For years, the Canucks have been one of the biggest spenders in the NHL, spending right up to the limit of the salary cap. With Laurence Gilman’s cap wizardry navigating the way, the Canucks have deftly used every trick in the book to squeeze their roster under the cap, sometimes making it just by the skin of their teeth.
That’s no longer a major concern. With Roberto Luongo’s $5.3 million already off the books, David Booth’s $4.25 million cap hit bought out this week, and Ryan Kesler’s $5 million contract almost certainly about to go elsewhere, the Canucks are in unfamiliar territory.
With technically only five roster spots to fill, the Canucks will have over $21 million in cap space heading into free agency. While that’s not including any potential return in the Kesler trade and some of that money will be eaten up re-signing Mike Santorelli and restricted free agents like Zack Kassian, Chris Tanev, and — maybe — Jordan Schroeder and Yannick Weber, that will still leave the Canucks with plenty of room to spend big money on a big-name free agent or two.
This is absolutely terrifying. Why? Because it is remarkably easy to royally screw up in free agency.
Free agency is where General Managers make their biggest mistakes. Teams overpay for playoff performance, toughness, or because they thought they were signing a different player. Jim Benning, for all his experience with the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, is still a rookie GM facing his first NHL free agency as the man in charge. Any GM is bound to make a few mistakes and the Canucks’ bountiful cap space will give Benning plenty of rope with which to hang himself.
It’s also terrifying because the Canucks aren’t the only team with money to burn. The rapid increase in the salary cap after last season’s lockout-lowered cap means other teams will be bidding against the Canucks, potentially driving up prices for even the most unexciting free agents. This will also drive up expectations for those players who cash in and many fans will end up disappointed, Canucks fans almost certainly among them.
Some team (hey there, Minnesota) is going to offer Thomas Vanek well over $7 million per year. Same with Paul Stastny. Matt Moulson might make over $6 million per year on his next contract. Are you ready for Matt Moulson to be making as much per year as Patrick Kane? I’m not.
Are you ready for the Canucks to be one of those teams massively overpaying one of these players?
Just how much will the Canucks really have to spend? Let’s make a couple assumptions and see where that leaves us. First, we’ll assume that at least one of Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce, or Cole Cassels makes the team. We’ll go with Horvat, as Benning has spoken well of him, he fits a need at centre, and he makes the most (along with Shinkaruk) of any player in that group, taking the most out of Canucks’ capspace.
We’ll also assume that if and when Kesler gets traded, the Canucks will get a young NHL-ready forward in return. We’ll pick Anaheim, as that seems to be the the team everyone’s talking about in relation to this trade. Names mentioned in rumours include Emerson Etem, Rickard Rakell, and Devante Smith-Pelly. We’ll go with Rakell, as again he makes the most of those three, though Smith-Pelly is an RFA due for a raise.
We’ll assume the Canucks re-sign all of their RFAs, giving Kassian a reasonable $1.4 million, Tanev a nice raise at $2.8 million, and Schroeder and Weber a let’s-see-what-you-can-do $750,000 each. We’ll even throw Zac Dalpe a $605,000 qualifying offer.
All of those assumptions give the Canucks a 22-man roster. It’s not a particularly good roster, relying on one of Horvat or Shawn Matthias to step up as a second-line centre, and it has some pretty big question marks in the bottom-six, but it’s a serviceable NHL lineup, though not one likely to make the playoffs. It also leaves the Canucks with over $13 million in capspace.
Do the Canucks want Stastny to take Kesler’s place as second-line centre? They have more than enough money to entice him. Do they instead want Ales Hemsky to be the bonafide top-six winger the team’s been missing for years? The money’s there. Mike Cammalleri to provide goalscoring pop? Sure. Mikhail Grabovski for some extra skill down the middle? Why not?
At this point, the Canucks could conceivably spend $13 million on two players, which comes back around to being terrifying.
I would be okay with the Canucks signing Hemsky for $5 million per year over 2 or 3 seasons and Stastny for $7.5 million per year for 5 years. I’d be fine with Cammalleri for $6 million and Grabovski for $4.5 million. There are any number of combinations that I could accept and a few I would be thrilled with, but I fear none of those will occur.
I fear that Stastny’s asking price will reach $9 million. I fear that Iginla, at 36, will want a long-term contract and Benning will be willing to give it to him. I fear that Ryan Callahan, who has never scored 30 goals or more than 54 points in a season, will want $7 million per year and that he’ll get it from the Canucks. I fear that my hopes for Hemsky will be dashed upon the rocks of Olli Jokinen.
Are these irrational fears? Perhaps. But this is the first time in years that the Canucks have had this kind of spending power in free agency. it’s understandable, I think, that I would have the jitters. Part of me hopes that the Canucks sign just one UFA — Mike Santorelli — and fill the roster with whichever prospects and veterans play best at training camp.
That’s unrealistic, of course. The realities of the Vancouver hockey market demand a quick return to the playoffs and standing pat during the free agent frenzy won’t appease the masses or, for that matter, the Aquilinis. So, with money to burn and mistakes to be made, Benning will enter the free agent market. Are you scared yet?