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10 bold (and not so bold) steps the Canucks can take to drastically improve this offseason

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Before the Canucks inevitably disappoint us over the next couple of weeks. we’ve crafted some moves that could get this team back to playoff contention.

Nashville Predators v Detroit Red Wings”n
Mikael Granlund #64 of the Nashville Predators follows the play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on February 25, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit defeated Nashville 5-2.
Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

After a successful 2019-20 campaign that saw them come within one win of the Conference Finals, the Vancouver Canucks found themselves in an all-too-familiar spot last season — the bottom of their division.

Now, they enter an offseason where they have to sign their two best players and drastically improve the rest of their roster if they want to compete for a playoff spot next season.

Although the Canucks aren’t as bad as they were in 2020-21, the reality is that at best, they’re no more than a bubble playoff team. The glass-half-full approach is that the Montreal Canadiens were also a bubble team....although Montreal also had a strong top-four and could roll four lines. The Canucks have to plug some serious holes if they hope to replicate even half of Montreal’s success.

That’s part of what our whole series was about over the last couple of weeks as we highlighted teams that might have protection issues. While the Canucks desperately need to try and chase better players to protect, it might be difficult to swing some of these trades. Although a team like Colorado certainly doesn’t want to lose Ryan Graves for nothing in expansion, there’s an argument that they might be better off losing him, rather than trading him and losing another good player, like Joonas Donskoi.

However, in one last attempt to daydream about better days for the Canucks, we’re going to look at a few moves here that the Canucks can realistically make this offseason. That includes projecting some trades based on the expansion draft trade target series we published, as well as proposing other such moves with varying degrees of boldness.

NHL: MAR 19 Canucks at Canadiens
Look on Vancouver Canucks left wing Antoine Roussel (26) during the Vancouver Canucks versus the Montreal Canadiens game on March 19, 2021, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC
Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Bury Loui Eriksson & Antoine Roussel in the minors

This one should be fairly obvious. Both players are no longer even depth contributors to this hockey club. Burying them saves $2.25 million in cap space.

2. Clear cap space by buying out Jake Virtanen and Braden Holtby

It’s clear that if Jake Virtanen won’t have his contract terminated, he’s a clear buyout candidate that cost the team very little for the next two seasons.

Holtby’s is a little dicier, but if he isn’t selected by Seattle in the expansion draft, buying him out would save the Canucks $3.8 million heading into next season.

Detroit Red Wings v Carolina Hurricanes
James Reimer #47 of the Carolina Hurricanes looks on prior to their game against the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena on March 04, 2021 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

3. Sign James Reimer as your back-up

The 33-year-old, who makes his offseason home in Kelowna, is a perfect target for the Canucks as a low-cost, backup goaltender.

Reimer, a pending unrestricted free agent, will likely be pushed out of Carolina if both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic still remain with the organization. Signing him to a two-year deal worth $1.5 million annually could make sense for both the Canucks and Reimer.

4. Trade Nate Schmidt for Markus Nutivaara

This possibility has been suggested by reporters like Thomas Drance, and our own Harsunder Singh. While Harsunder’s proposal had Nutivaara and a pick coming back, I’m not sure if Schmidt’s value is that high.

Still, offloading a better, yet more expensive Schmidt for a younger, cheaper player in Nutivaara seems like it could be mutually beneficial for both clubs. As reported previously, Florida was among the teams that wanted to trade for Schmidt last October.

If you believe that Nutivaara has some untapped potential, then this could be a good deal for the Canucks. Vancouver’s new assistant coach, Brad Shaw, who coached Nutivaara in Columbus, spoke glowingly about his former pupil recently on Sportsnet 650.

In terms of cap savings, the Canucks would gain $3.25 million in cap space. While they lose the better player in this trade, it’s hard not to call this trade a win if they could gain some valuable room under the salary cap. This trade would realistically take place after the expansion draft, unless the Panthers decide to buy out Keith Yandle.

Colorado Avalanche v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Four
Ryan Graves #27 of the Colorado Avalanche skates during the first period against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on June 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

5. Make a splash on defence by trading for Ryan Graves

If the Colorado Avalanche do go the 7-3-1 protection route, then defensive stalwart Ryan Graves would be left unprotected.

He would bolster any team’s blueline, but he’d specifically fill a huge need as a defensive-minded, second-pairing left-shot defenceman for the Canucks. At 26 years old and in his prime, he would be a massive upgrade on a rapidly-aging Alex Edler.

Graves has two years left at a very reasonable $3.16 million cap hit. To make this trade work, the Canucks probably need to swing a deal similar to the one Colorado made last offseason for Devon Toews, when they gave up two second-round picks.

Instead of two second-round picks, could their high second-rounder this season (41st overall) and Olli Juolevi facilitate a deal? That still might not be enough based on comparable trades for Toews and Alec Martinez (both traded for two second-rounders), but maybe another fifth-round pick in this year’s draft (the Canucks have two fifth-round picks) could potentially get this done.

In the (likely) case that the Canucks don’t make this trade, a backup plan could be targeting 27-year-old left-shot defender Jake McCabe in free agency, someone who’s been a bright light on a disastrous Buffalo Sabres blueline.

UPDATE: Ryan Graves is off the market after being traded to the New Jersey Devils for a second-round pick and Mikhail Maltsev. So, guess this writer is all aboard the Jake McCabe train...

Florida Panthers v Dallas Stars
Mark Pysyk #13 of the Dallas Stars skates against the Florida Panthers at the American Airlines Center on April 10, 2021 in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

6. Take low-cost fliers on two right-shot defenceman

Of the two I have earmarked here, one was mentioned as a UFA target in our piece about targets on the Carolina Hurricanes. That would be 28-year-old Jani Hakanpaa, a 6’5” right-shot defenceman who played for both the Anaheim Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes last season. A deal in the $1 million range would be a good bargain bin bet for the Canucks.

Another would be 29-year-old Mark Pysyk, a defenceman who was so highly regarded in the 2017 expansion draft by the Florida Panthers (along with Alex Petrovic) that the team infamously lost Reilly Smith and Jon Marchessault. Pysyk played a depth role for the Stars last season, averaging only 11:43 of ice time in 36 games. Harman Dayal of The Athletic points out that Pysyk could still have low-end, top-four value, and he should cost around the league minimum after making $750,000 last season.

This would mean the Canucks let Hamonic walk, which is probably a good thing considering what he might demand on the open market.

Now, we’ll come back to this once again at the end of this article, but below is the Canucks current depth chart after the proposed moves from above. Players bolded either are current Canucks with new projected contracts, or new players on the team. I’ve ballparked $14 million going to Pettersson and Hughes, which seems to be the current consensus.

Forwards

JT Miller ($5.25M) — Elias Pettersson ($7M) — Brock Boeser ($5.875M)

Tanner Pearson ($3.25M) — Bo Horvat ($5.5M) — Nils Hoglander ($891,667)

GuyGuyVasily Podkolzin ($925K)

Guy — Jay Beagle ($3M) — Tyler Motte ($1.2M)

Extras: Matthew Highmore ($725K)

Buried: Loui Eriksson ($4.875M), Antoine Roussel ($1.875M)

LTIR: Micheal Ferland

Defence

Quinn Hughes ($7M)Markus Nutivaara ($2.7M)

Ryan Graves ($3.16M) — Tyler Myers ($6M)

Jack Rathbone ($925K) — Jani Hakanpaa ($900K)

Extras: Mark Pysyk ($800K)

Goalies

Thatcher Demko ($5M)

James Reimer ($1.5M)

Roster size: 19

Cap Hit: $71,968,546

Cap Remaining: $9,531,454

Now, the bottom-six still clearly needs work, but the Canucks cap situation doesn’t look anywhere near as dire after the subtractions of Virtanen, Holtby, Eriksson, Roussel and Schmidt.

You might notice that I haven’t brought up Alex Edler yet...that’s because I think he should be low on the Canucks priority list. While that might be disrespectful to the longest-tenured defenceman in team history, the focus for this club shouldn’t be about appeasing Edler...it should be about improving and pushing this team towards contender status.

With the defence and goaltending set, here are a couple of other scenarios to improve this team heading into the offseason.

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three
Alex Wennberg #21 of the Florida Panthers celebrates a goal during Game Three of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on May 20, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

7. Spend “big” on your third line centre

Aside from a lack of mobility on defence, arguably one of the biggest flaws with the Canucks last season was a lack of talent at third-line centre.

As we saw in the playoffs, having good depth down the middle plays a crucial role in the overall success of your hockey team. Whether it was Tampa Bay with Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson centering the bottom two lines, or Montreal with combinations of Jesperi Kotkaniemi/Jake Evans/Eric Staal, it’s abundantly obvious that centre depth helps with success.

If the Canucks were to follow this offseason script (buy out Virtanen and Holtby, trade for Ryan Graves and Markus Nutivaara, sign Pettersson and Hughes) before free agency starts, then they would have just under $10 million in cap space to fill out 3-4 roster spots. That’s much better than the last projection we made towards the end of the regular season.

It might be worth trading for a third-line centre, especially if Jim Benning wants “heft,” as previously reported. However, in this scenario, we’ve already traded multiple assets for Ryan Graves. Therefore, going the UFA route probably makes more sense for finding a third-line centre.

Two targets that make sense are 29-year-old Mikael Granlund and 26-year-old Alex Wennberg. Granlund posted 27 points in 51 games on an offensively anemic Nashville Predators team. He was also one of their go-to penalty killers (although the Preds penalty kill was admittedly one of the worst in the league last season). He could slide into the top-six on the wing if need be, but he would be a good fit on an offensively-inclined third-line.

Wennberg will be a top UFA target for a number of teams. One year after being bought out by the Blue Jackets, the Stockholm native posted 29 points in 56 games while playing a top-penalty killing role.

I like Wennberg as the better target here, but the bidding for his services might go up after having the more noteworthy season. I think Granlund could realistically be had on a two-year deal worth $8.5 million ($4.25 million cap hit), whereas Wennberg will probably demand a contract with more term.

Vegas Golden Knights v Arizona Coyotes
Michael Bunting #58 of the Arizona Coyotes prior to the NHL hockey game against the Vegas Golden Knights at Gila River Arena on May 01, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona.
Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

8. Fill out the forward group with low-cost fliers

Some of the names I like...

  • Ondrej Kase. Mentioned this in our piece about Bruins expansion draft trade targets. It’s very unlikely that the 25-year-old RFA will be qualified at his $2.6 million price tag after a season in which injuries limited him to three games. Prior to injuries and his trade to Boston at the 2020 trade deadline, Kase scored at a first-line rate at even-strength. Because of his injury history though, he probably won’t cost more than $1(ish) million in free agency.
  • Michael Bunting. The 25-year-old scored 10 goals in 21 games for the Arizona Coyotes last season, and he’s about to become a free agent. What timing. While Bunting might not replicate his scoring output, he can play like a pest, and he plays with pace. Let’s say $1.25 million per year gets a deal done.
  • One of Jordan Martinook or Derek Ryan. Both players spent time at centre last season, which is important because A) While Jay Beagle may return, his injury history is a concern and B) Beagle is an absolute black hole at even-strength. Both Martinook and Derek Ryan have more offensive ability, and both can kill penalties. With Ryan being older (34 years old) and likely to cost less, he’s probably a better target for the Canucks here.
2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
Boris Katchouk #41 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with the Stanley Cup following the victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Amalie Arena on July 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning defeated the Canadiens 1-0 to take the series four games to one.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

9. Offer sheet a low-cost RFA

Recent history tells us that this category of bold moves is fairly unlikely, but it would be a good way to create some training camp intrigue by adding players that could realistically play in the NHL next season.

There is no compensation for signing an RFA to an offer sheet below $1.35 million. Therefore, the Canucks could explore this seldom-used avenue to improve their depth.

Tanner Jeannot is one player we highlighted in our series about targets on the Nashville Predators. However the Preds have cap space, so I think they’d match an offer sheet.

However, Tampa Bay is a team that could have issues paying any depth player above $1 million. 6’2”, 204-pound left-winger Boris Katchouk could be a good target here. He posted 34 points in 29 AHL games last season and is currently an RFA. Katchouk could be signed at a $1.125 million cap hit for no compensation, and he could be buried in the minors at no cost if he doesn’t make the team.

Even if Tampa matches, Katchouk is waiver eligible, so they should be confident that he can make the team if they were to match Vancouver’s offer. At a cap hit of $1.125, that might not make sense when they need players as cheap as possible filling out their bottom six.

Calgary Flames v Vancouver Canucks
Will Alex Edler return to the Vancouver Canucks next season? Should he?
Getty Images

10. Okay...I guess Edler can come back (in a marginalized role)

At this current juncture in our exercise, the Canucks have about $2 million in cap space. To give them some breathing room, it really only makes sense to bring back Edler on a deal in the $1.2 to $1.3 million range. I don’t think he’d take that...but we all know how badly he wants to be in Vancouver.

For argument’s sake, let’s just say Edler accepts a one-year deal for $1.3 million and plays against Jack Rathbone for a spot in the Canucks opening night lineup at training camp.

With that being the last move, here’s the Canucks projected roster for the 2021-22 season.

JT Miller ($5.25M) — Elias Pettersson ($7M) — Brock Boeser ($5.875M)

Tanner Pearson ($3.25M) — Bo Horvat ($5.5M) — Nils Hoglander ($891,667)

Michael Bunting ($1.25M)Mikael Granlund ($4.25M)Vasily Podkolzin ($925K)

Tyler Motte ($1.2M) — Derek Ryan ($1M)Ondrej Kase ($1M)

Extras: Matthew Highmore ($725K)

Buried: Loui Eriksson ($4.875M), Antoine Roussel ($1.875M), Jay Beagle ($1.875M)

LTIR: Micheal Ferland

Quinn Hughes ($7M)Markus Nutivaara ($2.7M)

Ryan Graves ($3.16M) — Tyler Myers ($6M)

Jack Rathbone ($925K) — Jani Hakanpaa ($1M)

Extras: Alex Edler ($1.5M), Mark Pysyk ($800K)

Roster size: 23

Cap Hit: $79,643,546

Cap Remaining: $1,856,454

Final Thoughts

  • This exercise was completed with the hopes that the Canucks are aggressive...yet smart and deliberate with their choices this offseason. Of course, all these moves won’t come to fruition, but the purpose here was to highlight that the Canucks can overhaul their roster and make a bunch of smart bets, all while staying under the salary cap.
  • The defence, while much better off with Ryan Graves, is still iffy. Having Markus Nutivaara in the top-pairing role is a risky bet, although it’s probably not that much risker than having Travis Hamonic up there on a mutli-year deal. And, if it doesn’t work out next season, Nutivaara, Hakanpaa, Edler and Pysyk would all come off the books at the end of the 2021-22 season.
  • This is by no means the perfect roster, and I still don’t love Tanner Pearson in the top-six. That being said, there are some decent fliers, such as Bunting and Kase, not to mention Podkolzin, who could move up the lineup if they earn it.
  • Shout out to CapFriendly for their wizardry, as always.
  • I better hit publish before Canucks nation is inevitably disappointed by the lack of moves leading up to (and following) the Seattle expansion draft...