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Can the Canucks find the next Dakota Joshua?

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said they will "find the next Dakota Joshua" and might have to if they can't afford to keep the current Dakota Joshua.
Could the Buffalo Sabres' Brett Murray be the next Dakota Joshua?

Dakota Joshua’s excellent north-south game could see him head east next season.

The 28-year-old winger had a breakout season with the Vancouver Canucks in 2023-24, scoring 18 goals and 32 points in 63 games while leading the Canucks in hits and playing a significant role on the penalty kill. He formed a partnership with Conor Garland on the third line that had them both playing like top-six forwards.

At a cap hit of just $825,000, Joshua was one of the biggest bargains in the NHL last season outside of players on entry-level contracts. But Joshua won’t be a bargain much longer, as he’s a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) due for a big raise.

"We'll find the next Dakota Joshua here for the coaches to work with"

When asked about Joshua, as well as his fellow sizeable pending free agents Tyler Myers and Nikita Zadorov, Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said, “We want to keep all those guys,” but had some caveats.

“For me, it’s not about giving one guy all the money, it’s about finding ways to be competitive and finding ways to have players that are able to improve, as we saw this year,” said Allvin. “Dakota came in here highly recommended by my staff and we have seen him over the two years take steps. 

“We’ll find the next Dakota Joshua here for the coaches to work with. I’m confident in my staff to be able to provide the right personnel for Rick and his coaches to work with and be successful moving forward.”

There was an underlying understanding in Allvin’s words that the Canucks might not be able to keep Joshua. The Canucks only have so much cap space to go around and may want to allocate that space to a more impactful, high-end player ​​at the top of their lineup rather than someone like Joshua in the middle of their lineup. 

After his breakout season, Joshua will be a hot commodity if he gets to free agency on July 1. AFP Analytics projects a four-year contract with a cap hit of around $3.25 million, which would already be a stretch for the Canucks to incorporate into their cap picture, but his unique player profile could see him get even more money on the open market.

Could Dakota Joshua get $4 million or more in free agency?

Joshua profiles similarly to Brandon Tanev, who in 2019 got a six-year contract with a cap hit of $3.5 million per year from the Pittsburgh Penguins under Jim Rutherford. That’s equivalent to around $3.78 million under next season’s $88 million salary cap. But it’s possible that Joshua could get even more than that in free agency.

Sportsnet 650’s Satiar Shah shared what he was hearing in regards to Joshua and the Detroit Red Wings.  

“I heard that a team like Detroit might be really hot on his heels and they may be willing to go $4+ for him,” said Shah. “I don’t know how true that is, right, but if these are the things that Dakota Joshua’s camp is hearing…why do you think he’s not signing for what the Canucks are offering him?”

In other words, if rumours of teams willing to offer him $4 million are reaching the ears of Joshua’s agent, it would make perfect sense for Joshua to test free agency to see if those offers actually materialize. 

Joshua hails from Dearborn, Michigan, which is part of Metro Detroit, after all. Maybe he would welcome a return home.

If $3.25 million was already a stretch for the Canucks, going over $4 million is right out.

Allvin is right: the trick is to find the next Dakota Joshua. That doesn’t mean finding a similar player to who Joshua is now but a one similar to who Joshua was then: a player you can pay near league minimum who grows into a much more impactful role than that contract would suggest. But that’s easier said than done. 

Joshua had played just 42 games in the NHL, primarily as a fourth-line, by the time he joined the Canucks at the age of 26. It’s rare for a player like that to blossom into an everyday NHLer, let alone an impactful middle-six forward. 

Heck, in the 2019-20 season, just three years before he joined the Canucks, Joshua was splitting time between the AHL and ECHL, giving little indication that he had an NHL future at all. Joshua only caught the attention of the Canucks when he played six games for the Utica Comets during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season when the Canucks and St. Louis Blues combined their AHL rosters.

That’s a pretty strange set of circumstances that brought Joshua to the Canucks’ attention. So, how do you find the next Dakota Joshua?

Looking for the next Dakota Joshua among the Group 6 UFAs

One place to look for the next Joshua is among the Group 6 UFAs, which Joshua was when the Canucks signed him in 2022. A player becomes a Group 6 UFA by fulfilling the following conditions: they have to be 25 or older, played at least three professional seasons, and have played under 80 NHL games.

This form of unrestricted free agency is designed so that players who are not getting an opportunity to play in the NHL are not trapped by their current NHL team. It might be a place to look for a player who deserves a chance to prove himself.

Signing a Group 6 UFA isn’t the only way that Allvin could find the next Joshua, of course. Allvin could aim to trade for an unappreciated player, sign restricted free agent whose team doesn’t qualify him, or sign an undrafted free agent. But still, Group 6 UFAs are a good place to start.

There are 52 Group 6 UFAs heading to free agency in 2024 but just 14 played at least one game in the NHL last season and just 11 of those are forwards. Here are those 14 players because who says the next Dakota Joshua can’t be a defenceman?  

Let’s be absolutely clear: most of these players haven’t been granted much of an NHL opportunity because they haven’t earned one. The one thing that needs to be said about Joshua is that he had excellent underlying statistics in his limited time in the NHL, the type that suggested he had more to give and deserved a chance to prove it.

To represent that on the table above, I included HockeyViz’s all-in-one statistic Synthetic Goals (sG). It’s certainly not a defining statistic and most of these players have exceedingly small sample sizes, but it gives a bit of an indication of how each of these players performed apart from points. It should be noted that sG is calculated against the league average. A player with a negative sG, then, has performed worse than the league average but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not an NHL player.

It would be tempting to focus on Joshua’s size in finding “the next Dakota Joshua” but the point isn’t to find a carbon copy of Joshua who contributes exactly what he does but to find a player who can contribute to the roster and grow into an impactful player at a cheap price.

Could Kole Lind, Riley Tufte, or Brett Murray be a diamond in the rough?

So, do any of the Group 6 UFAs stand out? To a certain degree, yes.

One of the standout players is even a former Canuck: Kole Lind. The one-time second-round draft pick of the Canucks hasn’t been given much of a shot by the Seattle Kraken since they claimed him in the expansion draft, playing him in just 24 games over the last three seasons.

Lind has lit up the AHL, however, scoring 30 goals and 62 points in 72 games in the 2022-23 season, then going on a dominant playoff run, leading the Calder Cup Playoffs with 31 points in 26 games. He followed that up with 17 goals and 65 points in 69 games this past season.

Could Lind find a way to translate some of that offence to the NHL with a return to Vancouver? It might be worth a shot. 

Riley Tufte and Brett Murray stand out for their size at 6’6” and 6’5”, respectively. Tufte is faster and more skilled but Murray is more physical and held his own defensively in his limited NHL minutes this past season. Tufte's underlying numbers just don't have the same sparkle as Joshua's, while Murray's — in a very small sample size — look a lot better.

"[Murray's] one of our most physical players, our biggest body, he’s one of our highest scorers, he’s our best puck protector," said Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert after Murray returned from an injury in the AHL playoffs. "So our O-zone time was dramatically higher than it was in any of the first [few] games.”

As much as size isn’t necessarily a factor in finding the next Joshua, it needs to be considered that some larger players take longer to figure things out at the NHL level, where size isn’t the differentiating edge that it can be at lower levels. Perhaps one of Tufte or Murray has it in them to take that next step the way Joshua did.

The next Dakota Joshua or a quad-A player?

There are some other potential Dakota Joshuas among the Group 6 UFAs. Oskar Steen is an intriguing target with a strong defensive game. His offence simply hasn’t translated to the NHL but could more be drawn out of him by the right coaching staff?

Among the defencemen, Cameron Crotty and Nick Blankenburg seem at least mildly intriguing: one a smooth-skating 6’3” right-shot defenceman and the other an undersized but fearlessly physical right-shot defenceman with solid underlying numbers. If the Canucks are looking to add depth on the right side, one of those two could be worth a shot.

Then there’s the goal-scoring Cole Koepke, the speedy Marian Studenic, and the playmaking John Leonard — could one of them have similar upside to Joshua?

That’s the issue: it’s awfully hard to tell. Finding the next Dakota Joshua requires more than just looking at the numbers but some in-depth scouting to see if they have the same drive and coachability that led to Joshua taking the next step.

Any or all of these players could be what are often known as quad-A players, a term that comes from baseball where players are too good for AAA leagues but can’t cut it in the Majors.

There are plenty of examples of quad-A players in hockey, such as Jason Krog, who the Canucks just hired as their new skills coach. Krog dominated the AHL, putting up 598 points in 535 games in his career, but only once spent a full season in the NHL, playing 80 games with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003-04. For the rest of his career, he bounced between the NHL, AHL, and various European leagues. He was a fantastic player but just couldn’t stick in the NHL.

The truth is, the Canucks are more likely to find a quad-A player than the next Joshua, no matter where they look. But even if that is the more likely outcome, the chance of finding an impactful NHLer on a cheap contract is still worth pursuing.