Canucks GM Jim Benning facing critical week to create cap space

Canucks GM Jim Benning discusses their strategy heading into the 2021 NHL Draft, says he’s been getting a bunch of interest for their 9th overall pick and is listening, but says they’re philosophy is always to pick best player available.

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks like Nate Schmidt, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying to trade him and his $5.95-million cap hit.

Backup goalie Braden Holtby is an excellent pro and leader, a potential mentor to young starter Thatcher Demko. Still, that doesn’t justify Holtby’s $4.3-million cap charge next season.

A buyout for winger Jake Virtanen is such a no-brainer financially that if the Canucks don’t execute one before National Hockey League free agency opens next week, it will be a bigger surprise than the Seattle Kraken choosing Morgan Geekie over Jake Bean from the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Kraken’s expansion draft Wednesday reinforced that, during the pandemic-caused Great Depression in the NHL, salary-cap space is in itself a powerful weapon. And like a lot of teams, the Canucks are awfully low on ammo.

When general manager Jim Benning emerged from his hockey-operations bunker on Thursday for a Zoom press conference and newsy interview with Sportsnet radio in Vancouver, he vowed to match any offer sheet on restricted free agent Elias Pettersson, said the team needs to add a couple of defencemen and cited the blue-line heavy Kraken as a potential trade partner, and claimed there is “a lot of interest” in Schmidt from other teams.

Last weekend’s pre-expansion acquisition of third-line centre Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars is only the first of several upgrades the Canucks need to make this summer, and that trade shouldn’t be the biggest off-season deal in Vancouver.

The team is trying to replace Tyler Toffoli, whose departure as a free agent last fall was one of the biggest mistakes of the Benning era, by adding another top-six winger. Benning has also said he wants to upgrade the speed and skill in depth positions.

Most of these changes are predicated on creating salary-cap space to pay for them, which is why the sequential pressure points of expansion, Friday’s entry draft and the start of free agency next week are critical to the Canucks.

Benning must find a way to offload money, which is why trade talks continue on Schmidt and Holtby and even Vancouver’s pick at No. 9 in the first round of the draft.

"We're no different than all the rest of the teams in the league, I think," Benning told Sportsnet in an interview late Wednesday. "There's Seattle and a couple more teams that have more cap space. But in the flat-cap world we're living in, there are lots of teams that are kind of in the same situation as we are. We're working to try to free up some cap space and make some moves and change our group because we want to take another step next year.

"We've been talking about trying to get stuff figured out (in trades) for a month and a half, and then you have these deadlines that come up where stuff actually gets done. It's been a lot of work for everybody, but this is the time you make your teams better."

If you configure the Canucks' current roster on Cap Friendly and then do the arithmetic, the team has about $19.6-million of cap space available for next season. This figure includes Jay Beagle on the active roster, Micheal Ferland on long-term injured reserve and a small portion of Loui Eriksson’s radioactive cap hit buried in the minors.

The roster also includes only three defencemen under contract, and does not include yet-to-be-signed bridge deals for Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, who will likely command $13- to-14-million of that vacant cap space. Dickinson’s next contract — he also is an RFA — should be offset by a buyout of Virtanen, whose termination would create a $2.5-million savings next season.

The Canucks aren’t losing any core pieces due to the cap crunch caused primarily by deadweight contracts given in free agency to Eriksson ($6-million AAV), Beagle ($3 million) and Antoine Roussel ($3 million), as well as the NHL’s absurd cap-recapture penalty on Roberto Luongo ($3.035 million). But the Canucks have no hope of adding another core piece without shedding some payroll — likely amid these pressure points before teams start spending money in free agency.

Benning said Thursday he has given teams permission to talk to Kevin Epp, the agent for Virtanen, who was placed on indefinite leave in May when a sexual assault allegation from four years ago sparked a new criminal investigation.

Letting other teams talk to the agent feels like a Hail Mary attempt to see if Virtanen might yet be traded instead of bought out.

"I don't know where it's going to end up, but I guess we'll see in the next two or three days," Benning said.

The GM said he has until October to build his team but the critical work is right now.

“There's lots of things that we're looking at to try to do and we'll just see what happens here these next few days,” Benning told Sportsnet. “I think this next week, the next 10 days, is going to be real important to what we do . . . for what our team looks like next season.”

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