We’re not talking enough about the Canucks retool that’s already occurred via free agency

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
Way back in January — which somehow feels a lot longer ago than two months and change — POHO Jim Rutherford delivered a press conference that was met with mixed reviews, to say the least.
In it, Rutherford spoke for the first time about wanting to “retool” the Vancouver Canucks through reclamation projects and players in need of a “second chance.” Rutherford talked about accelerating the team’s climb to competitiveness by attempting to acquire those players just past the typical age of an entry-level contract, so as to close the “age-gap” between incoming draft picks and those already-established members of the Canucks’ core.
It’s no real mystery why some took major issue with the comments. After all, Vancouver fans have heard such discussion before. The last time they had a member of upper management talking about filling an age-gap with reclamation project, it was GM Jim Benning. That resulted in giving up a second round pick for Sven Baertschi, giving up a second round pick for Linden Vey, giving up a third round pick for Andre Pedan, giving up Gustav Forsling for Adam Clendenning, and several other questionable transactions. It led to the teenaged Jared McCann and a second rounder being sent out the door in exchange for Erik Gudbranson.
A few years down the road, anyone can see how badly Benning and Co. bungled this approach. It’s, of course, reasonable to fear a similar outcome for this current retool. Already, however, there’s some vast and key differences in how the two managerial teams are handling the task of retooling, and there’s significant reason for increased optimism, if one is looking for it.
That’s because Rutherford, GM Patrik Allvin, and the rest of the front office have already begun their age-gap retool, and they’ve already done a much better job of acquiring such talent for the organization than Benning ever did.
And they’ve done it all almost exclusively through free agency, avoiding all those costly asset expenditures.
The signings of Akito Hirose and Max Sasson are just the latest examples. At the ages of 23 and 22, respectively, Hirose and Sasson are on the younger side of most NCAA signings. Both had multiple NHL clubs after their services, and they can best be understood as the equivalent of a mid-round draft pick who has spent a few years developing in college and is now ready to break into the pro ranks.
Except the Canucks didn’t have to expend a draft pick to get them, not via selection and not via trade. These players cost nothing more than a contract to bring into the fold, and now they could be ready to play significant minutes in the big league as soon as next season.
Those two may be the latest examples, but they’re not the best examples. The prize piece of the retool is obviously Andrei Kuzmenko.
By the time he arrived in Vancouver, Kuzmenko was already 26 years old, and thus much farther down his developmental path than Hirose or Sasson. Still, there are similarities, in that Kuzmenko was never drafted, and had spent the next eight “post-draft” seasons building up his skill in the KHL. Like those two, he had countless suitors after his services, but chose to sign in Vancouver instead.
Kuzmenko then proceeded to produce what is either the best or second-best first year performance of any Vancouver Canuck. He leads the team in goal-scoring, he’s developed enormous chemistry with Elias Pettersson, and he’s already earned himself a lucrative two-year extension.
Kuzmenko will now be considered an important part of the team moving forward. Instead of supplementing the Canucks’ core, he’s joined it.
Just think of the massive gulf in success represented here. The difference between spending a second round pick on a Vey type and picking up a Kuzmenko for absolutely free.
And it’s not just Kuzmenko, either.
Nils Åman should also be an important part of this discussion. Unlike the others, he actually was drafted in the sixth round back in 2020, but the Colorado Avalanche let his rights lapse, allowing the Canucks to swoop in and sign him as a free agent.
The 23-year-old surprised many by making the team out of training camp, and has since worked his way into becoming a roster mainstay. There are many that believe he has the inside track to become the Canucks’ permanent 3C next season, and perhaps well into the future.
Drafting and developing centers is often a particularly tricky undertaking. Here, the Canucks skipped the line and just went out and found some meaningful center depth on the open market. It’s already an incredible coup, and Åman has the potential to pay off even greater dividends in the years to come.
While we’re on the subject, Arshdeep Bains and Filip Johansson deserve mention here. Bains was an undrafted free agent tearing up the WHL, and Johansson was a former first round pick let go by the Minnesota Wild. Both chose to sign with the Canucks this summer, and both have slid right into the organization’s list of top-ten prospects. For a managerial group that inherited a bare prospect cupboard, this is a considerable win already, and becomes even more so if either Bains or Johansson goes on to crack the roster anytime soon.
Heck, we could even lump Aidan McDonough into this discussion. Yes, the Canucks did draft him themselves, but McDonough was mere months away from being able to walk as an unrestricted free agent. Instead, he signed with Vancouver, and further solidified their burgeoning collection of near-ready-for-primetime players.
If we really wanted to, we could even include things like acquiring the likes of Ethan Bear and Vitaly Kravtsov for virtually nothing, or the 26-year-old Dakota Joshua as a UFA, but that’s getting a little bit away from our original point.
Kuzmenko, Åman, Hirose, Sasson, Bains, Johansson.
One year into the retool, that’s an awful lot of talent that has been brought into the organization for the low, low cost of…zero assets. All aged perfectly to contribute to the Canucks while the likes of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are still in their prime years.
It is, in short, the start of exactly what Rutherford said his team was going to set out to do. The entire front office deserves ample credit for scouting these players, deciding upon the right fits, and then selling them on the vision in Vancouver. That this many talented individuals are hearing pitches from dozens of NHL teams, and still choosing the Canucks over all, has to be taken as a very good sign that said vision is a compelling one.
It’s, at the very least, reason for optimism about this current retool working out better than the last couple of attempts. It’s a great reminder than Rutherford and Allvin are not Benning. Their moves have pushed the Canucks closer to contention, instead of just setting them further back.
Will it be enough in the end? That remains to be seen. But the early returns are good, and the early returns didn’t cost them a damn thing.

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