Three years into his $36-million-US contract, Loui Eriksson has finally become paramount to the Vancouver Canucks. Which tells you how little he achieved on the ice the last three seasons and how much money the National Hockey League team has spent this summer.
The six-year contract Eriksson signed on July 1, 2016 almost immediately became one of those free-agency cautionary tales: a player about to pass his apex and plummet down the other side of his career trajectory, cashing in on a 30-goal season and leveraging a huge contract from a needy team willing to overpay.
It was, is, and will probably always be general manager Jim Benning’s biggest player mistake in Vancouver. But it was one he could afford. Until now.
Eriksson’s bonus-heavy contract has already paid the soon-to-be 34-year-old $27 million, for which the winger has contributed 32 goals over three seasons. But during that time, his contract was more embarrassing than harmful to the Canucks.
Eriksson can still play in the NHL. He’s a good penalty killer who has had some success in checking roles and, generally, doesn’t hurt Canucks possession considering how often he starts shifts in the defensive zone.
But Eriksson is a third- or fourth-line player making first-line money. That is never good in a salary-cap world, but only now is it really going to hurt the team.
As the Canucks transition from their rebuild to seriously challenging for a playoff spot, Benning’s salary-cap space has disappeared faster than the bankroll of an unlucky gambler during a weekend in Vegas.
When last season ended, the Canucks had about $32 million available. Their real cap space is now down to about $8 million, and restricted free agent Brock Boeser could get all of that when the sniper and team eventually settle on a new long-term contract.
Benning acquired top-six winger J.T. Miller, whose cap hit averages $5.25-million, and re-signed top defenceman Alex Edler to a two-year deal averaging $6 million. He bought out winger Ryan Spooner at a cost of $1.03 million for each of the next two seasons, and was hammered by the NHL for a cap-recapture penalty on Roberto Luongo that represents a net increase in Canucks cap costs of $2.2 million for the next three years.
In free agency, Benning made his team better by signing defencemen Tyler Myers (five years at $6 million), Jordie Benn (two years at $2 million) and Oscar Fantenberg (one-year, $850,000). Toss in new contracts for restricted free agents Josh Leivo ($1.5-million cap hit) and Tyler Motte ($975,000), and the silly $1.5-million suppression of the salary cap by the NHL Players’ Association, and the Canucks are almost out of money beyond Boeser.
There’s a little bit of wriggle room with projected depth players like Tim Schaller ($1.9 million) and Alex Biega ($825,000) or Fantenberg, who could be sent to the minors, but Eriksson’s $6-million cap hit for the next three seasons looms ever larger and more toxic.
Almost every NHL team has a bad contract, and Eriksson’s isn’t the Canucks’ only one. But Brandon Sutter, who has been injured for 140 of 328 Canucks games since Benning acquired him four years ago from Pittsburgh, has only two years left at $4.375-million and should be tradeable next season if he stays healthy.
There seems, however, almost no way out from Eriksson’s contract.
The huge bonuses make it almost buyout-proof — CapFriendly.com shows a cap savings of only $444,000 for the next two seasons if Eriksson were bought out — and sending him to the minors would make some fans happy but save the Canucks only $1.075-million next year.
Could Benning actually trade Eriksson? Maybe.
The only positive thing about his deal is that Eriksson is owed just $9 million over its final three years. If the Canucks retain salary, Eriksson could cost another team as little as $1.5-million a season. That’s doable.
But Benning would still have to find a team that can absorb Eriksson’s cap hit and believe that the player will be an effective penalty-killer and checker when he is 35 and 36 years old. To trade Eriksson, chances are Benning would have to take back an equally bad contract, like he did last season when he swapped mistakes with the Edmonton Oilers and took Spooner for Sam Gagner. Both were playing in the American League.
A lot of guys on bad contracts can’t play in the NHL anymore. So, yes, it’s possible an Eriksson trade could make the Canucks worse.
There is intriguing undertow to all of this. Playing for Sweden at the world championships in May, Eriksson said in an interview that he did not have the same level of trust from the Canucks’ Travis Green as he had from previous coaches.
The English translation of one comment was reported as: "The coach and I don’t really get on 100 per cent."
Benning told reporters weeks ago that he would contact Eriksson to find out what his employee meant. The GM said later he was still awaiting a return call from Eriksson. Then the draft and free agency came and Benning got busy with bigger things.
But there appears to be little urgency to get this matter resolved, which seems odd if Eriksson is going to be playing for Green and the Canucks again next season.