VANCOUVER — With the free-agent season likely to reinforce the harsh reality of the economic recession in which the National Hockey League finds itself during the Year of COVID, the financial pressure the Vancouver Canucks feel can be traced directly to free agency.
The effects of Loui Eriksson’s $36-million contract in 2016, unfelt initially due to the Canucks’ rebuild and salary-cap flexibility, are severe enough that the team may be unable or unwilling to sign its own unrestricted free agents: goalie Jacob Markstrom, winger Tyler Toffoli and defenceman Chris Tanev.
Eriksson’s annual cap hit of $6 million would cover only one of these players — with a little money left over — but the Canucks are also only halfway through four-year, $12-million deals given to unrestricted free agents Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel in 2018.
Rare is the NHL team unencumbered by at least a couple of bad contracts. But even rarer is the team with emerging stars like Canucks Elias Pettersson, 21, and Quinn Hughes, 20, who could command $20 million between them when their entry-level contracts expire in 2021.
And only the Canucks have been hammered by commissioner Gary Bettman’s extraordinary cap-capture penalty, losing $3.04 million of cap space for another two years due to Roberto Luongo’s retirement in Florida.
No wonder general manager Jim Benning is looking ahead, careful to leave money to re-sign his franchise players after overspending for depth.
With prospects like Nils Hoglander, Olli Juolevi, Brogan Rafferty and Jack Rathbone expected to push to make the Canucks (on cheap entry-level contracts) next training camp, the team may be uncharacteristically quiet in free agency.
They’ll need a veteran goalie to accompany Thatcher Demko if Markstrom leaves, but otherwise may simply open the spigot on their prospect pipeline to fill lineup vacancies. But the market will be tempting, especially since there could be a huge pool of players available at deflated prices.
Salary-cap space available: $14,298,122
Roster size: 17
Salary committed to 11 forwards: $44,541,666
Salary committed to five defencemen: $15,841,667
Salary committed to one goalie: $1,050,000
Team needs: The Vancouver defence needs to be better. It has several prospects in its system that could become NHL regulars in the next couple of years. But if second-pair veteran Chris Tanev leaves as a UFA, the Canucks don’t appear to have anyone ready to take on his 20 minutes of nightly ice time, which means Benning may have to acquire another experienced blue-liner. Up front, Toffoli leaving would create a top-six opening, but it’s in the bottom six where the Canucks need to upgrade. The team needs to be faster everywhere.
Potential free-agent targets
Tyson Barrie, D, 29
The Canucks have long been linked to the mobile, right-side defenceman from Victoria. Had trade discussions involving the Colorado Avalanche not collapsed during the 2019 draft, Barrie would have spent last season in Vancouver instead of Toronto — and the Canucks might never have acquired J.T. Miller from Tampa.
Even after 39 points in 70 games for the Leafs, Barrie could be a puck-moving bargain. But the only way this could happen for the Canucks is if Tanev leaves and Barrie wants to return home to the West Coast badly enough that he is willing to take a shorter-term deal for something close to the $4.45-million Tanev was getting.
Dylan DeMelo, D, 27
Another right-side defenceman capable of replacing Tanev, DeMelo lacks Barrie’s offensive ability, but can still make a pass and defend, and averaged 20:09 of ice time last season with Winnipeg and Ottawa.
Importantly, he has also proved capable of partnering top defencemen like Josh Morrissey and Thomas Chabot (hello, Quinn Hughes). DeMelo has never made more than $900,000 in a season and after a series of short-term contracts could be a long-term bargain in a UFA market where guys with a little more skill will be demanding a lot more money.
Thomas Greiss, G, 34
If the Canucks need to replace Markstrom, there are some intriguing trade options. Deposed Vegas starter Marc-Andre Fleury has two years remaining at $7 million, and the Golden Knights may be motivated to retain salary.
Among free agents, Greiss ticks a lot of boxes for Vancouver. He has always been a backup-plus or starter-minus in the NHL, but the veteran has a career save rate of .915 and the last two seasons with the Islanders averaged .921 — albeit behind a team obsessed with defending.
Accustomed to sharing the workload, Greiss looks like an ideal short-term goaltending partner for Demko, who isn’t yet ready to be a No. 1. Greiss made $3.33 million the last three seasons, and should go for less during the NHL recession.