VANCOUVER – It isn’t exactly your typical summer romance.
The Vancouver Canucks love Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The franchise players are restricted free agents, but are willing to fully commit to their National Hockey League team with new contracts.
This should be the start – or extension – of beautiful friendships.
Instead, with a week until training camp opens, the best and most important players on the Canucks are still unsigned and figuratively far away. Pettersson has returned to Vancouver from his summer home in Sweden, and Hughes remains at his off-season base in Michigan.
In professional sports, absence doesn’t always make hearts grow fonder, but Canucks general manager Jim Benning said this week there have been no signs of animosity in negotiations that have sputtered all summer despite innumerable phone calls between the GM and agent Pat Brisson.
“We have a good relationship,” Benning told Sportsnet. “There’s no angry sides. We’re just trying to work through it to figure out how to make everybody happy.
“We’re in constant communication with Pat Brisson and his group. The communication’s good and we’re just trying to figure out how to get to some common ground from their perspective and our perspective. They’re important players in the future of our team and our group but these are complicated deals.
“We talk every day or every second day. We’ve got a week before main camp starts, so we have time to get it done and then get these guys in camp.”
The deals are trending toward less complicated. As a fallback position – and to try to get something signed – the sides are believed to be focusing again on bridge deals for Pettersson and Hughes.
Pettersson, who spent his summer recovering from a wrist injury that limited his 2021 season to just 26 games, told HockeySverige in Sweden that he wants to stay in Vancouver, “but I also want to play for a team that’s winning and has the chance to go far in the playoffs every year.”
Although the centre’s declaration generated a lot of chatter in Vancouver and was seen by some as a direct challenge to Benning, the centre’s ambition actually matches his manager’s. No one wants their best player to say he’s OK with losing.
But it’s obvious the Canucks’ chances of winning this season are directly tied to their ability to bring back the talented Pettersson, 22, and Hughes, 21, on new contracts. They are the Canucks’ best forward and top defencemen – and are still improving.
Neither Benning nor Brisson has divulged any monetary details about what has been offered or counter-proposed, but the sides have over the last four months discussed a pile a scenarios from short- to long-term contracts, as well as mid-range deals that would take the players near or even to unrestricted free agency: four years from now for Pettersson, five years for Hughes.
The latitude of options available expanded with a changing landscape, both for the Canucks and the NHL, over the summer.
After starting the off-season with so little financial wriggle room that a long-term deal for either player seemed impossible, Benning made a series of trades and buyouts that offloaded about $25 million in gross cap costs. Much of that money was quickly reallocated, but the Canucks have since the flurry of free agency in July left about $16 million available, including the long-term injured-reserve cushion for $3.5-million winger Micheal Ferland.
This should be enough money to afford at least one long-term deal. That would logically go to Hughes, who will be less expensive than Pettersson even after Hughes’ blue-line contemporaries, Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen, signed lucrative, new contracts in July. The Dallas Stars gave Heiskanen an eight-year deal worth $8.45 million annually, while the Colorado Avalanche bestowed on Makar a six-year deal with a $9-million AVV.
At this stage, Hughes isn’t as accomplished nor well-rounded as those defencemen, but also doesn’t fit the common bridge-deal comparables of Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev. Those three followed their entry-level contracts with three-year deals that pay $4.8- to $5 million annually. Hughes badly outperformed them offensively, averaging 0.75 points-per-game on his ELC (Werenski was nearest with 0.54 PPG with Columbus) and those comparables are dated, signed in 2019 and 2020.
The best comparables for a Pettersson bridge deal are Brayden Point (three years, $6.75 million with the Tampa Bay Lightning, signed in 2019) and Mat Barzal (three years, $7 million with the New York Islanders, signed last January).
Pettersson slightly outperformed Point and Barzal on his ELC, albeit on a smaller sample and with a stunted platform year heading into free agency.
In July, Point signed an eight-year extension with the Lightning worth $9.5 million annually, which is probably what Pettersson’s value would be on a long-term deal. On a bridge deal, he should get slightly more than what Point and Barzal received.
It doesn’t seem too complicated, but here we are.
This standoff is starting to feel normal for the Canucks, whose cash spigot during the pandemic season slowed to a trickle under ownership. Two years ago, key RFA Brock Boeser settled on a three-year bridge deal at the end of training camp. In 2017, captain Bo Horvat signed his six-year extension four days before camp.
It probably helps Benning that Brisson and partner J.P. Barry, who head the hockey division for Creative Artists Agency, represent both Hughes and Pettersson. There is a finite amount of money available from the Canucks, and Brisson knows he can’t do a huge deal for one client if it means less money for the other.
Hughes, whose father Jim is employed by Brisson and Barry as a development coach, has essentially been a CAA client since childhood. Pettersson changed representatives only this year.
“Once we get to the final deals, we’ll know if it turned out to be a good thing or not,” Benning said of one agency representing both players. “But it’s easier, you know, talking to one person about what both deals look like.
“I would like them in training camp. If it’s possible to figure out deals before camp, I’d like to try to figure it out because I feel like they’re still young players, they’re still developing and I think training camp is important for them.”
Vital to the Canucks, too.