The first thing on Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning’s summer agenda was take advantage of space on his expansion list to leverage a bargain acquisition from a team with protection issues. Check.
Now, about those other five or six things Benning and hockey operations need to achieve to strengthen and refresh the Canucks’ lineup amid the economic recession the flat-capped National Hockey League is enduring.
Versatile Dallas Stars forward Jason Dickinson was a good get on Saturday, as the Canucks spent only a third-round draft pick to fill their biggest need of the off-season: a robust, mobile, defensive-minded centre to anchor what needs to be an upgraded third line.
But the Seattle expansion draft provides the Canucks further opportunities. Can they coax the Kraken to take a significant contract off their hands? And among all those attractive players made available to Seattle by other teams, is there one or two Benning can reserve by making a claim-and-trade deal with Kraken GM Ron Francis?
Excitement this week about possibilities extend in the Pacific Northwest beyond Seattle.
Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, JT Miller, Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Motte, Jason Dickinson.
Nate Schmidt, Tyler Myers, Olli Juolevi.
Possible Seattle targets
F Kole Lind
Saturday’s pre-roster freeze acquisition of Dickinson, who will be a bargain if the 26-year-old meets projections as the Canucks’ new third-line centre, dislodged Lind from Vancouver’s protected list.
The 22-year-old is the best “prospect” made available by the Canucks. After excellent progress in the American Hockey League during his second pro season in 2019-20, the 2017 second-round pick started 2021 with five goals and eight points in eight games for the Utica Comets before a promotion to the NHL in which Lind failed to register a point in seven games. But he made a promising move to centre from right wing in the AHL, and has enough pedigree as a scorer to be a tradeable asset for Seattle even if Lind’s NHL future is far from guaranteed.
The most intriguing potential Kraken draftee is Holtby, the former Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup winner who scuffled through his first season with the Canucks (.889 save percentage) while decisively losing the starting job to Thatcher Demko. After two straight sub-NHL-standard seasons, the former Washington Capital would seem hard to move since he has a year remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $4.3 million after signing in Vancouver last October.
But the Holtby name still carries street cred around the NHL, and several teams beyond Seattle have expressed interest in the accomplished goalie who is still only 31 years old and is widely – and justly – regarded for his professionalism and leadership. The Kraken and Canucks have discussed a sweetener for Seattle if it absorbs Holtby’s cap hit, but the sides have disagreed to this point on how much sugar should be added. The interest from other teams, if legitimate, is important because it would make Holtby transferrable as an asset even if the Kraken don’t see him as a player in Seattle.
F Matthew Highmore
So unimpressive is the list of Canucks available to the Kraken – Vancouver benefitted by having 2020 Calder Trophy runner-up Quinn Hughes exempt – that we’re including the fourth-liner Highmore among Vancouver’s top-three expansion candidates.
Acquired from Chicago in April when the Canucks gave up on centre Adam Gaudette, who was left unprotected by the Blackhawks, Highmore, 25, showed better than most of the players who auditioned for Vancouver late in the season. He contributed five points in 18 games for the Canucks, displaying speed and a degree of consistency while proving he can kill penalties. NHL careers have been built with less.
Salary Cap Outlook
As GM Benning said Saturday, the trade for Dickinson is just the first of several upgrades management hopes to make this summer. The team needs another top-six winger and at least two defencemen. And they may need more blue-liners than that as the Canucks are taking offers on Nate Schmidt, while Alex Edler’s agent, Mark Stowe, went on television in B.C. last week to say his client, a career Canuck, plans to explore unrestricted free agency on July 28. So there’s a lot of work to do in Vancouver, and most of it is predicated on Benning offloading some contracts to create cap space to pay for his lineup improvements.
This is why the Holtby situation is important, and why the Canucks are considering moving Schmidt before next season so his $5.95-million cap charge can be redeployed. It’s why Benning is expected to buy out at least Jake Virtanen and his $2.55-million hit, and why the Canucks continue to search for an exit ramp on Loui Eriksson, whose six-year, $36-million contract has one season remaining – likely in the minors. The deal for Dickinson was just the start of things.