Canucks' gamble on Pearson extension could pose future salary-cap issues

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks’ wager on Tanner Pearson doesn’t look nearly as good as their bet on Thatcher Demko.

When the National Hockey League team took a calculated risk last week on Demko, their gamble was backed by the strong likelihood the goalie will continue to improve and should be a bargain by the end of his contract.

But when the team bet Thursday on Pearson, the risk was amplified by the probability that the winger’s game may erode over the contract’s term and make him another liability against the indefinitely tight salary cap in Vancouver.

Demko turned 25 in December, is in only his second full NHL season and is thriving after getting his first chance to be a starter at this level.

Pearson turns 29 in August, has been in the league for eight years and before he suffered an ankle injury in March was having the poorest season offensively in his career.

The three-year, $9.75-million contract extension the Canucks announced Thursday for Pearson isn’t even 40 per cent of the $25 million the team will pay Demko over the next five years. But amid the NHL’s flat-cap crisis and with general manager Jim Benning staring down the double barrel of lucrative extensions due for franchise cornerstones Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, the Pearson contract looks awfully risky even if his annual salary is coming down slightly from this season’s $3.75 million.

The Canucks announced both deals Thursday, delaying by a week the official confirmation of Demko’s contract due to the COVID-19 outbreak that shut down the team last Wednesday. Demko is one of 18 Canucks regulars on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. Pearson, who was not with the main group after being injured on March 17, has so far tested negative.

Benning, joined by team physician Dr. Jim Bovard, will be available to the media Friday morning. It will be the first time Benning has answered questions since the outbreak began.

Neither Pearson nor Demko is expected to speak to reporters until at least next week.

Pearson has been one of Benning’s better trades during the GM’s seven seasons in Vancouver. Not only has Pearson supplied the Canucks with reliable, two-way play and finally given centre Bo Horvat a steady linemate, his acquisition from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2019 trade deadline allowed Benning to shed one of his biggest mistakes, defenceman Erik Gudbranson.

But after scoring 21 goals and 45 points in last year’s 69-game regular season, Pearson has just six goals and 11 points in 33 games this year. His season is not as poor as it looks. The veteran remains among the top third of Canucks' regulars by most play-driving measures, and Pearson’s shooting percentage of 8.1 is improbably below his career mark of 11.5.

His offensive numbers have been further suppressed by the epic struggle of Vancouver’s second power-play unit and, as always, Pearson continues with Horvat to get the most difficult matchups on the team, starting a career-low 39.1 per cent of shifts in the offensive zone.

Still, the question about Pearson is not really about how well he has played during the pandemic season, but what will he look like next season at age 29? And in his 30-year-old season and at 31, when the former first-round pick from Kitchener, Ont., will be due $4.25 million at the end of his back-loaded contract.

It is important to remember – and this contract reinforces the idea – that the Canucks value Pearson beyond his statistical contributions. When unrestricted free agents Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher left the Canucks last fall, Benning’s mistake was not in failing to match the contract offers those players got elsewhere, but underestimating the impact their exit would have on team culture and the leadership group.

Pearson is an important surviving piece of that culture that Benning clearly doesn’t want to see deteriorate further. There is also a sense within the organization that Pearson, trusted by coach Travis Green and universally respected by teammates, is a necessary linemate for Horvat, the captain who has seldom been given the support on his wings that he deserves.

When Benning landed winger Tyler Toffoli ahead of last year’s trade deadline, the initial plan was that he would finally fill out the second line beside Horvat and Pearson, Toffoli’s friend and linemate from the Los Angeles Kings. Instead, with Brock Boeser injured, Toffoli was bestowed to Pettersson on the top line and stayed there.

But while Pearson is a solid player and excellent teammate who should do better at the end of this season than he did at the start, he is a middle-six winger on a team that will miss the playoffs.

Pearson would be a bottom-six winger on a better team, and he is trending toward that role in Vancouver. As we’ve seen with the Canucks’ $3-million-a-season fourth-liners, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle, committing that kind of salary at the bottom of the lineup badly restricts what you can do at the top, where most games are won and lost.

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