Winger Sven Baertschi, a fairly consistent offensive contributor the last four National Hockey League seasons and frequent partner to key centre Bo Horvat, was among three players the Canucks waived Monday to get down to their 23-man roster for Wednesday’s season-opener in Edmonton.
Baertschi is 26 years old and due to make $3.37-million-US this season and next.
He missed 56 games last season with a concussion, but still scored nine times in 26 games. Popular with teammates, Baertschi battled back from his concussion hell – he wondered last season if his career was over – and had a decent pre-season, managing two goals and two assists in five games.
But with summer acquisitions J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland slotted ahead of him, Baertschi was deemed by coach Travis Green more expendable than $36-million-US free-agent bust Loui Eriksson or fourth-liner Tim Schaller, who was healthy scratched for half of last season and produced just three goals on a $1.9-million salary.
“I’ve known Sven for a long time, since he was 17 years old,” Green, who also coached Baertschi in junior hockey, told reporters after the Canucks practised Monday in suburban Burnaby. “So this is not an easy decision by our organization. It’s one of those tough decisions you’ve got to make.
“It’s no secret we haven’t been a great team for the last few years. When I came in here two years ago, we talked about making improvements. And the way you make improvements is you get younger players in to help your team, you sign different players or other guys get better on your team who are here already. I think we’ve had a combination of all three things happening.”
The Canucks also waived ineffective forward Nikolay Goldobin and veteran, depth defenceman Alex Biega.
Gaudette, a 22-year-old centre given little chance to make the team due to his two-way contract and the Canucks’ logjam of NHL forwards, was one of the best players during the pre-season and led Vancouver forwards with four goals in six games.
But Gaudette practised Monday as a spare forward, and there are questions about how much he’ll actually play in the NHL this fall and whether his development, 18 months removed from Northeastern University, is better served playing a lot in the American Hockey League.
With Brock Boeser practising back on the first line and medically cleared to play after a week in concussion protocol, the other extra forward on Monday was Eriksson, who has scored 32 goals in three seasons since signing his gigantic free-agent deal in 2016.
Baertschi is a better player than Eriksson and eight years younger, but Eriksson can kill penalties while Baertschi lost his power-play spot during the pre-season. Schaller, who starts the season on the fourth line, also kills penalties.
“It’s about trying to figure out the best fit with the group with different types of players,” general manager Jim Benning explained. “Sven’s a skilled player and we just felt the skill set on our team is addressed with some other players, and Travis wants a different look… versus keeping Sven on the opening roster.
“He’s been one of our skilled players the last four years around here. He had good chemistry with Bo, and they played well together. But (Tanner) Pearson plays well together with Bo, too. It’s kind of the evolution about where we’re at as an organization, where we have better players now and we’re going to have to make these hard, tough decisions.”
The most sensible motive for waiving Baertschi would be the possibility of saving his sizeable salary-cap hit because there is a chance, however remote, that another team might claim the Swiss forward. No one would be interested in Eriksson at $6 million.
But Benning said the salary cap did not factor into the decision to waive Baertschi, who will be assigned to the Utica Comets if he clears waivers at noon Tuesday. The cap savings for having either Baertschi or Eriksson in the minors is capped at $1.075 million.
“It’s more about the fit,” Benning reiterated. “If Sven wasn’t going to be on our top two units power-play wise and he doesn’t kill penalties for us, those other guys give us more flexibility to be third or fourth-line players and penalty killers.”
Eriksson averaged 1:11 of penalty-kill time last season, fifth among Canucks forwards. Schaller logged 1:20 of shorthanded time on ice during his 47 games. On the surface, that doesn’t make a compelling argument for waiving a more skillful player like Baertschi, who had 56 goals in 216 games over the last four seasons.
“This one kind of, obviously, stings a little harder,” Horvat said of his friend and former linemate. “He was pretty close to me and to my family, and it’s definitely a tough day. But tough decisions have to be made and I’m excited about the year ahead.”
Will Baertschi be back in the NHL?
“Absolutely,” Horvat said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be back. And stronger and faster and a better hockey player. That’s just the type of person he is. He’s a hard worker and he’s going to do whatever it takes to get back.”
• As they begin their 50th year in the NHL, the Canucks are expected to name Horvat the 12th everyday captain in franchise history. An announcement could come Tuesday.
“Even to be in consideration is very humbling for me,” Horvat said. “At the same time, no matter if I’m wearing a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ or no letter at all, I’m just going to be the same player, the same person, and just try to help my team win every single night.”
• Barring a waiver pickup or trade, the Vancouver lineup looks set for opening night. Forward lines: Micheal Ferland-Elias Pettersson-Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson-Bo Horvat-J.T. Miller, Josh Leivo-Brandon Sutter-Jake Virtanen; Tim Schaller-Jay Beagle-Tyler Motte. Defence pairings: Alex Edler-Tyler Myers, Quinn Hughes-Chris Tanev, Jordie Benn-Troy Stecher. Goalies: Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.