Benning adds depth and assets to Canucks as free agency opens

Dan Murphy reports from Vancouver where the Canucks filled holes between the pipes, on the blueline and up front.

It says something about how bad the Vancouver Canucks have been lately that their best day in a long time was the first day of free agency. General manager Jim Benning added five players Saturday for a total of $22 million, exactly one year after throwing $36 million at a single winger who scored 11 goals last season.

In forwards Sam Gagner and Alex Burmistrov, defencemen Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch, and goalie Anders Nilsson, Benning is going to get far more value out of this free agency than he did after signing Loui Eriksson to that mammoth six-year deal last July.

Importantly, none of the five unrestricted free agents acquired on Canada Day has strings attached. None has trade restrictions. So Benning not only increased the Canucks’ depth, he increased his assets, which will seem more valuable at the next trade deadline.

None of the new Canucks is older than 27. And only Gagner’s three-year, $9.45-million deal is longer than two seasons, so there is still plenty of room to grow for the Canucks’ increasing number of prospects. But in the short-term, the growing room in the organization has been shifted to the Utica Comets.

On Friday, the Canucks were a land of opportunity for any good, young prospect hoping to make the team next fall. But by lunchtime Saturday, it appeared that players like Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen, Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen will likely spend their development time in the American Hockey League next season.

That’s actually a good thing, although the prospects involved might feel differently.

Boeser or another one of them could make the Canucks at forward. But the opportunity for 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi to make the defence as a 19-year-old just about disappeared.

Benning has added one quarter of an NHL lineup – more if Anton Rodin, the 2016 Swedish League MVP whose attempted return to the National Hockey League last season was ruined by injury, makes the Canucks after re-signing with the team.

It is suddenly much harder for any of the kids to force their way into the lineup.

"That’s a good problem to have," Benning insisted. "If they come in and they tear the door down and deserve to be here… we’ll make room for them.

"Juolevi just arrived for our development camp and he weighed in at 200 pounds. A year ago, he was 183; he added 17 pounds of muscle. He had to get stronger to compete at the NHL level and he has. If he comes in and is so good we have to trade someone to make room for him, that’s a good problem to have. It’s a problem I look forward to."

Interesting that Benning would say he would trade someone.

According to reports, he tried to last week but his attempt to return Erik Gudbranson to Florida was scuttled by Panthers’ defenceman Jason Demers, who exercised his right to refuse a trade to Vancouver.

Gudbranson, a 25-year-old one season away from unrestricted free agency and a big increase on his $3.5-million salary, could be in play all summer after the signings of Del Zotto from the Philadelphia Flyers (two years at $3 million) and Wiercioch from the Colorado Avalanche (one year, $650,000).

Wiercioch, like former Arizona Coyote Burmistrov (one-year, $900,000), will have to make the Canucks roster next October, but Del Zotto could be in the top four on defence and Gagner will play a key role and be asked to help resuscitate a power play that was 29th last season.

Nilsson, the Buffalo Sabres’ backup goaltender who was signed for two years at $2.5 million, will compete with Jacob Markstrom for starts after Ryan Miller left the Canucks for less money but a better family situation in Anaheim.

"Our goal was to have more depth in our whole organization," Benning said. "From a building standpoint, I like where we’re at."

It is ironic that an organization that clung for two years to a "transition" label before conceding at the end of last season that it was actually "rebuilding," signed a handful of transition contracts on Saturday.

Especially Gagner and Del Zotto will help the Canucks be better the next couple of years. But the future remains there to claim for players like Boeser and Dahlen, Juolevi and 2017 first-rounder Elias Pettersson, and incumbent Canucks like Bo Horvat, Markus Granlund, Sven Baertschi and Troy Stecher.

Another irony is that if Gagner and Del Zotto are successful on the ice and help mentor and teach the younger Canucks, which is part of Benning’s plan, the 27-year-olds will be too expensive to keep.

But that, too, would be a nice problem to have.

"I’m going into my ninth season," Del Zotto said. "Experiencing some ups and downs early in my career with a lot of adversity has made me a better player and a better person. I think being able to provide leadership for some of the younger guys will be a big key for me in helping the team move forward.

"I’m so excited to get to Vancouver, so excited to be playing in a Canadian city. I wish the season was starting tomorrow."

Gagner and Del Zotto were teammates two years ago in Philadelphia. That was before Del Zotto suffered a serious hand injury, then returned last season only to battle knee and ankle problems. It was before Gagner, once considered one of the best young playmakers in the game, probably saved his NHL career by contributing 50 points in 81 games last season for the Blue Jackets.

"I think people are lying if they say you never waver in your belief," Gagner said. "I just felt if I got an opportunity somewhere to prove I could play at a high level, I could get the job done. I got the chance in Columbus this year. And I see a lot of similarities in Vancouver.

"Columbus finished in a bad spot (27th) the year before I got there and everyone was picking us to finish near the bottom again. But we had a good mix of young guys trying to establish themselves and older guys who were hungry and looking to prove people wrong. I look at the roster in Vancouver and see guys who have better games than maybe what their numbers would suggest last year. And I see a lot of young guys knocking on the door."

The Blue Jackets improved last season by 32 points. If the Canucks do the same next year, fans will erect of a statue of Benning. It will be handy to tear down later on.

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