VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks went into free agency with the ambitions of retaining star goalie Jacob Markstrom and improving their defence.
They emerged from Week 1 at .500, even as they lost all their unrestricted free agents.
Not only were the Canucks unable or unwilling, due to salary-cap pressure for the foreseeable future, to keep Markstrom, they also lost second-pair defenceman Chris Tanev and first-line winger Tyler Toffoli. Add in depth defenceman Troy Stecher, whose departure was the most embarrassing for the Canucks because they made him a UFA before trying to re-sign him, and general manager Jim Benning struck out on all four Canuck free agents. In baseball, they call this the Golden Sombrero.
What the Canucks did, however, was add mobile, 22-minute defenceman Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights for an outrageously reduced price: a third-round pick in the 2022 entry draft. Schmidt was collateral damage in the Knights’ $61.6-million signing of free agency’s top prize, defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.
Benning was both good and lucky to get Schmidt, locking him in as a potential target on the first night of free agency – after Markstrom and Tanev signed with the Calgary Flames – and then waiting two days to close the deal.
Schmidt fulfills the mission to improve Vancouver’s defence. His skating, passing and two-way ability make him an upgrade on Tanev, who will still be missed in the dressing room and on the penalty kill, and the 29-year-old should be the Canucks’ second-best defenceman behind Quinn Hughes.
Benning moved quickly to sign Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby to partner with excellent prospect Thatcher Demko in what should be a tandem in net.
Through acquisition or player development, the Canucks should be able to replace Stecher on the third pairing, but that still leaves a hole on the first line where Toffoli was an excellent, temporary fit alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller.
The upgrade on defence came at the cost of a downgrade up front.
“I am extremely happy getting Nate Schmidt,” Benning said Friday. “You look at the free-agent marketplace and he’s right up there with the best guys that were available. We’re going to end up doing OK on that.
“I’m going to continue looking. It hasn’t ended just because we’re at the end of the week. There’s still lots of talk between teams and if I can continue to make the team better, we’re going to.”
The Canucks could have re-signed all their UFAs and still only gone only .500 for the week because the defence, which everyone from Benning and coach Travis Green on down has said must improve, would have been unchanged.
The Canucks have candidates within the organization to fill out the bottom of the defence. Minor-leaguers Olli Juolevi, Brogan Rafferty and Jalen Chatfield, as well as college star Jack Rathbone will each have the chance to make the National Hockey League roster next season.
But there is no one to replace Toffoli, which is why Benning is still nibbling around the edges of free agency, looking for a budget forward with offensive upside while also monitoring teams in case other players shake free.
“In the regular season, let’s not forget, Tyler played 10 games for us,” the GM said. “So we’re going to come back with pretty much the same forward group that we had last year and with our young guys, we think they’ll continue to grow and get better. As they do that, it makes our team better.”
The Canucks’ cap space is down to $2 million – an imprecise figure, of course, because restricted free agents Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette have still to be signed, while there will be savings when Sven Baertschi and/or Loui Eriksson are demoted to the minors and if winger Micheal Ferland and his $3.5 million salary go on to the long-term injured list.
Virtanen, an 18-goal scorer during the regular season before starting the playoffs as a healthy scratch, has an arbitration hearing on Oct. 28 and could be awarded a new contract in the $3 million range. If that happens, Benning will have to adjust his roster again and may regret holding onto the winger ahead of this month’s entry draft.
The Minnesota Wild traded 14-goal scorer Ryan Donato to the San Jose Sharks for a third-round pick, while former seventh-overall pick Lias Andersson was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings by the New York Rangers for a late-second.
The Canucks made a qualifying offer to Virtanen, thus subjecting themselves to the uncertainty of arbitration, because Benning was unwilling to lose the former sixth-overall pick the way Vancouver lost Stecher: for nothing.
An arbitration settlement would give the Canucks another buyout window, and the team may look again at paying off either Brandon Sutter (one year remaining at $4.375 million) or perhaps fourth-liner Antoine Roussel (two years at $3 million).
“We’re going to keep all our options open,” Benning said.
But we’re doubtful owner Francesco Aquilini would allow this additional spending during the NHL’s unprecedented financial recession, and we know the Canucks are trying to keep their pay sheet as clean as possible for 2021-22 when both Pettersson and Hughes will be due huge new contracts. As The Athletic reported, the team has chosen to count against next season’s cap the full $1.7 million in bonus overages paid to Pettersson and Hughes this past season, rather than divide that sum over two years.
There is an indefinite period before next season begins, so the Canucks can afford to be patient and vigilant with the roster.
Just don’t expect them, as has been suggested, to sign hope-bets at the bottom of the lineup knowing they can bury any contract up to $1.075 million in the minors. They’ll be spending enough on Baertschi and/or Eriksson playing in the American Hockey League.
It’s hard to imagine Baertschi playing his way back on to the Canucks after spending last season with the Utica Comets and going unwanted (at his $3.37 million salary) on waivers and on the trade block. But the winger has NHL skill and experience, and it would be a heckuva comeback story if Baertschi has an inspired camp and reclaims his old spot in the top six, replacing Toffoli.
As 2020 has proved, anything can happen.
“I expect our group to be better,” Benning said. “I expect our young players to continue to grow and get better. We want to keep building on what we started and move forward.”