VANCOUVER – In landing Ilya Mikheyev near the start of free agency, the Vancouver Canucks went with quality over quantity, which was impressive because we weren’t sure they had the money for either.
With speed, size, a little abrasiveness, elite penalty-killing chops and enough skill to score 21 goals in 53 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, Mikheyev possesses everything the Canucks wanted. But the 27-year-old winger from Russia came at a premium: $19 million over the next four years. Until his breakout year, Mikheyev’s previous career-high was eight goals.
His $4.75-million average cap hit represents most of the roughly $6.4 million the Canucks had available heading into free agency. The team also signed physical depth centre Curtis Lazar for three years at $1 million annually, and made official the one-year, $950,000 contract previously negotiated for Kontinental Hockey League free agent Andrei Kuzmenko.
“Tenacity, speed, size, versatility — I believe that he’s going to help us here for the next four years,” Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said of Mikheyev. “(He’s) one of the better PK guys in the league as well, and hopefully he’ll get a chance here to play in a more offensive role.
“Definitely, we feel that we improved our group here.”
On his first day in free agency as an NHL GM, Allvin also signed centre Dakota Joshua, who split last season between the St. Louis Blues and their American Hockey League team, and Chicago Blackhawks minor-league goalie Collin Delia and defenceman Wyatt Kalynuk.
The Canucks are investing a lot of faith, as well as money, in Mikheyev.
The speedy winger is a formidable play-driver and, in combination with Kuzmenko and Lazar, makes Vancouver stronger up front.
But the opportunity-cost of spending most of their spare change on one forward is that the Canucks’ defence, in need of long-term upgrades on the right side, will have to be improved by means other than free agency.
Canucks president Jim Rutherford told Sportsnet earlier this week that the team simply didn’t have the cap space to go after any of the top free agents. Asked if he could afford a mid-range player, around $3-4 million, he said maybe. They went a little higher than that to get Mikheyev. But his four-year term is also a year or two less than what he might have received as a fairly coveted, second-tier UFA.
Wednesday signings not only change the lineup, they re-set franchise history, too, giving the Canucks three Russian players in a market that has been largely bereft of them since Pavel Bure rocketed away in 1998. Second-year Canuck Vasily Podkolzin, who has embraced his new home and team in Vancouver, should feel even more comfortable next season with Mikheyev and Kuzmenko around.
Relentless in his pursuit of the puck and closing down opponents, Mikheyev makes the Canucks harder to play against. So does Lazar, the 27-year-old former first-round pick from Salmon Arm, B.C., who finally found his NHL niche last season as a role player for the Boston Bruins, his fourth NHL team.
“You just have to realize, you know, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Lazar told reporters on a Zoom call. “Every kid wants to get to the NHL as fast as you can, whereas I probably could have used some seasoning in the American League.
“I did get that year in the American League (with the Stockton Heat in 2018-19) a little bit further along when a lot of people wrote me off. I loved that year. I found my passion. I had fun and I was able to resurrect my career and transform into something effective and here we are. I’m very proud of not rolling over, not listening to criticism, just focusing on myself and trying to better myself each and every time I got on the ice. It just led to opportunities just like this where I’m beyond excited to be a Vancouver Canuck.”
Lazar grew up a Canucks’ fan and listed players like Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler as influences on his play style. Lazar led the Bruins last season with 186 hits, and his hit rate of 13.29 per 60 minutes would have easily led all Canucks forwards except for late-season callup Will Lockwood.
“I’m a firm believer that we can win here,” Lazar said from his off-season home in Kelowna, where friends include new teammates Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn. “The steps that the team took, especially in the second half of last season, is a great area to build off going into this year. That opportunity to see myself as having a defined role, really being able to be a difference maker and to be a part of things is what excited me. Not to mention the whole B.C. boy thing — it’s the team I cheered for — I mean, it’s extra special.”
Allvin said he received no calls Wednesday about J.T. Miller, the subject of trade conjecture and stories almost since the GM was hired in January.
After a 99-point season, Miller is going into the final year of his contract and may prove too expensive to keep.
“There’s been teams, you know, kicking tires, checking in,” Allvin said. “It hasn’t gotten much further than that. We’re really excited to have J.T. here for another year. I believe he’s excited and ready to come back. And who knows? Anything can happen here over the next couple of weeks or months, but we’re happy to have him back.”