Transactionally speaking, this most unpredictable NHL offseason has provided hockey fans with oddities and surprises galore.
Entering the final week of July, the top unrestricted free agent centre and the top unrestricted free agent defender remain available — at least officially.
We saw a Friday night mega deal this past weekend, an unprecedented sign-and-trade in which the Florida Panthers and the Calgary Flames swapped 100-point wingers.
Elsewhere teams can’t seem to give up effective scoring wingers, or else they’re trading good, young wingers for pennies on the dollar.
The complexity has been ramped up, along with the stakes. There could also be another knuckle-puck or two yet to come. In fact, we might just be getting started.
A look around the league makes it clear that there’s a host of shoes still to drop, surely, given how many teams might need to get creative simply to be cap compliant on opening day in October.
The way this NHL offseason has unfolded has challenged some of our assumptions, while confirming several other ones, which is why we figured it was a good time to debrief. The Canucks have been extremely quiet to this point in the offseason, but the echoes of transactions from around the league will resonate in Vancouver in some obvious and some counterintuitive ways.
With an eye toward some of the key takeaways from what’s transpired elsewhere this NHL offseason, here are some scattered, late-July thoughts on how all of the latest NHL news impacts the Canucks.
Pre-agency and the bridge to nowhere
We used to think that drafted players would provide the team that selected them with seven cost-controlled seasons.
Teams could amass young, talented players and build around that core group with lots of runway before those key pieces would hit unrestricted free agency in year eight (or on turning 27 years old). Thereafter they’d become far more expensive.
That paradigm is out the window. Gone. Kaput.
Now, in fairness, the line between restricted and unrestricted free agency has been blurring for years. New Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk just put the final nail in the coffin over the past week.
Tkachuk didn’t want to sign long-term in Calgary, and rather obviously didn’t want to play out his final restricted seasons without signing a long-term extension. That’s sensible, as he was coming off of a career year. Accepting his qualifying offer and biding his time for 12 months came with a ton of risk.
His camp — Tkachuk is represented by Craig Oster of Newport Sports — informed the Flames that he had no intention of signing an extension in Calgary. He had a small list of teams that he was willing to consider being dealt to, all of them reportedly playoff teams in relatively low-income tax political environments. While Tkachuk is still not eligible to hold any form of trade protection officially, he had leverage over the entire situation because of his willingness to sign an extension (or not) with any potential trade partners.
Tkachuk and his camp rather masterfully orchestrated an NBA-style sign and trade, a year out from unrestricted free agency.
The pyrotechnics of the deal itself was notable, but it was eye-opening that Tkachuk and his camp managed to pull off this maneuver now. As a restricted player, with no codified leverage aside from a high platform year salary and arbitration rights, Tkachuk called his shot, got his big deal and joined a team that he wanted to go play for.
There’s so much to unpack from this deal, but make no mistake, the biggest reverberation around the league this weekend stemmed not from the bounty of talent exchanged, or how it upends the competitive balance in either conference, but from the template that Tkachuk has now provided to star-level restricted players who’d very much like to get paid, by a contending team ideally, and now, not next season when they actually become an unrestricted free agent.
In Vancouver, as pending 2023 unrestricted free agent J.T. Miller’s situation has played out slowly and publicly this offseason, the Canucks have already had a small taste of these dynamics.
With some savvy negotiating, players under contract are able to impact their own trade status despite having no formal trade protection by availing themselves of a leverage situation that former NBA star Jalen Rose once amusingly termed “pre-agency”.
Obviously, the analogy between Miller’s situation and Tkachuk’s is highly imperfect and shouldn’t be overstated. Miller is 29 years old and under contract, whereas Tkachuk is 25 years old and was an unsigned restricted player prior to the sign-and-trade.
We also must clearly state that there’s absolutely no indication that Miller’s camp has even considered providing the Canucks with a Tkachuk-style ultimatum, even if it’s understood that Vancouver’s leading scorer would understandably prefer to sign his next contract off of his career-high 99-point season.
What the Tkachuk playbook indicates, however, and what the lingering Miller uncertainty further emphasizes is that decision time for teams as it regards players of a certain calibre comes faster than you might expect. It is also faster these days than it ever has been before.
All of which brings us to Elias Pettersson, who has two years remaining on the three-year bridge contract that he signed with the Canucks just 10 months ago. Over the past few weeks, Pettersson and his advisors with Creative Artists Agency have watched inferior players — like Josh Norris and Robert Thomas — sign max-term extensions for in and around $8 million per season almost the moment they became eligible to sign such extensions.
While Pettersson has two years left on his contract at the moment, he’ll become eligible for an extension on July 1, 2023. And he’ll hold a boatload of leverage to telegraph his intentions one way or another beginning next summer, particularly if he performs this upcoming season the way he did in the second half of this most recent campaign.
Now that’s an aggressive timeline. It’s more aggressive than what the Tkachuk playbook calls for. As the line between restricted and unrestricted free agency blurs completely and players begin to feel more comfortable exercising their pre-agency leverage in a flat cap environment, however, bridge contracts are going to start to feel shorter and shorter.
This is why teams would be wise to scrupulously avoid such short-term second pacts with players of Tkachuk and Pettersson’s calibre, unless the team is both smack dab in a credible window of contention and have done the work to install a Tampa Bay-style covenant with their young core.
Even if the long-term deal feels like an overpay at first — like the Mitch Marner contract in Toronto has the past few seasons — you’d much rather be in that boat, than bailing one out the way the Flames found themselves doing this past week with Tkachuk.
The problem with scoring wingers
It’s a troubling development for the Canucks that so much of their asset value at the NHL level is tied up in a position where the market has softened to an incredible degree this offseason.
Nobody is spending much to acquire scoring wingers these days and that’s a problem for a Canucks team that would be best served by a more material change in direction and is loaded with them.
This Canucks roster as it stands, largely unchanged to this point in new management’s first offseason, isn’t particularly well constructed. Outside of their elite starting netminder Thatcher Demko and a blue chip 1A defender in Quinn Hughes, most of the Canucks’ talent is concentrated among their top-nine forward group.
A lot of that talent and cap spending is concentrated more specifically along the wings, where the Canucks have Conor Garland, Tanner Pearson, Brock Boeser and Ilya Mikheyev all locked up with term for a combined $19.6 million.
You could reasonably throw Miller into that group as well, although it’s debatable because he spent most of this past season as a centre. The wing is Miller’s natural position, however, and he’s split time relatively equally at both positions during his Canucks tenure on the whole.
If you opt to include Miller as a winger, that would elevate Vancouver’s total cap commitment to scoring wingers to $24.9 million in total, or 30 percent of the club’s total cap space.
As this offseason has unfolded, one of the most notable trends has been the way that winger valuations have plummeted on the trade market:
- 85-point winger Kevin Fiala was acquired by the L.A. Kings for a first-round pick and a top prospect in Brock Faber that, fair or not, many in the industry viewed as a signing risk for anyone aside from the Minnesota Wild.
- The NHL’s sixth-leading goal scorer the past two seasons Alex DeBrincat was traded for a package not too dissimilar from what J.P. Pageau netted two years ago (a first-, a second- and a third-round pick).
- The Washington Capitals were able to buy the final year of Connor Brown’s contract for a second-round draft pick. Arguably the Ottawa Senators jumped the market, selling Brown before most of the cap space available around the league dried up entirely.
- With one year and $7 million remaining on his contract, injury-plagued but still point per game winger Max Pacioretty had negative trade value. In order to move the full freight of his deal to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Vegas Golden Knights had to attach a 24-year-old right-handed defender in Dylan Coghlan to sweeten the pot.
- Fresh off of a 28-goal, nearly 60-point campaign 27-year-old Oliver Bjorkstrand was dealt by Columbus to the Seattle Kraken for a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
- The NHL’s third-leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau, with one year remaining on his contract, was one of four assets dealt to the Flames in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk.
This trend was matched in free agency, where teams have been relatively cautious about spending on scoring wingers. Only nine unrestricted free agent wingers signed for deals valued above $4 million after the market opened on July 13, with several of those deals being relatively conservative themselves, including just two years of term for the likes of David Perron and Nino Niederreiter.
In the flat cap era, teams looking to shed salary are electing to jettison higher-priced wingers, rather than subtracting from their defence corps or their stable of centres. That dynamic is simultaneously driving a higher than usual supply of affordable scoring wingers on the trade market, while simultaneously lowering the demand for players of this ilk.
This should be obvious, but rival teams aren’t likely to surrender a premium asset for a Garland or Pearson-type in an environment where they can land a Bjorkstrand for a pair of mid-rounders. Or get paid to take on Pacioretty.
This is inconvenient in the extreme for a Canucks side that, in a perfect offseason, would’ve found ways to shed money from their top-six forward group and ideally from their surplus of scoring wingers. It’s a hard trick to pull off, however, when everybody else seems to have the same idea.
Goaltending and the other side of the coin
The market for wingers softened considerably this offseason, exposing a harsh reality for the Canucks.
There’s another side of this coin worth pointing out though, an area where the market overheated, while Vancouver was able to simply nurse a competitive advantage that has become more pronounced over the course of the past month.
In goal, the Canucks have maintained a durable advantage in performance over their opponents for most of the past 15 years now. That edge further solidified itself this offseason, become a structural edge, albeit one that’s blunted for this upcoming season due to dead cap hits lingering from the Braden Holtby buyout and the Jaroslav Halak overage penalty.
While the rest of the league overpaid and made mistakes and gave up too much in trades or free agency while seeking an answer in net, the Canucks were able to enjoy the chaos from the sidelines with an elite starter signed at the clip of an average one, and an intriguing low-cost backup in Spencer Martin locked up near the veteran minimum.
Consider that Demko — with a $5 million annual average value on a deal that extends for four more seasons — is now tied with six other goaltenders (Juuse Saros, Jack Campbell, Robin Lehner, Cal Petersen and Linus Ullmark) for the 15th highest cap hit among NHL goaltenders. Structurally Demko is now a high-end starter compensated like a below-average one.
Meanwhile, in a world where the median backup goaltender salary in the NHL is now $1.8 million (and will become $2 million once Jake Oettinger signs and pushes Pavel Francouz down to the 48th highest cap hit among all signed NHL goalies), Martin is signed for this season and next at $762k.
Martin has never been a full-time NHL backup previously so there’s some uncertainty here, but the journeyman netminder performed exceptionally well at both the NHL and the AHL levels last season. If Martin gives the Canucks even just modestly below average save percentage performance for 15-22 games this upcoming campaign — which seems a reasonable bet — and the club can hurdle those dead cap commitments for Holtby and Halak beyond this season, Vancouver will be poised to realize a significant spending efficiency edge over their rivals beginning in the 2023-24 campaign.
It’s been a while since that was the case anywhere on the Canucks roster.
The blue line issue
It’s exceptionally difficult to overhaul a blue-line group, but that’s the primary task that remains for Canucks management.
Aside from a smart two-year bet on Jack Rathbone, Vancouver’s blue line is basically untouched from the group that surrendered far too many scoring chances and struggled to connect play from the back-end last season.
The Canucks still only employ three top-four calibre defenders, and yet by my calculations — using data at CapFriendly.com — the Canucks’ defence corps is the seventh most expensive in the NHL. Considering that none of the significant cap commitments that Vancouver has on the back-end are expiring, that’s an intractable problem, one with no easy solution going forward.
Over the course of the silly seasons, we saw a few deals for overpriced defenders, but none of them really offer an appealing route forward for Vancouver. Brent Burns netted the San Jose Sharks an intriguing goalie prospect, a depth forward and a conditional third-round draft pick, but even then the Sharks had to retain a fair bit of salary to bring that deal about. The New York Rangers, meanwhile, had to part with a pair of draft picks to get off of Patrik Nemeth; while the only way out of Mike Matheson’s remaining four years for the Pittsburgh Penguins was to take on three years’ worth of Jeff Petry, 34, at a cost of $6.25 million per season.
Even John Marino held limited value, returning a mid-round pick and a high pedigree defender in Ty Smith, who is talented but has struggled mightily at the NHL level to this point in his young career.
Perhaps you’d have liked to see the Canucks get involved in the Marino deal. There are definitely teams around the league that rate Rathbone as a superior player to Smith at this stage of their careers, based mostly on Rathbone’s far superior skating and pace.
To play in that marketplace though, you need cap space. And Vancouver’s cap space is already spoken for.
The cap allocation opportunity cost
In an NHL offseason environment where players like Marino, Burns, Pacioretty and Bjorkstrand are available off of the clearance rack, provided the acquiring team has cap flexibility, the difficulty of disassembling this Canucks roster looms large.
There’s just too much inefficient money on the books for this club to change direction as rapidly as the club probably requires, if the goal is to be a meaningful contender in a year or two.
In this context, it was hard not to watch this NHL offseason unfold and imagine what could’ve been if the club had only been patient enough last summer to allow the $12 million in cap commitments to Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel to expire.
It was similarly hard not to see the Marino trade go down and wonder if the Canucks might’ve been able to make a competitive bid, if only they hadn’t spent their cap space on July 13 on a pair of talented forwards that held down bottom-six roles for their respective Atlantic Division teams last season.
The value of cap space has never been more apparent, and the opportunity cost that the Canucks organizationally have incurred by constructing a capped-out fringe playoff team continues to shape — and limit — this club’s avenues to improve.
A lot of this is outside the control of Vancouver’s new regime, but not all of it. New management’s decision to spend on Mikheyev in particular as free agency opened compounded the issue further.
Mikheyev is an excellent player and a very good fit considering this team’s need for an elite penalty killer with high-end speed. One wonders if the move was advisable though considering that there will likely be real opportunities available to teams with salary cap flexibility between now and the start of the regular season. People forget, but Vancouver acquired Christian Ehrhoff for essentially free in mid-September of the 2009 offseason. The New York Islanders, similarly, landed Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in early October of the 2014 offseason.
One suspects that similar opportunities will be there for teams late into this summer (or early in the fall). Those are opportunities, however, that the Canucks likely won’t be able to avail themselves of, unless they’re willing to lose a trade — Bjorkstrand or Marino style — to set up such a move.
Never tell me the odds
The Canucks won’t play their first regular season game for another 80 days. There’s a lot of road left to run this offseason.
By the time training camp rolls around, this roster could look very different. At the very least one would expect the club to bring in an additional veteran player (or two) to compete for a spot.
Although the club is surely tight against the offseason cap at the moment — the Canucks can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent during the offseason, but that amount is limited (roughly $89.4 million) by the Halak performance bonus overage penalty and all one-way and some two-way contracts factor into offseason cap accounting — the club can probably responsibly add another $1.4 million in cap commitments, without needing to first send money out.
The fact that Rathbone, Vasili Podkolzin, Nils Höglander and Andrei Kuzmenko are waiver exempt gives the Canucks a ton of flexibility to maximize their capture on opening day, when Micheal Ferland is placed on long-term injured reserve. It won’t be easy for the Canucks to do something to dramatically improve between now and then, but there’s some potential to further strengthen this roster and there’s still talent available on the open market.
Nonetheless, as the dust begins to settle — belatedly — on the NHL silly season, it’s time to take stock of where the Canucks stand relative to their rivals in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. And the best, most objective way to do so at this point in the offseason, is to turn to Vegas.
Now obviously the sports books create the lines to stimulate maximum betting action, but the handicappers have real skin in the game and at least provide us with a decent and fully objective snapshot of how to view a team’s baseline quality in real time. It’s far from everything, but it’s a data point. It’s also an important data point to be mindful of, particularly given how shocked some Canucks fans — and Canucks ownership, by their own admission — were by the team’s monumental struggles to open the 2021-22 season, struggles that Vegas had anticipated.
Currently, BetMGM lists the Canucks at 50-to-one odds to win the Stanley Cup in 2023, which puts them in a three-way tie with Nashville and Ottawa for the 19th best Stanley Cup odds among NHL clubs at this point in the offseason.
Fifty to one seems a bit low, I’ve seen the Canucks upgraded to 40-to-one odds elsewhere, and the sports book consensus is a bit more favourable to Vancouver than the BetMGM listing is. There’s widespread agreement among the handicappers, however, that the Canucks are something like the 17th, 18th or 19th most likely NHL team to win the Cup in 2023.
Meanwhile, BetMGM currently lists Vancouver as having the ninth best odds — again tied with Nashville — to win the Western Conference, with the club priced at 22-to-1 odds to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in 2023.
Finally, in terms of how BetMGM handicaps the Pacific Division (as of Sunday evening at 5 pm PT), the Canucks are very clearly being faded as a contender in the division relative to three Pacific teams that made the playoffs last season and Vegas:
2023 Pacific Division Winner
Edmonton Oilers +200
Vegas Golden Knights +250
Calgary Flames +400
Los Angeles Kings +450
Vancouver Canucks +1100
This one is particularly interesting, because the Canucks are basically being given 11-to-one odds to win the Pacific, while basically everyone else with a realistic playoff shot in the division is priced out at four-to-one (or under). Based on the Pacific Division outrights, anyway, it’s worth noting that at this point in the offseason Vegas appears to be fading the Canucks as a probable playoff team this upcoming season and, in fact, considers the club to be a tier below the likes of Edmonton, Vegas, Calgary and Los Angeles.
(Top photo: Bob Frid / USA TODAY)