Canucks can handle free-agent salaries, but term could haunt them

Centre Jay Beagle has signed with the Vancouver Canucks. (Molly Riley/AP)

VANCOUVER — With $24 million available in cap space at the start of Sunday, the Vancouver Canucks can easily afford the salaries they bestowed on depth forwards on the first day of free agency. The concern is whether they can afford the term.

Term will haunt National Hockey League teams more than salary on July 1, and that’s the danger with the four-year contracts given by the Canucks to free-agent centre Jay Beagle and winger Antoine Roussel.

Those players were targeted by Canuck general manager Jim Benning and hockey operations president Trevor Linden because they addressed specific, fairly specialized needs: Roussel to replace the toughness and nightly abrasiveness that Vancouver missed when Derek Dorsett was forced to retire last November, and Beagle to provide veteran leadership and support down the middle in the wake of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedins’ retirement in April.

Each player will make $3 million annually, so Roussel and Beagle — bottom-six forwards who combined for just 12 goals and 39 points last season in Dallas and Washington — are being overpaid like just about everybody else who signs as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

But with NHL suitors for these players numbering in double digits, the Canucks lured Roussel and Beagle with the four-year terms. Roussel is 28 years old, Beagle 32.

Vancouver’s commitment to them will extend beyond the start of the second contracts for Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Adam Gaudette, Kole Lind, Olli Juolevi and probably Quinn Hughes — the elite prospects around whom the Canucks are being rebuilt.

What is affordable in 2018 may turn out to be onerous in 2021 or 2022.

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And unlike the Canucks’ great free-agent harvest of 2017, when the team signed five players but none to a contract longer than three years, there is also limited trade protection for Beagle and Roussel in their new deals.

“That’s the market,” Benning said. “I’m not too concerned. The type of role they play, I still think they can be effective four years from now.”

The Canucks also signed Boston free agent Tim Schaller, another big-bodied forward who can play centre or wing, to a two-year deal worth $1.9 million annually. Then they re-signed restricted free-agent winger Sven Baertschi for three years at an average salary of $3.37 million.

The Canucks, who have badly missed the playoffs the last three years, now have 14 forwards and seven defencemen on one-way NHL contracts, and this total will increase by two when restricted free agents Jake Virtanen and Troy Stecher are re-signed.

So where, then, do forwards Pettersson and Gaudette, and defencemen Hughes and Juolevi, fit if they’re trying to make the Canucks next fall?

“We’ve signed these guys to support our young players, not stand in their way,” Benning said. “We’ve drafted skill, and they’re going to be put in skill positions to score. They’re going to be given that opportunity. We just wanted to make sure the rest of the lineup is filled out with guys that add to the leadership of our group, and you know what you’re going to get from them every night.

“The main thing is these guys all come from winning organizations. Jay Beagle has won four championships. He won in the East Coast League, the American Hockey League twice, and now the Stanley Cup (last month with the Washington Capitals). He can mentor our young players.

“Losing Danny and Hank in the dressing room and that leadership void, I feel we’ve covered that a little bit with the signings today.”

Benning reiterated that any young player who deserves to be in the NHL will get a spot on the Canucks, a promise the organization has backed up every season since Benning arrived in 2014.

But it was a bonus when Stecher made the Canucks’ defence two years ago. It’s now a necessity that Pettersson, the Swedish Hockey League scoring champion and MVP, makes the team next fall as a 19-year-old. And it would help, too, if Hobey Baker winner Gaudette, 21, can play in the top six after his slightly underwhelming five-game cameo at the end of last season.

The Canucks are trying to build the best launching pad they can for the deepest group of skilled prospects the franchise has ever had. But, ultimately, it’s the prospects who will need to soar if the Canucks are to be competitive again.

“One of the things we wanted to accomplish, especially with these young players that are going to be in our lineup, is that they’re supported properly,” Benning said. “Given the types of players they are, we want to make sure they’re protected and they can play their games. The players we signed today are character people. They’re leaders.”

• Benning said he hopes to make progress this week on a contract for Hughes, the dynamic defenceman drafted seventh-overall last month from the University of Michigan. Hughes is represented by Pat Brisson, the agent who was a little preoccupied the last while with client John Tavares. Hughes turns 19 in October and, already with a year of college hockey behind him, believes he’s ready for the NHL.

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