VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are like a beautifully-renovated home that shows really well at an open house. As long as you don’t go downstairs.
Limits on the team’s renovation budget were evident in the opening hours of National Hockey League free agency on Wednesday when the Canucks essentially turned defenceman Nate Schmidt into three players for the right side of their blue-line: Tucker Poolman, Travis Hamonic and Luke Schenn.
These three experienced pros will cost the Canucks $6.35 million in cap space next season, roughly the spending money Vancouver general manager Jim Benning created late Tuesday by trading Schmidt and his $5.95-million hit to the Winnipeg Jets.
The Canucks on Wednesday also mended the hole in net behind starter Thatcher Demko by signing veteran goalie Jaroslav Halak to a bonus-heavy, one-year contract that will cost the Canucks $1.5 million next season and, likely, the same amount again in 2022-23 after the 36-year-old is gone.
And incumbent Canuck Brandon Sutter was re-signed at a bargain $1.15 million to centre the fourth line, kill penalties and provide some stability and leadership on a roster with six new faces, more if you count some of the “bubble” players from the swarm of minor-league signings on Wednesday.
The hockey-ops department signed 11 players, most of them with some NHL experience, to stock the minor-league team the Canucks have relocated to nearby Abbotsford. Note to fans in the Fraser Valley: the Abbotsford Canucks are going to be good.
The Vancouver Canucks?
They’re going to be better. But it’s impossible to say how much.
#Canucks GM Jim Benning announced today that the club has signed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a one-year contract that includes $1.5 million in salary and $1.5 million in performance bonus eligibility.
DETAILS https://t.co/Bn4HDUkIHh pic.twitter.com/jH0dVJjlUQ
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) July 28, 2021
Benning splurged on his forwards earlier this month, acquiring top-six winger Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes and third-line centre Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars. Factor in the arrival of Russian prospect Vasily Podkolzin and the expected return-to-heath of Elias Pettersson, and the Canucks are going to be deeper, faster, more dangerous and a lot better up front than they were last season.
But the net changes on defence, which statistically was already one of the poorest in the NHL, are an upgrade from Alex Edler to Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the left side, and a downgrade from Schmidt to Poolman on the right.
Hey, but have you seen the upstairs? That’s real hardwood.
“As a six-man unit, I think we're better,” Benning said of the defence, which should benefit by the natural improvement of 21-year-old Quinn Hughes and 22-year-old Jack Rathbone. “I think we have a good mix of guys that can get back and transition the puck up ice, (partnered) with more stay-at-home, bigger, more physical guys. That's to be determined, who plays with who, at training camp, but I like the mix of the group we have.
“We wanted to, first and foremost, get some cap flexibility. We did that. And we wanted to turn the team over. If you look at our forward group, we're young. I think we got faster. We added two top-nine forwards to our group (Garland and Dickinson). We added a top-pairing defenceman in OEL (Ekman-Larsson). We got bigger and stronger on the back end. We got an experienced goalie. We've added good depth to our organization."
The Canucks signed enough players for their American Hockey League team to play soccer: forwards Justin Bailey, Nic Petan, Justin Dowling, Sheldon Rempal, Phillip Di Giuseppe, John Stevens and Sheldon Dries, and defencemen Brady Keeper, Brad Hunt, Kyle Burroughs and Devante Stephens. Five of them are from Metro Vancouver and a few will push for depth positions on the Canucks at training camp.
Benning also kept a pile of cap space in reserve: $16.2 million, plus access to another $3.5 million when forward Micheal Ferland returns to long-term injured reserve.
This total is enough to pay for the second contracts, likely bridge deals, for Pettersson and Hughes and fend off any outside chance of a predatory offer sheet for Pettersson. Dickinson and depth defenceman Olli Juolevi also remain unsigned restricted free agents.
“I don't think people should be concerned; we're going to get these deals done,” Benning said of Pettersson and Hughes. “We've had constructive talks with (agents) Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry about their clients. I don't comment on where we're at in negotiations, but I think they've been real positive and we're going to be able to figure them out.”
Canucks management has pulled nearly every lever it can to create cap space, offloading Benning’s previous free-agent spending mistakes in Friday’s massive deal for Garland, Ekman-Larsson and most of the $50 million left on OEL’s contract, buying out Jake Virtanen and Braden Holtby, trading Schmidt and even structuring Halak’s contract to pay the goalie half his $3 million in the form of bonuses that won’t count against Vancouver’s cap until next season.
“We've created a lot of cash, a lot of cap (space),” Benning said. “If there's an offer sheet or anything, we're going to match it on Petey. But to be able to sign those guys, we wanted that cap flexibility.”
Benning certainly generated some, and fulfilled his end-of-season pledge to be aggressive in trying to upgrade a team that plummeted last season to last in the temporary Canadian division after a final-eight appearance in the Stanley Cup tournament the previous summer.
But are they good enough? Will their strength up front be enough to overcome any deficiencies on defence?
“It was a disappointing season for us last year and ... I said I was going to be aggressive, and I think we have been aggressive, and we'll just have to see where that all plays out,” Benning said near the end of his press conference. “But I want to be a playoff team next year and expect to be a playoff team.”
That’s the money quote.