VANCOUVER – The clock may be ticking down towards free agency on April 30 for Nikita Tryamkin, but for the Vancouver Canucks the clock stopped when the National Hockey League did on March 12.
The team won’t be signing the huge and hugely enigmatic Russian until there is financial clarity about next season – and that could take months.
When the Canucks gambled on the six-foot-seven defenceman in the third round of the 2014 draft, general manager Jim Benning equated the pick as a swing for the fences. The Canucks could strike out or hit a home run. But six years later, we’re still waiting to find out if Tryamkin even likes baseball.
“We still really like him as a prospect and stuff and think he can be in our top six,” Benning told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “But until we get some conclusion on what’s going to happen this year and get more information for next year, we’re in a holding pattern to wait to see what that looks like before we start talking term and numbers with him.”
Tryamkin appeared to build a solid start to his career with the Canucks during a rookie season in 2016-17 when he became a lineup regular and averaged 16:44 of ice time. But as Benning tried to sign him to a second contract, Tryamkin bolted home to Yekaterinburg of the KHL.
His three-year contract there expires April 30. The Canucks retain his exclusive NHL rights.
Tryamkin’s reasons for leaving were both personal (he and his bride had trouble adjusting to Vancouver) and professional (he was unhappy how he was used after sitting out the start of the regular season for what former coach Willie Desjardins said were conditioning issues).
But Tryamkin also became unhappy with his role in Yekaterinburg, where he was given and then stripped of the captaincy, and now wants to return to Vancouver.
Tryamkin comes with red flags, but remains an intriguing prospect because not many six-foot-seven, 255-pound humans are capable of propelling themselves on skates well enough to play professional hockey.
Tryamkin’s agent, Todd Diamond, recently told The Province newspaper that his client has no interest in playing in the American Hockey League, which the player adamantly – and within his contractual rights at the time – refused to consider in 2016.
Since Diamond and Benning have had several discussions, a one-way contract for Tryamkin probably is not a deal-killer for the Canucks. But with the team facing a potentially severe salary cap crunch next season, the contract situation for veteran shutdown defenceman Chris Tanev and several other Canucks are a higher priority. For now, Tryamkin has to wait. He seems to be a Plan B.
“I’ve had conversations with their group, but we’re in a holding pattern for right now,” Benning said. “When we get more information, we’ll continue the conversations and see if there’s room to get something done.
“We’d just be guessing (at next year’s salary cap). We don’t know, we have no idea. Until we get more clarification about what the landscape will look like next year, we’re going to just take it slowly. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Slowly or otherwise, the Canucks need to improve their six-man defensive unit as well as team defending. Currently in a playoff position on winning percentage, Vancouver significantly upgraded its attack this season and sits eighth in the NHL at 3.25 goals per game. But the Canucks are 20th in goals allowed at 3.10, and that figure flatters them because goaltender Jacob Markstrom has had a Vezina Trophy-calibre season. The team has allowed 33.3 shots per game, fourth-most in the NHL, and its shots-for percentage since Christmas is just 46.7 per cent.
“I don’t think there’s any way to hide that; I’d like to see our team be better defensively,” coach Travis Green told Sportsnet earlier this month. “We said at the beginning of the year with our group: ‘We want to score more and we want to cut goals-against down.’ Elite teams, they have that quality — they can shut teams down, and yet they still score.”
The Canucks aren’t an elite team yet, but they’ve moved in that direction this season, driven by a few young stars and some key veterans.
“This year from last year, we took a big step in upgrading our back end, and we’re going to continue looking at ways we can take another step this summer,” Benning said. “Until we put this season in the books. . . we still have guys that we have to make decisions on going forward. The season isn’t finished yet.”
Canucks professional scouts Brett Henning and Lars Lindgren closely watched Tryamkin this season, and Benning doesn’t believe there are any “character” issues with the 25-year-old.
“We’ve talked to teammates who have said he’s been an excellent teammate,” Benning said. “(Former NHLer) Nigel Dawes plays on his team and said Nikita has been an excellent teammate. People mature. The last time he was over, he was 21 or 22 years old, just got married and didn’t know the English language. We tried to help him get set up, but for some people it’s a big step culturally.
“Now he’s three years older, more mature, and wants to come back.”