In case you missed the news that is currently firestorming across Canucks Twitter, GM Jim Benning (with some reportedly stern oversight from Francesco Aquilini) signed the 28-year-old Tanner Pearson to a three-year contract extension with an average salary of $3.25 million.
The deal includes a full no-trade clause in the first year, a modified seven-team clause in the second, and no-trade protection in the third. Contrary to early reporting, the contract does not include any clause that would prevent Pearson from being selected in the 2021 Expansion Draft — not officially, at least.
Reception to the contract among the Vancouver fanbase has been lukewarm at best, and excoriating at worst.
In the end, we concluded that the Canucks could certainly benefit from Pearson sticking around, but that extending him would ultimately prove impossible, given the circumstances. To be specific, we wrote:
“What this all means is that the Canucks would have to get lucky in several different negotiations, somehow dump salary under a flat cap, AND avoid adding any other improvements to the roster, just to barely squeeze Pearson in — and then they’d probably have to commit to at least four years to get him to agree to a palatable average.
Thus, we’ll double down on that acclimation: The Canucks cannot, in their current state or any conceivable future state, afford to keep Pearson.”
Yeah, we were off by a year on the term. But everything said about the salary still applies, and perhaps even more so, with all that has occurred — or not occurred, to be more specific — since February.
When that article was published, Pearson was rightly earning accolades for leading the Canucks in goal-scoring since his February 25, 2019 acquisition. But since then, Pearson has just two goals and one assist in 18 games, bringing his total on the year to a paltry 11 points in 33 games.
You can chalk that up to the state of the team around him all you want, but that’s not really the track record of a player that the front office seems to have only recently decided was worth extending.
In 2019/20, Pearson was on pace for the upper tiers of second-line production with a 0.65 points-per-game. This season, he’s been halved all the way down to 0.33 PPG, good enough to tie for 258th place among regular NHL forwards. That’s on the lower end of third-line production.
He’d better pick that scoring up, and fast, because starting next season Pearson will be somewhere around the 150th-highest paid forward in the NHL. If he doesn’t return to and maintain at least mid-range second-line numbers for all three years of his contract, he’ll be overpaid — and that’s just according to the raw stats.
There’s also the popular notion that Pearson is a complementary player, rather than a true driver of play, and it’s one that’s borne out by the advanced stats crowd. Long-term metrics such as WAR show Pearson to be a slightly below-average middle-six winger, and one who is plainly trending downward.
As far as trends go, Pearson is a bit of a double-whammy. He’s got a serious history of inconsistency, and this isn’t the first time he’s seen his PPG plummet from season-to-season. Last time it did, it stayed there for a season-and-a-half. Strangely enough, that came right after he inked his last big contract.
In truth, Pearson has always been a streaky player and his current 0.33 PPG is actually a lot closer to his 0.46 career average than it is his 0.65 career-best from 2019/20.
Then there’s the age factor. All hockey players are unique and regression is often impossible to predict, but Pearson is hitting the age at which forwards traditionally see their production begin to diminish.
In other words, Pearson’s play could be trending downward because of his trademark inconsistency, or because of his age, or both. All of the above are reason enough to be wary of his fortune over the next three seasons.
And so, at absolute best, Pearson somewhat improbably rebounds next season and stays there for the next two, posting adequate second line numbers and returning break-even value on his contract in a vacuum.
But this contract wasn’t signed in a vacuum, and the context makes it so, so much worse.
First, there’s the overall player market itself, which has quite literally never been so suppressed. Gary Bettman confirmed that the flat or near-flat cap is here to stay for the “foreseeable future,” and that means it won’t budge much from its current $81.5 million until Pearson’s new contract has expired.
Already, we’ve seen the flat cap wreak havoc on the value of UFAs, RFAs, and even tradeable assets. There’s simply a lot less money to go around, and that’s just not the time to sign a player to a contract on which you’ll break even at best.
And at worst, you’ve got the very recent case studies of Richard Panik and Brett Connolly.
Panik, 30 and two years into a four-year, $2.75 million AAV contract, was just put on waivers by the Washington Capitals — and cleared! His nine points in 36 games this year was bad, but it’s not that far off from Pearson’s statline.
Connolly, 28 and two years into a four-year, $3.5 million AAV contract, was just traded as a cap dump along with two quasi-promising prospects from the Florida Panthers to the Chicago Blackhawks. His PPG has dropped from 0.57 to 0.48 to 0.19 over the past three seasons.
Before the pandemic, teams would probably be willing to take a chance on Panik or Connolly bouncing back and maybe even give up some value in return for the opportunity to find out. Under the flat cap, they’re anchors.
That means that if Pearson doesn’t bounce back himself, he won’t just be overpaid, he’ll be nigh-unmoveable, and at an extremely inopportune time, to boot.
Negotiations with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are ongoing. The Canucks being in a cap crunch during said negotiations would seem to give agents JP Barry and Pat Brisson additional leverage, but that’s exactly where the Canucks are headed now that Pearson’s extension is on the books.
As of this writing and as per PuckPedia, the Canucks have a hair under $17.5 million in cap space going into 2021/22. True, an additional $3.5 million will remain on LTIR via Micheal Ferland, but that’s not real cap space — and it still leaves the team with less than $21 million with which to re-sign Pettersson, Hughes, and then sign or promote seven or eight other roster players.
The combined number for Pettersson and Hughes on joint bridge deals is reportedly in the neighbourhood of $15 million. That leaves around $6 million to retain or replace all of Brandon Sutter, Alex Edler, Adam Gaudette, Travis Hamonic, Jordie Benn, and more.
It’s not even close to enough.
On top of cap space, there’s roster space to consider. Nils Höglander has burst onto the scene, and will remain a fixture in the Canucks’ top-nine for years to come. Brock Boeser and JT Miller certainly aren’t going anywhere. Vasily Podkolzin is arriving imminently.
Tyler Motte is signed for another year, Jake Virtanen is still on the books, Gaudette will likely return, and Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd are total wild cards. Pearson fits nicely into this tier of middle-six options, and he’s probably the best of them, but he’s also a tad redundant and the highest-paid of the bunch. His presence also makes it that much harder for someone like Kole Lind or Jonah Gadjovich to force their way into the lineup.
And we haven’t even talked about the 2021 Expansion Draft yet. If the reporting of Thomas Drance is to be believed — and it almost always is — Pearson and Canucks’ management have a handshake agreement that Pearson will be protected from selection by the Seattle Kraken.
He’ll join Pettersson, Boeser, Miller, and Bo Horvat in occupying five of Vancouver’s seven protection slots for forwards. That leaves two slots for all of Motte, Virtanen, Gaudette, Lind, Gadjovich, Zack MacEwen, and anyone else they add or retain to fight for.
It all but guarantees that the Canucks will be losing a player that fans are sad to see go.
And while we’re at it, why not mention the 2021 Trade Deadline? The COVID outbreak the struck the Canucks was not something that could have been planned for, and the continued recovery of those players affected remains a far greater priority than any potential transactions.
That being said, Pearson was away from the team and unaffected by the outbreak, which left him as one of the only actually sellable assets in a season where they really, truly needed to recoup some draft capital at the deadline.
There were reports that Pearson was highly sought after, and that some franchises around the league had him placed rather loftily on their lists of prospective additions — but Benning took him off the market in more ways than one.
We’re not even going to get into the elephant in the room: that Benning was definitely prompted to extend Pearson because of all the heat he took for letting Tyler Toffoli go, despite the painful facts that this doesn’t bring Toffoli back, that Toffoli is twice the player that Pearson is, and that this now makes it way harder to add another Toffoli type in the future.
As always, there are reasons for at least cautious optimism to be found if one is determined to look for them. Rick Dhaliwal and a few others in the know have hinted that Jay Beagle’s current mystery ailment is career-threatening. If that’s true, and the team knows that, it would obviously give them a little extra breathing room on the cap, and almost enough to accommodate Pearson’s own cap hit.
But Beagle is a player defined by his sheer power of will. If there’s any chance he can return to the ice, he will. For the team to make a signing on the premise of Beagle going perma-LTIR, they’d have to be sure of it beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it doesn’t sound like that’s possible right now.
A buyout of Loui Eriksson or Antoine Roussel clears up a little more. Those long-harboured hopes of Eriksson retiring early could always pan out, and then the Canucks might finally be approaching cap comfort.
But now comes time for the most important context of all. Because you’ve got to think about what we’re really talking about here.
We’re talking about counting on injuries and barely scraping enough cap space together just to ice a roster that is maybe as good as the one currently rocking the eighth-worst point percentage in the NHL.
What’s that? You actually wanted to improve upon this roster?
Sorry, but there’s definitely not going to be enough room for that.
If all the stars aligned — $6.5 million on LTIR, Eriksson vanished, maybe Tyler Myers to the Kraken, maybe the league takes their head out of their collective butt regarding the Luongo recapture penalty — maybe then you could talk about making trades and signings that actually move the team closer to contention.
And maybe then this Pearson extension might start to make sense.
But none of those things have come to pass yet, and Pearson’s extension is already signed, sealed, and delivered.
In an ideal world, would the Canucks like to keep Pearson around? Sure! He’s a useful veteran that seems to be a wonderful person and is universally well-liked by his teammates.
But not like this.
Not like this.