VANCOUVER – In the past few days, National Hockey League defencemen Jacob Trouba, Olli Maatta, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun have been traded, and not one of them is coming to help the Vancouver Canucks.
Either the Canucks weren’t interested – doubtful given the team’s needs on the blue line – or they lacked the expendable assets or allure to the players involved to make a trade happen.
As Friday’s entry draft here at Rogers Arena approaches, Canucks general manager Jim Benning continues to look for at least one top-four defenceman while knowing there’s an increasing possibility he will require two if No. 1 blueliner Alexander Edler remains unsigned and leaves as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
The elephants in the room are multiplying.
“I’m not going to comment on other teams’ deals or players,” Benning told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “Alex is our first choice, and we’re still hopeful to get something done there that makes sense. Where it ends up? I don’t know, but we’re still trying to figure it out.
“He’s a big part of our group and a big part of our team. It would be a big hole. We’ve been working hard to figure out a way to get him back, but we also have to do things the right way because we have these good young players and if they continue to get better, we’re going to have to pay them in a couple of years.”
The biggest obstacle to a new deal for Edler is term.
The career Canuck would be among the most coveted defencemen available in free agency and could command a four- or five-year deal on the open market.
He might play another four or five years in Vancouver, too, but not on one contract. As Benning indicated, the team is wary of committing big dollars long-term to a 33-year-old when Vancouver’s two best prospects in a generation, centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, will be coming out of their entry-level contracts in two years.
Benning is also trying to lock up restricted free agent Brock Boeser to a long-term deal that could be worth $8 million per season.
The best news for the Canucks so far this week is that the NHL, to placate naive complaints by players about escrow clawbacks on their paycheques, may agree with the NHL Players’ Association to reduce next season’s salary cap below the $83 million commissioner Gary Bettman projected last December.
This possibility exacerbates problems for cap-strapped teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. But it strengthens the bargaining position of the Canucks, who according to capfriendly.com have $30.5 million available (based on an $83-million upper limit) for next season.
Benning can afford to take on a bad contract or two as the cost of acquiring a player or draft pick the Canucks really want. But they can only do it for the next two years.
This window nicely dovetails with expectations, as reported by Elliotte Friedman, that the salary cap may remain tight through 2020-21, after which a new television deal with NBC for U.S. network rights that include an expansion team in Seattle could significantly boost payrolls three seasons from now.
The Canucks have never leveraged their cap space to make a trade with a team under duress, but Benning said he’s looking at doing so.
“We have cap space to look at those kinds of deals,” he said. “But we’re like everybody else: once we attend to our business and sign our own RFAs and try to get Edler on a new contract, that cap space can go pretty fast, too. We’ll see where it ends up here in the next couple of weeks.
“We also have to keep in mind that in two years, Petey and Hughes and (goalie Thatcher) Demko are all going to need new deals. We’ve got to be a little bit careful about what we do now.”
Benning is right to be careful, but there is an opportunity here for the Canucks. Decent defencemen are getting traded for returns that are relatively modest. The market is accessible. Free agency, by contrast, looks more than ever like a minefield after the inflationary $92-million contract the San Jose Sharks just gave potential UFA defenceman Erik Karlsson, which was followed by the Philadelphia Flyers’s $50-million contract for 20-goal scorer Kevin Hayes.
Benning may be able to sign a top-six winger on July 1. But for the one or two defencemen the Canucks also require to seriously push for a playoff spot next season, during the franchise’s 50th anniversary, Benning must go on the trade market.
He said he has never experienced in his career in hockey as much league-wide trade discussion leading up to the draft as what is occurring in the NHL this week.
“Whether it’s concerning the draft or trying to change the look of their teams, I think that’s true,” he said of the sheer mass of trade chatter. “I’ve talked to every team in the league in the last week.”
With the No. 10 draft pick on Friday, Benning said he has been getting calls – not just making them – about moving up or down in the first round.
But if he had to guess, does he make the 10th pick on Friday?
“I can’t answer that.”