Benning, Canucks salvage their weekend with Nate Schmidt trade

Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson (40) chases Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt (88) during second period NHL action in Vancouver, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER – What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there. Like a sky-diving Elvis, Nate Schmidt fell from the Las Vegas heavens into the Vancouver Canucks’ laps late Monday.

The trade of the 22-minute defenceman to Vancouver not only caused people on the West Coast to direct their carving implements towards their turkeys instead of their hockey team – not the first time the subjects have been linked – but saved the Canucks’ weekend and bought general manager Jim Benning time to further repair the damage done by free agency.

Benning surrendered only a third-round pick to get Schmidt, the fleet, two-way defenceman the Golden Knights chose to deal to make salary-cap space for the top prize in free agency: defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.

The trade was a stunning uptick to a long weekend that had, for the Canucks, been a dismal conga-line of players leaving Vancouver.

Schmidt plugs a cavernous hole on the right side of the defence and gives Benning about three months – or until whenever next season begins — to fill the remaining gaps in his lineup.

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It was one thing to lose starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and second-pairing defenceman Chris Tanev to the rival Calgary Flames on Friday, although it was a little embarrassing that the offer Benning finally made to Tanev that “he’s going to sleep on. . . and we should have an answer hopefully on that tomorrow morning,” was so inferior that the career-Canuck followed Markstrom across the Rockies long before bedtime.

The Canucks prudently had no interest in matching the Flames’ offers of six years and $36 millions (with a full no-movement clause) to Markstrom or four years and $18 million for Tanev. Both players are 30 years old.

But the manner in which the Canucks shooed away third-pairing defender Troy Stecher on Saturday was one of the most astounding achievements of free agency until Taylor Hall decided to keep his losing streak going by signing with the Buffalo Sabres.

Albeit more popular with fans than coach Travis Green, Stecher was a handy defenceman capable of playing up or down the right side when the Canucks – his beloved hometown team — decided last week to make him an unrestricted free agent by not “qualifying” him on last season’s salary of $2.325 million.

Fair enough. It’s a tough business with an indefinitely flat salary cap.

But Benning and his staff had no meaningful contract discussions with Stecher until they reached out on Saturday – after losing Tanev – but asked the 26-year-old to dangle a little while longer while the Canucks tried to close a deal for free agent Tyson Barrie. Under the impression for some reason that the Canucks didn’t really want him, Troy from Richmond signed instead with the Detroit Red Wings for two years at $1.7 million.

The Canucks could have done that deal two weeks ago – or anytime before they surrendered exclusive negotiating rights on Friday.

Oh, and Barrie chose to sign for one year with the Edmonton Oilers for less money, we believe, than what the Canucks were willing to pay him.

By the time first-line winger Tyler Toffoli, an outstanding if expensive fit for the Canucks after he was acquired in a trade last February with Los Angeles, signed a four-year, $17-million contract with the Montreal Canadiens earlier Monday, Benning was already being roasted like Thanksgiving dinner in Twitter sermons from the omniscient. A lecture for any occasion.

But you couldn’t blame the preachers. The Canadiens, who overpay everyone, get Toffoli for a pay cut on last season’s salary? For far less money than what had been bandied about in Vancouver? After Stecher, Tanev, and Markstrom?

It was too much.

And then came Nate Schmidt.

It had looked like the highlight of the Canucks’ lost weekend would be the slight downgrade Benning accepted in goal on Friday when he moved quickly to sign Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby to replace Markstrom.

But Monday evening’s acquisition of Schmidt has the potential to be Benning’s best transaction since he inherited the Canucks six-and-a-half years ago. It could be better than last year’s trade, widely criticized at the time of course, to get J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a lottery-protected first-round pick.

With career highs in goals (27) and points (72) and impressive possession numbers (53.8 CF%, 61.5 GF%), Miller was the best Canucks forward not named Elias Pettersson. And Schmidt should be Vancouver’s best defenceman next season not named Quinn Hughes.

Sure, Vegas needed to dump an excellent player when their $61.6-million contract with Pietrangelo put the Knights way out of salary-cap compliance. But Benning used the leverage he had and coaxed Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon to make the Schmidt deal within the Pacific Division and at a garage-sale price.

Even with five years remaining on his contract at $5.95 million annually, Schmidt is a better pickup for Vancouver than Arizona Coyote Oliver Ekman-Larsson would have been when you consider cost and risk.

Benning prioritized his defence and received, for a third-round pick two drafts from now, a defenceman better than all but two of the unrestricted free-agent blue-liners who were available when the weekend began.

“We’re really excited to be getting a player and person of Nate’s quality,” Benning told Sportsnet late Monday. “We needed to address our defence and Nate checks a lot of boxes. He’s been a really good player in this league and he’s going to help our young guys and our team get better moving forward.”

Benning is expected to have more to say today. And he has more difficult work left before next season. The Canucks’ available cap space is down to $2 million, according to CapFriendly. But this doesn’t include the savings of $1.075 million for burying either Loui Eriksson or Sven Baertschi (maybe both?) in the minors next year, and the $3.5 million that opens if Micheal Ferland spends next season injured due to his series of concussions.

The next landmine is winger Jake Virtanen’s arbitration hearing. Rather than trading him for a draft pick, Benning could end up paying his bottom-six winger $3 million or more – not far off what it would have cost to keep Toffoli on the top line.

There is, however, time to fix things even if cap space is scarce. Schmidt over Tanev is an upgrade that offsets the slight downgrade to Holtby from Markstrom. Somehow, one holiday weekend into free agency, the Canucks are back close to .500.


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