Who the Canucks are targeting in free agency, and why

Milan Lucic (17). (Jason Franson/CP)

For at least 12 months the Vancouver Canucks have been keeping their eye on this week.

When the club was relatively quiet during the 2015 free agent frenzy, general manager Jim Benning specifically noted that next summer his club would have the cap space to do more significant renovations to the roster. And now ‘next summer’ has arrived.

Vancouver has the salary cap space to be major players when the market opens on July 1. Having bought out depth forward Chris Higgins this week, the Canucks have more than $10 million in available cap space under the upper limit and the flexibility to shop for luxury items on the unrestricted free agent market.

With 12 NHL-level forwards, six NHL-level defencemen and two NHL-level goaltenders under contract for next year, the Canucks won’t be scrambling to fill roster spots. They’ll be looking primarily for high-end wingers who can add a sorely needed dynamic to the club’s lackluster offensive attack.

“If we could add one or two scoring wingers, that’s what we’re looking to do,” Benning said during draft week.

The identity of those scoring wingers isn’t much of a mystery at this point. The club has eyes for Milan Lucic in particular, who is not only East Vancouver’s favourite son, but is probably the NHL’s premiere power forward not named Alexander Ovechkin. Lucic visited with the club on Monday in Vancouver and was wined and dined by president Trevor Linden, Benning and owner Francesco Aquilini.

“He’s an intriguing person,” Linden said of Lucic. “Not only what he brings to your group on the ice, but the way he approaches the game from an off-ice (perspective) – his professionalism and from a competitive standpoint – so he ticks a lot of boxes, for sure.”

Lucic is a student of the game, known to follow the league with a level of attention that dwarfs most players and even many hockey pundits. There has been some suggestion that he might flinch at the prospect of playing for a struggling team in a city that has, all too often, been something of a thorn in his side.

If the Canucks can convince Lucic to sign up though, he’d be an excellent fit in the short-term. An underrated playmaker, Lucic has generally made a mammoth impact on his club’s ability to generate chances and zonetime in the offensive end.

Lucic’s most valuable attribute though is his unmatched ability to plant himself in the slot and beat goaltenders from 15 feet. Of the NHL forwards who have taken at least 400 shots on goal at even-strength over the past four seasons, only the super elite (John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry) have capitalized on a higher percentage of looks.

There are risks involved in chasing Lucic of course. The apex predator-type power winger is said to have deep interest from 10 teams and the Edmonton Oilers are widely considered front-runners for his services at this point. To land him, the Canucks may have to invest heavily and long-term in a 28-year-old forward who relies on youthful attributes like brute force to produce at a first-line rate.

No matter how things play out with Lucic, the Canucks are also expected to chase another former Boston Bruins winger in Loui Eriksson. Eriksson has been a mainstay on a line with the Sedin twins in international play, is a high-end defensive winger and has remained a credible second-line point producer into his early-30s.

“Loui is the kind of guy who has a really good all around game,” Linden said. “The details (in his game) are solid and he’s got a great shot, he can score. I think at the end of the day there has to be the right fit and we recognize that.”

The Canucks have kicked the tires on a variety of other free agents – they’ve reportedly reached out to the likes of Andrew Ladd, Mikkel Boedker, Darren Helm and Troy Brouwer, among others – even meeting with a few in Vancouver this week. It seems that Lucic and Eriksson are the primary targets though.

“We’ve targeted certain guys and we’re going to work through that process, then we have another group that we’ll look at, at a later date,” Linden said.

“You want to be very clear about what your needs are and what will be the best fit with your group. So you want to explore those opportunities and that’s kind of where we are and we’ll see how things play out over the next few days.”

There’s one other name that has surfaced in connection with Vancouver in the lower-end of the free agent market this week and is worth keeping an eye on: Thomas Vanek, who was bought out by the Minnesota Wild.

Vanek was drafted by Benning during his time as the Buffalo Sabres’ head scout and though his two-way impact and production rates have atrophied in recent seasons, he’s a right-handed shot who could help offset the loss of Radim Vrbata on the power play.

“You go down the path of (selling) opportunity – not specifically with Vanek – but with anybody,” Linden told Sportsnet. “Potentially playing with the Sedins or playing in the right spot, players can look at that as an opportunity…

“When you have players like Daniel and Henrik, that’s a great asset and a good fit. Because (players) know they’ll get an opportunity and an opportunity to score and that’s important especially when it’s in a short-term situation.”

Expect the Canucks to be aggressive and, in particular, to chase scoring on the wing when the market opens. The optics of that aggression may look a bit odd for a team that finished third-last in the NHL last season, but the club believes they’ve made themselves younger and faster over the past few seasons. And they are intent on qualifying for the playoffs.

“In our opening night lineup we could have 14 players who are 26 and under, 11 guys who are 25 and under, so we’re getting younger and faster,” Linden said of his club’s posture.

“The term ‘blowing it up’ isn’t realistic sometimes. We’ve tried to transition this group and I think we’ve done that and we’ve done it in a way that preserves our ability to stay competitive, to stay in the fight. That’s our plan and we feel comfortable on that basis.”