VANCOUVER – Were Loui Eriksson’s salary $1 million instead of $6 million, he’d have been playing the last three weeks. It wouldn’t have been for the Vancouver Canucks, but he’d have been playing for someone in the National Hockey League.
Eriksson’s contract, which blocks any road out of Vancouver for him, sucks in the same way former Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo once famously declared “my contract sucks.”
Of course, it sucks a lot worse for the Canucks than Eriksson, but the issue until he sat out the last nine games in Vancouver was never whether he could still play in the NHL. He can. Just not as a former mega free agent who has half of his six-year, $36-million contract remaining.
A foot injury to fourth-liner and key penalty-killer Tyler Motte is giving the 34-year-old Eriksson a chance to play Monday for the Canucks for the first time since the team’s season-opening loss in Edmonton on Oct. 2.
Eriksson has played 922 NHL games. But after sitting out the last nine, he can longer reach 1,000 games this season.
Is this Eriksson’s last chance? Given the dead weight of his contract, probably not.
But he was chosen to play against the Florida Panthers ahead of Canucks prospect Adam Gaudette, who was re-called from the minor-league Utica Comets on the weekend and, at age 23 and in just his second pro season, isn’t going to hang around long just watching from the press box.
This might be Eriksson’s best chance to keep playing.
“I knew the situation would be a little bit different this year,” Eriksson said after Monday’s optional morning skate at Rogers Arena. “But the team has been playing so well, too. It’s hard to make a change in the lineup. I’ve been trying to focus on just staying positive and working hard in practice.
“Of course, it’s not an easy situation. But you have to think positive. When you get the chance, you have to go out there and do what you’re good at. That’s all I’m going to focus on: go out there and try to help the team as much as I can in the role I will play.”
Eriksson won the UFA sweepstakes three years ago when he signed his $36-million deal after a 30-goal season for the Boston Bruins. Since then, he has scored 32 goals in 197 games for the Canucks.
Vancouver coach Travis Green healthy-scratched Eriksson for one game last spring, and when the Swede told a reporter at the world championships in May that he didn’t have the trust of his NHL coach, it was seen as a trade demand.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning tried all summer but couldn’t find anyone willing to take on Eriksson’s $6-million cap hit, even though his actual salary – the dollar cost to any team acquiring him – is “only” $9 million over the second half of the contract.
So, unless the Canucks want to send Eriksson to the minors to save only $1.075 million in cap space (pro-rated), the sides are stuck with each other. Which is how it has looked for most of October.
“I definitely want it to work here,” Eriksson said. “The salary is a big point. I was ready that this could happen, and I’m just trying to stay positive and be still a nice (teammate). I know what I can do if I get the chance. I’ve been in this league a long time. I’ve never been in a situation like this, but I was prepared for it.”
Eriksson scored 11 goals and 29 points in 81 games last season. He is a reliable checker and penalty killer. But the Canucks, rebuilt around a few young core pieces and bolstered by the summer acquisitions of four mid-career veterans, need more from Eriksson than what kept him in the lineup previously.
“It’s hard to explain to people but for us, you come to the rink in the morning and you’re told ‘this is your job tonight,’ and you just go do it,” veteran centre Brandon Sutter said. “You don’t think about what you have to do to live up to expectations based on your salary. The goals haven’t worked out for him like people expected, but he can still be a good player for our team.”
Sutter said Eriksson never stopped being a good pro.
“I’ve played with some guys where the situation got a lot of worse and they kind of turned into a complainer,” Sutter said. “There’s been absolutely none of that with Loui. He understands the situation and has been a professional about it and worked hard. He hasn’t changed his mood in the room; he’s still part of the group here and we just need him to come in and play well and do what he does and be solid at both ends.”
Green said: “He’s been a consummate pro. Sometimes with young guys, if they don’t play for a while, I think it can affect them a lot more than an older guy and a guy that’s been around. You know as a coach that he’s going to give you his best when he gets in.”
Yes, but will it be enough?