The Vancouver Canucks weren’t even supposed to get this far, right?
This was a team playing with house money, emboldened by the coming out parties of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes on the postseason stage, and capped off with a star-making turn from Thatcher Demko. At that point, the outcome didn’t really matter. Pushing the presumptive Cup favourite Vegas Golden Knights to seven games was simply gravy, especially when the future looks this bright.
But, just how bright is it?
Look, Canucks fans, you’re a passionate bunch. And I really don’t want to rain on your parade here. You have a marvellous young core with a cavalcade of exciting talent that should allow your team to, at the very least, tread water for the foreseeable future.
But, let’s be real here. This offseason is going to be filled with some tough decisions. And how management navigates the daunting waters ahead will effectively decide just how high your young stars can fly.
The Canucks have 11 roster players set to hit some form of free agency this offseason — six UFAs and five RFAs — a group which includes sizeable contributors like Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev and Jake Virtanen, while the club sits with roughly $14 million in available cap space with which to re-sign them.
Not all of those pending free agents will be coming back, obviously. In fact, the Canucks could let each name listed above walk out the door and still be somewhat alright.
Thatcher Demko’s coming out party in the final three games of the Western Conference Semi Final suggests he’s poised to take over Markstrom’s starter role. And while Toffoli is assumed to command a pricey new contract, a healthy Brock Boeser should do wonders in replacing his production.
But isn’t the point here to get better?
Stripping parts from a group that accomplished what it did, even when factoring in the continued progression of Pettersson and Hughes, doesn’t achieve that. This is supposed to be the starting point of this core’s multi-year ascension, not the plateau.
The Canucks, in their current form, established their ceiling as that of a second-round exit — an outcome, mind you, that was aided by some unprecedented stellar goaltending. Teams in this position are usually revelling in the value of their young stars being locked into ELCs for pennies on the dollar. But not these Canucks. No, Benning and Co. are instead already staring down the barrel of Cap Hell, being forced to make some serious concessions simply to keep their group intact. And that’s before the real raises kick in in a year.
Keeping the band together, by the way, seems to be the plan.
As Benning communicated in his media availability on Friday, re-signing Markstrom is among his top priorities, which, if achieved, more or less quashes the notion of handing Demko the starter’s reigns for the time being.
On the surface, this makes sense. Letting an elite-level goaltender walk doesn’t exactly accomplish that aforementioned goal of making the team better. So you can at least understand why Benning would want to keep Markstrom despite the tight cap situation he’s working with. But is that really where those limited funds should be allocated?
The Canucks just saw their prized goalie prospect finally take the supposed next step in his development and turn into prime Dominik Hasek precisely when he was needed most. Yes, three games is a small sample size. And basing the decision to go all-in on Demko simply on that is a risk. But it’s a calculated risk.
Namely, the NHL is set to enter what might be the deepest goaltending market in recent memory, with a plethora of intriguing options available for the Canucks to sign and slot in as 1B to Demko’s 1A, all for what will be a fraction of Markstrom’s expected asking price as the belle of the free agent ball. A duo of Demko — who is four years younger than Markstrom, by the way — plus a $2 million understudy comes in at around $3 million in combined salary, giving the Canucks wiggle room they desperately need to address other areas of the roster, all while sacrificing little in terms of on-ice value.
At this point, paying Markstrom what he’s worth would be irresponsible. But Jim Benning is going to do what Jim Benning is going to do.
Not to mention, going with Demko might just allow Benning to keep Toffoli in the fold, too. The 28-year-old has recently expressed serious interest in re-signing with the team that acquired him at the 2020 trade deadline, going as far as to list remaining in Vancouver as his “number one priority.” And why wouldn’t it be? Toffoli was a point-per-game player in the 10 regular season games he played as a Canuck, and all reports out of the organization seem to paint it as a happy marriage.
But even handing Toffoli the $4.6 million he earned on his last contract, which is expected to increase on his next deal given the relative lack of available forwards, pretty much forces someone else out the door. The Canucks want to keep Chris Tanev, for example, and yet fitting both his and Toffoli’s new cap hits into their approximately $14 million of space while still leaving room to improve the roster elsewhere, can’t really be done.
The most obvious move for a cash-rich team like the Canucks when facing cap troubles is to offload some of their unfavourable contracts onto other teams via bribing with draft picks. Loui Eriksson, for example, makes only $1 million in actual salary for this upcoming season once his $3 million signing bonus is paid out and, when packaged with a high pick or prospect, could potentially be peddled off to a team looking to hit the cap floor.
However, there are two small problems with that strategy: First, the global pandemic that is currently ravaging the world’s economy is expected to keep the NHL’s cap from rising for at least the next three years and, secondly, even if the Canucks could find a suitor for Eriksson’s abominable deal, they don’t have their first or second-round picks this year to grease that poor sucker’s palms.
Case in point; they’re stuck. Shedding salary is going to be trickier than ever in this new era — just look at what Pittsburgh had to do to simply move 50% of Nick Bjugstad’s salary — therein creating a reality that could not be coming at a worse possible time for Vancouver.
Yes, the Canucks are a talented team with some stunning young pieces. But Benning and his management team are walking into this offseason on a tightrope perched atop a perilous cliff.
And that’s without even mentioning how their safety nets by the name of Hughes and Pettersson are about to become roughly 8-10 times more expensive in a matter of months.
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