After their acquisition by the Vancouver Canucks, this former Los Angeles King put up points at a career-high pace and formed immediate chemistry with their linemates. Unfortunately, though they wanted to remain in Vancouver thereafter, budgetary constraints prevented GM Jim Benning from offering them an extension, and so they moved on to another team via unrestricted free agency while still in their prime.
Then, they continued to score at that same career-high pace in their new home while the Canucks floundered, making it all the more obvious that they should have been retained and resulting in heaps of criticism for Benning not being able to make room.
Now, are we talking about Tyler Toffoli here, or making a dire prediction about the future path of Tanner Pearson?
In the immortal words of that little girl from the Old El Paso commercial: “¿Por qué no los dos?”
If franchise history has taught us anything, it’s that just because the Canucks clearly made a mistake with Toffoli this past offseason there’s no guarantee they won’t turn around and make the exact same mistake in the summer of 2021 with Pearson.
Of course, those same budgetary concerns are still present, and so it’s not quite so simple as deciding to re-sign Pearson. Two key questions will need to be answered over the months to come:
Can the Canucks afford to re-sign Tanner Pearson?
And, perhaps more importantly, can they afford not to?
Tanner Pearson in the present day
With LA/ Pittsburgh
At first, most assumed that Pearson’s nine goals and 12 points in 19 post-trade games with Vancouver was nothing more than a hot start. But Pearson didn’t slow down, putting up points at an even greater pace in 2019/20, and continuing on into 2021.
Now, Pearson’s PPG rate in Vancouver far exceeds what it was during his time in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.
As such, it’s difficult to peg Pearson as anything less than a second-line-quality winger. In fact, his PPG of 0.64 since coming to Vancouver is good enough for 111th among forwards over that same period, which puts him right on the cusp of top-line performance. He’s also helped elevate linemate Bo Horvat into the upper echelons of NHL goal-scorers, as we outlined last week, and the two are tied for the team lead in regular-season goal-scoring since Pearson’s arrival.
So, what sort of payday does that earn him?
What will it cost to keep Pearson?
Normally, contract comparables are a messy business, but with Pearson, there are some clear and present bounds that make a possible extension fairly easy to predict.
At the low-end is Pearson’s current cap hit of $3.75 million per year. Given Pearson’s unprecedented success since joining the Canucks, it’s very difficult to imagine him accepting anything less on his next contract. He’s almost certainly deserving of and expecting a raise, even with the salary-suppressing reality of the flat cap to consider.
On the high-end, you have the contract that the aforementioned Toffoli just signed with the Montreal Canadiens. Toffoli was the same age as Pearson is now when he signed it, their production is similar — though Toffoli’s is better — and the circumstances of their free agency will be near identical.
Toffoli received a four-year, $4.25 million contract from the Montreal Canadiens. Which, it should be noted, was actually a lesser cap hit than his previous deal with its AAV of $4.6 million.
It’s tough to imagine Pearson’s new contract exceeding Toffoli’s deal. It’s also tough to imagine Pearson accepting a decrease in pay. Therefore, we can safely assume that any new deal will carry a cap hit somewhere between $3.75 million and $4.25 million.
Term is a little tougher to nail down, but not impossible.
Obviously, Jim Benning and Co. would prefer to commit as few years as possible to Pearson, as they would with any of the veterans they choose to re-sign this coming offseason. But how short can they get away with? For that, we’ll have to turn to other, non-Toffoli comparables.
Age (Year Signed)
PPG Season Prior
0.84 (Career avg. 0.52)
Here, a pattern begins to emerge. It appears as though the Canucks might be able to retain Pearson at a cap hit resembling his current one if they prefer to give him it for four years.
Or, they could lock him into a short-term deal, but then they’ll have to pony up on that raise.
Either path seems like fair compensation for what Pearson brings, and will presumably continue to bring, to the table, and it’s almost certain that some team will give it to him, even with the flat cap in place for another season.
The only question that remains then, is…
Can the Canucks afford that?
The Canucks are projected to have a veritable boatload of salary come off the books as of this upcoming offseason. That number, totalling around $27 million, includes Alex Edler’s $6 million, Brandon Sutter’s $4.3 million, Sven Baertschi’s $2.29 million (after demotion), Jordie Benn’s $2 million, Travis Hamonic’s $1.25 million, and Ryan Spooner’s $1.03 million buyout.
Of course, a big chunk of that almost $30 million is Pearson’s own $3.75 hit.
On the surface, then, it should be no issue to re-sign Pearson to a contract resembling what we laid out above. But there are some significant complications to consider.
First and definitely foremost are new contracts for Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. We won’t get into the myriad directions those negotiations could take, but suffice it to say that we can count on those two deals taking up at least half of the available space — if the Canucks are lucky.
Then there are new contracts to be signed for Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette, both of whom are in for a raise, as well as Olli Juolevi and Jalen Chatfield, neither of whom should break the bank.
Already, that $27ish million is down to somewhere south of ten.
Edler is the UFA most likely to return, though at a significantly reduced cap hit. Sutter is probably gone, as are Benn and Hamonic, and their roles can be replaced from within for moderate cap savings.
So, add up the contracts for Pettersson, Hughes, Demko, Gaudette, Juolevi, Chatfield, and whoever replaces Edler, Sutter, Benn, and Hamonic on the roster, and you’re left with something like $2 million left over for Pearson.
And that’s estimating extremely generously.
In other words, the team cannot, in their current state, afford to keep Pearson.
They could, of course, make space with trades, or via the Expansion Draft. Paying the Seattle Kraken to take Tyler Myers would be ideal, but potentially pricey. Flipping Jake Virtanen and replacing him with someone making the league minimum saves about $1.5 million. Trading either Jay Beagle or Antoine Roussel is a pipedream, but such moves would probably open up enough space.
What this means, however, 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.
Can the Canucks afford NOT to keep Pearson?
You probably heard the narrative over the summer that one of Virtanen or Nils Höglander could slide into the spot vacated by Toffoli and that the Canucks’ top-six could continue without missing a beat. And while we’ve got no complaints about Höglander’s individual performance, it should now be fairly obvious that there were some holes in that theory.
Prepare yourselves to hear the exact same thing as the 2021 offseason approaches, only this time it will be Pearson and Vasili Podkolzin.
Sure, maybe Podkolzin will be an immediate revelation, and maybe the Canucks’ top-six will scrape by with two 20-year-olds in it. But the top-six doesn’t just need to scrape by, it needs to improve drastically if the Canucks are going to ascend to true contender status anytime soon. Keeping Pearson and adding Podkolzin to the mix could be considered a major improvement. Replacing Pearson with Podkolzin is breaking even at best, and potentially a lot worse than that, especially given the impact it might have on Horvat.
Imagine, too, the catastrophic reaction there will be if Pearson, like Toffoli, expresses interest in staying with Vancouver, goes to free agency anyway, and then finds immediate success in his new home. If Benning is still employed at that point, having the exact same thing happen to him in two consecutive offseasons would be truly impossible to ignore.
So, can the Canucks afford to keep Tanner Pearson?
And can they afford not to keep him?