Often overlooked, underappreciated, Garland ready for big stage with Canucks

Conor Garland talked about finding out he was traded mostly through social media, and how excited he is to join the Canucks in Vancouver along with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

VANCOUVER – Conor Garland has heard the Vancouver market is tough.

Yeah, whatever, so is hockey when you’re five-foot-eight, been cut from bantam teams, ignored in the National Hockey League draft and been a regular healthy scratch — in the minors.

“I’ve heard that,” Garland told Sportsnet when asked about alleged negativity in a market. “But that stuff doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m probably my hardest critic and I view hockey as a privilege to be able to play, and you have to realize people are going to say stuff about you whether you play in Arizona or Vancouver or Toronto.

“If I’m driving in my car and I hear somebody on the radio say I’m a bad player, it’s not going to bother me in the slightest. I’m more excited about going to a city where on a Friday night the biggest thing (in town) is the game going on, and I’m one of the players on the team. Whether they’re negative or positive, it’s not going to affect me. I’m just happy to play in a market that is as enthusiastic about the team as I am.”

It’s impossible for a National Hockey League player to hide in Canada, and Garland, who is from Scituate, Mass., on the South Shore outside Boston, just got a lot bigger with Tuesday’s five-year, $24.75-million contract extension with the Canucks.

The contract makes the 25-year-old winger part of the Canucks’ core, and becomes a mile-marker in Garland’s underdog journey through hockey.

He left Shattuck-St. Mary’s academy at age 14 when the Minnesota boarding school, famous for its hockey programs, cut Garland from its bantam team. The coach told him he was too small.

Garland played Junior B hockey in Boston, then briefly in Muskegon, Mich., in the United States Hockey League before moving in 2012 to Moncton to play major junior hockey for the Wildcats as a 16-year-old.

At the end of his second season, Garland was bypassed by the NHL in his first year of draft eligibility. But teams couldn’t ignore his 2014-15 campaign when Garland co-led the Canadian Hockey League with 129 points, including 94 assists, in 67 games. The Arizona Coyotes drafted him – 123rd overall.

It took him 2½ years in the American League to earn a chance with the Coyotes. In the last two seasons, Garland worked his way up from Arizona’s fourth line to its first.

The Canucks coveted Garland, all speed, skill and energy, but didn’t believe he’d be available until the Coyotes were willing to include him in Friday’s blockbuster trade that brought defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and $43.56 million of salary-cap obligations back to Vancouver.

“I was told ‘no’ a lot coming up and cut from a lot of teams, so I just compete and try to still prove a lot of people wrong and play with a chip on my shoulder,” Garland said. “I’d be lying to you guys if I didn’t say there’s (thoughts today) about people who never thought I’d play in the NHL or never make it this far.”

He said he gets his work ethic from his parents. His dad, Garry, who played college hockey and spent one season bouncing around the minors, runs a roofing company. His mom, Bridget, worked a graveyard shift as a train station foreman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Garland has three sisters. The older two played lacrosse at college.

“Seeing my mom leave for work every night at 11 p.m. kind of shaped me to be how I play,” Garland explained. “If my parents were willing to sacrifice that much, then I better be willing to sacrifice that much as well.

“There was never a doubt for me that I was going to play in the NHL. There was never a day … where I thought I wasn’t going to be an NHL player – and a really good NHL player. I still think I have a long way to go to becoming the player I think I can be, so I’m optimistic about that as well.”

The Canucks are obviously optimistic, too, betting heavily that Garland’s game will continue to evolve and become more impactful. But, expected to play with second-line centre Bo Horvat, Garland could become a 60- to 70-point player with the Canucks and outperform his average salary of $4.95 million.

There are neither signing bonuses nor trade restrictions in his new contract.

Twenty-three of Garland’s 39 points this past season came in 21 games against the West Division’s California weaklings. But the right winger drives possession, is constantly engaged and upgrades Vancouver’s speed, skill and scoring depth.

At 180 pounds, Garland’s build and relentlessness are similar to that of Canucks rookie Nils Hoglander.

The Canucks’ longest contracts now belong to Ekman-Larsson (six years), Garland and goalie Thatcher Demko (five years). Five days ago, two of these guys weren’t even on the team.

That’s how quickly things are changing around the edges of the Canucks’ core. General manager Jim Benning’s most important signings are still to come as the Canucks work toward bridge deals for franchise players Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

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To help pay for all this, Benning bought out backup goalie Braden Holtby about the time they were announcing Garland’s extension. Unable to trade Holtby after the Seattle Kraken bypassed him in the expansion draft, the Canucks couldn’t afford his $4.3-million cap hit as Demko’s backup. The buyout opens $3.8 million of cap space for next season, but adds a charge of $1.9 million in 2022-23.

Reflecting the pace of change and the urgency with which it is occurring, the Canucks have bought out two players in three days – long-time winger Jake Virtanen was paid off Sunday – equalling the number of buyouts executed during the first seven years of Benning’s time in charge.

Despite severe limitations in cap space and tradeable assets, the GM pledged after this season’s last-place finish to be “aggressive” in improving the Canucks through trades, buyouts and free agency.

We’ve seen the trades and buyouts, and free agency opens on the West Coast at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The Canucks will be shopping for an experienced, inexpensive replacement for Holtby, a couple of defencemen – they’ve already been linked in reports to depth blue-liner Luke Schenn – and possibly another forward.

After Transaction Tuesday, CapFriendly showed the Canucks with $20.14 million of available cap space – and at least six players short of a 20-man NHL lineup.

There is a lot more to come.

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