Pettersson, Hughes contracts will be precedent-setting for Canucks

Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson (40) celebrate his goal with teammates Quinn Hughes (43) and J.T. Miller (9). (Nathan Denette/CP)

VANCOUVER — No matter how aggressively general manager Jim Benning attacks the Vancouver Canucks’ off-season, patience and prudence are going to be vitally important ideals because, realistically, there isn’t a whole lot the club can do this summer to escape its deadweight contracts.

After a season of losses in the standings and financial ledger, Canucks general manager Jim Benning announced one week ago that owner Francesco Aquilini has pledged to provide whatever resources are necessary to get the team back to the playoffs in 2022.

“Buyouts are going to be part of our strategy this summer to save cap space,” Benning told reporters. “We’re going to be aggressive in the trade front and in free agency.”

The Canucks should be aggressive. Captain Bo Horvat and co-leader J.T. Miller are under contract for two more seasons, during which franchise players Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are expected to play on bridge deals (see below). Nils Hoglander, Vasili Podkolzin and Jack Rathbone will be on entry-level contracts. The team should do everything it can to take advantage of this window.

But management needs to be careful. There is so little wriggle room financially – and much more salary-cap relief coming after next season – that Benning can’t afford to repeat mistakes in free agency like the four-year, $12-million deals he gave to Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle in 2018.

As Week 1 of the Canucks’ off-season ends with the team inching towards new deals for coach Travis Green’s staff, including goaltending coach Ian Clark, there is a pile of work to be done.

Here are some of the Canucks’ off-season priorities.

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MAKE SPACE

There are endless ways to project/configure the Canucks’ roster for next fall. Depending on how management deals with the most inefficient contracts, a rough estimate leaves the team with $16- to $20-million of available cap space and 5-7 roster vacancies. Much of this money will be allocated to restricted free agents Pettersson and Hughes.

It’s great that Benning has authority to initiate buyouts, something he was denied last fall and contributed to the needless loss in free agency of first-line winger Tyler Toffoli. But the reality is, due to the way contracts were structured for Roussel, Beagle and Loui Eriksson (six years and $36 million in 2016), there is little or no cap savings to buying out any of these players.

A far better option for Benning on Roussel and Beagle would be to seek a trade, even if it means the Canucks retain 50 per cent of their salary. In this scenario, the structure of their front-loaded contracts helps because Roussel’s actual salary next season is $1.9 million and Beagle’s $2.2 million. Barring trades, the most sensible cap savings would be to bury their salaries in the minors, along with Eriksson’s, which would at least trim $1.125 million per player from the cap.

Buying out the one year and $2.55 million remaining on Jake Virtanen’s contract should be a no-brainer, but so was moving on from him last fall when Benning had a chance to trade him for a draft pick. Placed on leave by the Canucks on May 1 following the publication of a sexual-assault allegation, Virtanen is currently the subject of police and team investigations, as well as a civil lawsuit filed last week.

The 24-year-old had five goals and no assists in 38 games this season, and a buyout would save the Canucks $2.5 million next season but add a $500,000 liability the year after. Pending the result of the investigations into Virtanen, it is possible his contract could eventually be terminated.

The only other plausible buyout candidate is backup goalie Braden Holtby, but the net-savings on replacing him in the lineup next season while adding a new charge of $1.9 million on the 2022-23 payroll makes a buyout highly questionable.

GET PETEY, GET QUINN, GET CLARITY

With so little flexibility to add the speed and skill at depth positions that Benning acknowledged last week the Canucks need, it would be helpful for cap-clarity to re-sign Pettersson and Hughes well before the NHL rolls through the expansion draft, entry draft and free agency in late July.

Given the NHL’s current recession and lingering uncertainty about how much ticket revenue the Canucks should expect next season, two- or three-year bridge deals for the team’s best forward and best defenceman appear to make sense for both sides. But as preliminary discussions have begun with super agent Pat Brisson, who represents both Pettersson and Hughes, the Canucks aren’t ruling out long-term deals and will budget for that possibility.

While Benning was proactive in re-signing goalie Thatcher Demko to a five-year, $25-million contract in March, Horvat didn’t get his six-year extension until the week before training camp in 2017, and Brock Boeser’s three-year bridge deal two years later came in at the end of camp.

Long-term or bridge, sooner or later, new contracts for Pettersson and Hughes will be precedent-setting for the Canucks and shape the organization for many years.

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GET PETTERSSON HEALTHY

It probably didn’t get the attention it deserved a week ago, but Pettersson’s season-ending explanation about his troublesome wrist injury felt familiar and ominous.

Boeser’s Calder Trophy campaign in 2017-18 ended when he suffered a broken bone in his back during a March 5 home game against the New York Islanders. But it wasn’t until a month later that Boeser revealed to Sportsnet that a wrist injury that occurred Feb. 8 in Tampa, and caused him to miss only one game, hadn’t healed and was getting treated by a specialist.

Boeser said his wrist would not require surgery, and a full off-season of rest and training should allow him to be 100 per cent for the start of the 2018-19 season. Although he scored 26 goals as a sophomore, his shooting percentage dropped by four points and Boeser missed 13 games with a groin injury attributable to his injury-delayed start to summer training.

Pettersson left the Canucks’ lineup two days after hyper-extending his wrist during an awkward collision in a March 1 game in Winnipeg.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Pettersson said. “It’s just been so frustrating because I thought I would be gone for maybe four to six weeks and then I still haven’t played yet and still not 100 per cent.”

Although he could skate and lift weights, Pettersson said the injury affects his shot, which is world class. He is confident a summer of rest and training will allow him to be fully healthy next fall. Boeser felt the same way.

BUILD A THIRD LINE

The Canucks have relied too long on too few players up front, and extending their scoring through three forward lines is imperative if they’re going to become a superior team. The arrival from Russia of Podkolzin, a two-way tank chosen with the 10th pick of the 2019 draft, should help the top-nine depth the way Hoglander did this season.

But the Canucks have a glaring need for a third-line centre. The team gave up on prospect Adam Gaudette as a future 3C, have no one pushing up through their system to fill that role, and will have holes in the middle depending on what they do with Beagle and soon-to-be UFA Brandon Sutter. Converted winger J.T. Miller could stay at centre, but that isn’t ideal.

If Benning finds enough cap space to add one $3- to $4-million player this off-season, it should be for a centre capable of taking some of the defensive heavy lifting off Horvat. How much would 28-year-old Montreal Canadiens free agent Phillip Danault cost?

USE EXPANSION LEVERAGE

As many have noted, the Canucks have no expansion protection problems ahead of the Seattle draft on July 21 and can use this as trading leverage with teams that can’t protect all their key players.

But this “advantage” for Vancouver isn’t as simple as it sounds. Apart from obvious concerns about the salary cap and assets required to make a trade, the Canucks will be bidding against a bunch of other teams shopping for discounts. And potential trading partners with multiple protection issues, like Colorado and Carolina, may decide simply to limit their roster drain to one player selected by the Kraken rather than lose a player in expansion and another (or others) at a trading loss.

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