Canucks need strong start to free agency after trying week

The Hockey Central panel looks at the great crop of free agent goalies, including Jacob Markstrom, and why Alex Pietrangelo will draw lots of suitors.

VANCOUVER — As a baseball player, going one-for-three not only makes you fabulously rich, it puts you in the Hall of Fame if you do it long enough. Going zero-for-three puts you in the employment line at Walmart.

It’s a titanic difference – batting .333 or .000 – yet still seems like a fine line. Fail twice in three chances, or fail three times in three chances.

As the NHL sprints towards free agency on Friday in what has always been baseball season, it sure looked like Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning was going to go 0-for-3 on his unrestricted free agents.

After finally emerging this past season from the dark, cold wilderness of a rebuild, the Canucks appear to be about to lose to higher bidders Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev. That would be the team’s MVP starter in net, their point-per-game (after a trade from Los Angeles) first-line right winger, and a career Canucks defenceman who helped mentor Quinn Hughes into a Calder Trophy finalist and is “Dad” to the team’s youngest players.

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The team tried hardball in negotiations with Markstrom before finally tabling an offer somewhere north of the five-year, $25-million deal Robin Lehner signed with the Vegas Golden Knights. The top goalie available in free agency, Markstrom obviously feels he can do better on the open market, even if it means playing in Edmonton or Calgary or Detroit instead of Vancouver.

The Canucks and Toffoli appeared last week to be closing in on a multi-year deal for something close to $5 million annually when talks suddenly collapsed and agent Pat Brisson let it be known his client would see what else is available.

Due to the differing stages of evolution for the Canucks and Tanev, who is 30, there don’t appear to have been serious talks about an extension, partly because Benning himself said publicly that the top priority would be Markstrom. Available money would trickle down from there.

However we got here, the official scorer has Benning 0-for-3 this week.

But the Canucks were still working late Thursday on their bonus at-bat: trade negotiations with the Arizona Coyotes over No. 1 defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was informed last week that the franchise in the desert, under new ownership and management, no longer wants him and the massive pre-pandemic contract that pays the 29-year-old $8.25 million for each of the next seven seasons.

It could turn into a home run for the Canucks or something awful, depending on what Vancouver is willing to surrender in a trade and how much “bad money” the Coyotes take back in the short-term to unload the IOU to OEL.

Acquiring Ekman-Larsson to play with Hughes – but not alongside him, because they’re both lefties – until 2027 would be a game-changer for the Canucks. But so too would be coming out of this week with nothing. That would be a step back for a team that looked during the summer Stanley Cup tournament capable of taking a run at a championship in the next couple of years.

"I’m not talking about other teams’ players," Benning told Sportsnet this week when asked directly about Ekman-Larsson. "All I would say is we come up with a bunch of different scenarios where if we make trades, what it looks like this year, what it looks like the next three years and what our team looks like. That all goes into our cap planning moving forward. Now, it’s harder now with the flat cap. Things aren’t as easy as they were in February when we went to the general managers meeting and they said the cap was going up next year."

Benning knew when the season ended that the Canucks could strike out on Markstrom, Toffoli and Tanev. It seemed unlikely a month ago, but there was always that possibility.

Benning still believes there’s a chance one or even two of these players could return to the Canucks after exploring free agency, but there has always been a contingency plan if they don’t.

Unless the GM gets blindsided on the budget by the ownership family, represented by Canucks chairman Francesco Aquilini, Benning has about $15.5 million in salary-cap space available heading into free agency. That is, of course, without an Ekman-Larsson trade.

As much as he has touted prospects like defenceman OIli Juolevi are ready to play in the NHL (on cheap, entry-level contracts), the Canucks can’t possibly replace impact players like Markstrom and Toffoli with promotions from the farm.

And after Vancouver’s breakthrough year, and one more season of Hughes and fellow star Elias Pettersson on their bargain ELCs, the Canucks can’t afford to slide backwards whenever next season begins. Their window to win is already open. It’s now.

Benning still has months to rebuild his lineup. But his intent to do so should be evident on the opening weekend of free agency.

"We’ve got to figure out the circumstances we’re dealing with," Benning said. "I think we’re in a good position where we have good young players coming in. We’ve worked hard to draft well and develop these players, and if we can’t figure it out (with our free agents) these players are going to get a chance to have bigger roles in our team next year.

"I’ve got different avenues to make the team better. Signing our own guys is not the only avenue I have to improve the team. I can make trades. And free agency — we’re in a good position because veteran players on other teams, they want to come and play in Vancouver with our good, young players. We’ve never been in that position."

Or this one.


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