
The possibility of rehabilitating that trade value largely disappears with Poolman in the AHL, but how much of a possibility was there in the first place? Sure, ditching him now might seem like asset mismanagement, but his contract was arguably mismanagement from the day the last regime signed it.
Besides, a buyout following this season seems like the most probable end for Poolman’s career with the Canucks, and that outcome is not affected by a demotion, one way or another.
On that note, if we’re talking about salary, isn’t it possible for the Canucks to gain some cap relief by sending Poolman down to Abbotsford?
Well, yes and no, but mostly no.
It is true that a team can bury a portion of a player’s salary in the minor leagues, and that portion is always $375,000 plus whatever the league minimum salary happens to be at the time. For 2022/23, the minimum salary is $750,000, so teams can bury a contract up to and including $1,125,000 without incurring a cap penalty. Any cap hit over and above that total remains on the books.
Poolman, with a $2.5 million AAV, thus counts for $1.375 million on the Canucks’ cap, even if he’s down in Abbotsford.
That’s an extra $1.125 million in space, which isn’t chump change, but don’t count on it yet. If the Canucks are going to carry eight defenders, Poolman still needs to be replaced on the roster, and that replacement player’s cap comes out of the $1.125 million. Replace Poolman with, say, Wolanin and his $750K salary, and you’ve earned yourself a cool $375K in cap space.
Now, over a full season of accrual, that $375K might add up to something meaningful. Unfortunately, the Canucks are going to need to operate within their own LTIR space — via Micheal Ferland and his $3.5 million AAV contract — from the get-go in 2022/23, which will make it impossible for them to accrue cap space. (That, of course, changes if the team succeeds in moving Ferland’s contract prior to the season).
For the time being, all that extra $375K gets them is a little more LTIR space with which to temporarily exceed the cap.
In other words, it doesn’t get them much.
Still, we are left with a player who, by the merit of their play on the ice, should be one of the cuts coming out of the Canucks’ 2022 preseason. Poolman’s on-ice performance isn’t enough to keep him around, nor are the circumstances of his contract.
In fact, it’s not about the budget at all. It’s about entering the 2022/23 regular season with the eight best defenders available on the roster, and Poolman simply is not one of those defenders.
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