Canucks Free Agency Preview: With limited cap room, building depth is priority

Buffalo Sabres' Alex Tuch, right, checks Calgary Flames' Calle Jarnkrok during first period NHL hockey action. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

VANCOUVER – The calendar proximity of National Hockey League free agency to the Vancouver Canucks’ summer development camp, which opened Monday, is a reminder that if the team does better at the second thing it will be less reliant on the first for filling out its roster.

But as it stands, the Canucks’ harvest from free agency may be as modest as their profit next season from player development. The team has needs, but little salary-cap space to fulfill them when free agency opens on Wednesday.

The Canucks need a third-line centre, some long-term solutions on the right side of defence and more speed, size and skill scattered across the bottom half of the lineup. Unfortunately, they have only about $6.4 million in cap space available – and that small sum only because winger Micheal Ferland and his $3.5-million salary will be going back on to long-term injured reserve next season.

“We haven't cleared as much cap space as we would have liked to,” Canucks president Jim Rutherford, who replaced Jim Benning as the head of hockey operations last December, told Sportsnet on Sunday. “We'll be active on Wednesday to a certain point, but we're not going to be in on the big guys — the real big guys. We'll look for complementary players and build more depth and things like that. But we're not in the position that we had hoped to be at this point in time.”

Rutherford inherits $2.4 million in dead cap space from Benning, who bought out goalie Brayden Holtby and winger Jake Virtanen last summer, which is why the new guy in charge isn’t buying out anyone this off-season. The team must also carry a $1.25-million bonus overage from the one-year contract goalie Jaroslav Halak signed last season.

“You can clear cap space if you're giving up assets,” Rutherford said. “But we're trying to build assets. So, you know, we get a little bit caught up here. At this point, we've just decided to let it run its course until (a trade) potentially could come along to do that. But it's not going to come along prior to the first day of free agency.”

Rutherford could create $5.25 of spending room by trading J.T. Miller — minus whatever assets the Canucks receive in return — but management is still talking about trying to re-sign their leading scorer beyond the final year of his contract next season. Miller, 29, has been in the vortex of trade rumours for months.

Rutherford denied the Canucks were close to making a trade with the New York Islanders at the draft in Montreal on Thursday.

“I always feel that when you really want to make a deal bad, there's a good chance you'll make a bad deal,” he said. “As we're going through this process, with the number of prospects we have, different things that we have to deal with, the cap to unravel, I think it's important to be patient and try to make as few mistakes as possible. And that's what we're doing.”

Salary cap space: $6.41 million (with Ferland on LTIR)
Roster: 21/23
Salary committed to 11 forwards: $39.12 million
Salary committed to eight defencemen: $27.56 million
Salary committed to two goalies: $5.76 million

Potential UFA targets

Calle Jarnkrok, 30, Centre/Winger

The 30-year-old Swede has a lot of versatility and a little grit as a right-shot centre who also plays wing, kills penalties and can move up and down the lineup. Jarnkrok will be looking for a raise from his previous salary of $2 million after generating 12 goals and 30 points in 66 games.

But he was a little disappointing in Calgary as a deadline rental, managing just one goal and eight points in 29 league and playoff games. And might he settle for a little less to join the Canucks and play in their middle six?

Vladislav Namestnikov, 29, Centre/Winger

The journeyman Russian has played much more wing than centre in the NHL, but is a handy player who brings speed and energy with enough skill that Namestnikov had 16 goals and 30 points in 75 games last season for Detroit and Dallas.

A former first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Namestnikov is the son of one-time Canuck John Namestnikov. And Vladislav’s little brother, Max, was invited by the Canucks to their development camp this week. Just saying. His expiring contract averaged $2 million.

Ilya Lyubushkin, 28, Right defence

The Canucks would probably prefer the Toronto Maple Leafs’ other UFA Ilya (Mikheyev) but the speedy winger could get silly money after his breakthrough 21-goal season, and Vancouver will find Lyubushkin much more affordable.

The Russian has good size, can handle the puck and make a pass, but is primarily a depth defender who helps the penalty kill. But he plays the right side, which the Canucks need to upgrade. Does Lyubushkin, who played last season at $1.35 million, qualify as one?

Victor Rask, 29, Centre

Before he disappointed the Minnesota Wild (and then the Seattle Kraken last season), Rask was a pretty good player for Rutherford and the Carolina Hurricanes.

The six-foot-two Swede finished his six-year, $24-million contract splitting time between Minnesota, Seattle and the AHL. But he still produced 21 points in 47 games last season while averaging 12:11 of ice time. Rask’s next contract will be for a fraction of his old one, and someone will take a low-cost gamble on him.

Understand the off-season stakes for Canadian teams
Signing season is here. Day by day, hour by hour, NHL general managers are making choices that will shape the future of their teams. Here's what you need to know.

Calgary: It's getting harder to envision Johnny Gaudreau in a Flames uniform this season. If he leaves, Plan B will include swinging for the fences.

Winnipeg: Historically, the Jets have spent more time searching for value than getting into a bidding war. This year, there may be money to spend, but there are large holes to fill.

Ottawa: Instead of building for tomorrow, on an endless loop, the Senators are telling their fans and their young core they are all about today.

Vancouver: The Canucks have needs. But, with little salary-cap space to fulfill them, their focus shifts to building depth instead of star chasing.

Edmonton: The time has come, after futile attempts the past two summers, to acquire the goalie who can open the Oilers' Stanley Cup window.

Sportsnet is continuing to roll out previews for each Canadian team ahead of free agency opening on July 13. Check back later for updates.

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