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The Apologist: Promise kept, Gagner cut

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Vancouver Canucks v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Much was made in the pre-season of two items. Signing bottom six character Veterans, and Jim Benning saying that if the kids won a spot he’d be willing to waive a Vet to give a kid a chance.

Complainers said those ideas were incompatible. Apologists said it would make the kids earn their spots and relieve the pressure to keep the kids up if they were not ready.

Today, veteran power play specialist and sometime sheltered centreman Sam Gagner was put on the waiver wire. Journeyman bottom six winger Darren Archibald was also waived for assignment, and Archibald can be expected to do good service in Utica until a hard checking big body is needed for injury relief on the big club.

Still on the roster under 25 years old are Elias Pettersson, Brendan Leipsic, Nikolay Goldobin, Tyler Motte, Jake Virtanen, Derrick Pouliot, Bo Horvat, Troy Stetcher, and Brock Boeser.

What may not be obvious on first glance is that waiving Sam Gagner is mostly about Eilas Pettersson. More on that below.

Since Horvat, Boeser, Stetcher, Pouliot, and Virtanen were already established roster players, let’s look at the forwards who could reasonably have been cut.

Of those four youngsters Tyler Motte is the most interesting case because the easy call would be to send him down to Utica before he plays another NHL game and becomes waiver eligible. This is a huge vote of confidence for a Rookie. It’s also an indication that the trade of Vanek for Motte seems to be paying off. The Vanek signing itself was validated with an immediate 31 goal season. While Vanek has now announced his retirement, as an asset he turned into the second most promising rookie in the Canucks’ well stocked system. Let’s be honest: Motte may not see a game before Antoine Roussel gets off the Injured Reserve, but it’s still a very big pat on the back for Motte to earn an NHL salary, practice and travel with the big club, and make the final cut out of camp.

Bendan Leipsic came to the team in a trade for undrafted defenceman Phillip Holm. This looks like another trade that is working out, not only because Holm is stalled in the AHL, but especially since Holm was signed as an undrafted free agent. Leipsic is on the team without costing a draft pick or roster player. Good scouting and shrewd trading is not as easy as some think, and this is a clear win for GMJB.

Any discussion about Goldobin is guaranteed to polarize the comment section. Some see him as a bust who will never be productive enough to justify his defensive weakness. Others say he has to be put in a position to succeed in the top six and given enough room to learn from mistakes. One thing is clear: as much as we love Jannik Hansen, trading him for Goldobin was a clear win for Benning.

So back to the really interesting message that Gagner’s signing sends: Pettersson can play.

The big question about Pettersson before he stepped onto the smaller ice in North America was not can he survive in the NHL but: Can he play centre? Last year he tore up the record books in the SHL playing against men, and was literally the Golden Boy of that respectable professional league (spray paint may have been involved). What gave some people pause, was the fact that he played most of his time on the wing.

Especially in the heavy “Big Boy Hockey” Pacific division, there were questions about how he could line up against big tough experienced Centres like “Jumbo” Joe Thornton and Logan Couture at San Jose; Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler of Anaheim; Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter of Los Angeles; Mikael Baklund of Calgary; and Paul Stastny of Los Vegas. Even Arizona could throw out former Canuck Brad Richardson to bully the new kid at the dot and win puck battles down low during the pre-season. Calgary’s youngish Leon Draisaitl at only 22 years old is 97kg (that’s 214lbs for the old folk), meanwhile the THIRD biggest San Jose centre “Little Joe” Pavelski has at least a 10kg advantage over Pettersson (not to mention 12 seasons of NHL experience).

One of the possible advantages of keeping Gagner on the Canucks was that he could line up at centre with Pettersson and complement the most likely weaknesses in Pettersson’s game. As a bonus, Gagner is a right shooting player so they Pettersson could start taking face-offs only on his strong side. If Pettersson did develop into a decent centre during the season Gagner could slide over to the wing and use his scoring touch to take advantage of the playmaking acumen of the Swedish golden boy.

Apparently, head coach Travis Green is satisfied that Pettersson can play centre, and that makes Gagner expendable. This is a modest gamble. Pettersson has been terrible at face offs, and has been knocked down plenty of times in the pre-season. He’s still been very effective. It’s reasonable to hope that the rookie centre may be able to add to his skill and smarts as he gains NHL experience and hopefully some muscle in what our friend Alex Burrows calls the “Never Hungry League.”

So: Jim Benning keeps his promises by waiving two veterans for four young players - two of whom are rookies. All four of them came cheap because of GMJB and his team doing excellent scouting.

It is entirely reasonable to say that this also means Sam Gagner was a disappointing free agent signing. While Benning and company should rightly be held responsible for that, it’s good that he is able to admit a mistake and make the right move to correct it when the time is ripe. This is in character for Benning. When he came to town he made a reasonable job of dealing with difficult cuts to the aging core of the team like Kesler, Bieksa, Burrows, and Hansen.

Upon reflection, this may be a no-lose waiver move. If Gagner gets claimed his contract and cap hit come off the books. While the Canucks don't have any pressure in either those areas, it does free up resources for future signings (like all the RFAs coming due, not to mention Brock Boeser’s next contract). Extra cap room could also be used creatively during this season to get picks or prospects from teams that are in cap trouble, or want to make a push at the trade deadline. If Gagner clears waivers, he becomes a MORE valuable trade chip, because he is safely stashed in the AHL until needed. If Vancouver retains some of his salary (or at least cap hit) for this year it’s not hard to imagine a team needing help taking Gagner on. His contract runs for this year and the next, which is the sweet spot of not a rental but not a big commitment (and I believe easy to buy out if necessary).

This is a good day for the Canucks youngsters, and sends a clear message to the veterans. He may not be a smooth talking salesman but, at least for today, it looks like GMJB says what he means and means what he says.