VANCOUVER – During years of losing, the Vancouver Canucks had the challenge of getting good players to come. Now, they can’t get them to leave.
First-line winger Tyler Toffoli, acquired as a potential rental from the Los Angeles Kings in February, told reporters Friday that his “No. 1 priority” is to re-sign with the Canucks before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in October.
The 28-year-old winger immediately became one of the Canucks’ best forwards, producing six goals and 10 points in 10 games playing alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller at the end of the NHL’s shortened regular season.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who surrendered a second-round draft pick and college prospect Tyler Madden to the Kings, said when he traded for Toffoli that he hoped to re-sign the forward who spent seven years in Los Angeles and won a Stanley Cup there in 2014.
But there was always speculation about Toffoli’s desire to return to Southern California where his wife, Cat Belanger, works for baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
In Friday’s year-end media availability, Toffoli made it clear he’d rather stay with the Canucks, who made it to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals before losing one week ago to the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I want to talk to Jim and see where he’s at and where the team is at because that’s priority No. 1 as of right now,” Toffoli said. “I want to say that I haven’t really thought about (free agency) a whole lot, but it’s definitely at the time in my life where you have to. You definitely want the security for yourself and for your family and all those things.
“I want to stay in Vancouver, and that’s my No. 1 priority as of right now. If things progress – and not in the right direction – then that’s when I have to think about going to a different place.”
Toffoli’s declaration is great news for the Canucks, and further validation for a team rebuilt around Pettersson, 21, defenceman Quinn Hughes, 20, and several other young and mid-career players.
But his desire to stay puts even more pressure on Benning to make the salary math work for the Canucks during the NHL’s flat-cap crisis. Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and veteran defenceman Chris Tanev, Hughes’ blue-line partner and mentor, are also eligible for unrestricted free agency and badly want to stay in Vancouver.
Toffoli and Hughes, who is due a huge pay increase a year from now, are represented by the same agent, Pat Brisson of the Creative Artists Agency.
Toffoli suffered a sprained ankle Aug. 2 in the Canucks’ first playoff game against the Minnesota Wild, but pushed himself back into the lineup ahead of schedule 23 days and two series later, for Game 2 against Vegas.
He had three points in his first game, but managed just a single goal over the final five and clearly was playing hurt.
“I wasn’t comfortable,” Toffoli conceded on Friday. “I couldn’t tell you how I was feeling (percentage-wise). It’s the playoffs; a lot of guys were hurt and stuff. I came back and wanted to do everything I could. Obviously, I wish I could have done a little bit more to push the team over the edge.
“The playoffs was a little disappointing (personally), getting hurt in the first game and missing all that time. But being able to watch all the guys and how well they played and how well they fought together was pretty impressive. I tried everything I could to get back and it was a lot of fun to experience that with all the guys.”
Toffoli is coming off a three-year contract that paid him $4.6 million a season, and his next deal could be worth $5-6 million annually. (At least, it would be if this were a regular NHL off-season). That’s a lot of money for someone who averaged only .54 points-per-game the last three seasons and has scored more than 24 goals just once.
But Toffoli plays a strong two-way game and has driven possession throughout his career, making his linemates better.
“I’ll be biased until the end of time, but he definitely can help us,” Canucks winger Tanner Pearson, Toffoli’s old friend and L.A. linemate, said on the same conference call. “I’m hoping that he’s back in blue. We’ll see.”
Nobody except the Canucks can offer Toffoli the chance to play with Pettersson on a team that, if it continues to develop and progress, should challenge for a Stanley Cup over the next several years.
“They have some kids in this organization and some guys that really stepped up and showed they’re ready to take the next step,” Toffoli said. “It’s definitely an exciting time to be in Vancouver, and it’s definitely something that people want to be a part of now.”
“The flat cap doesn’t help anyone out,” Pearson said when asked about keeping the Canucks together. “Everyone’s hoping we can keep the crew together. We like where we ended up and it just kind of put the realization into all of us (about) what we could do if we all stick together. We were one win away from going to the conference final. Hopefully when the time comes, a lot of the guys are coming back.”