The Vancouver Canucks were never going to be in on the biggest names in NHL free agency. But even though they didn’t make a cannonball splash, it was still big enough to get docked some serious points in an Olympic diving competition.
Ilya Mikheyev, brought in on a four-year contract, was a significant signing and an unexpected one that ate up pretty much all of the Canucks’ remaining cap space. No one was really expecting the Canucks to add a top-six winger in free agency, but general manager Patrik Allvin said adding someone with his skillset was a priority.
“To add some speed and preferably some size too, we had Mikheyev on our list,” said Allvin. “We talked and he was still available, so we took our best shot. We’re really excited to add him here hopefully to our middle-six or top-six group. A guy that is really good on the PK and good on the power play.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if he was looking at Vancouver as an option,” he added. “But when we started talking about what we want to do and the option we had for him here, it was a really good fit.”
Adding Mikheyev and his fellow Russian Andrei Kuzmenko, who officially signed on Wednesday, gives the Canucks a lot of depth on the wing. Allvin also mentioned that having two Russians in Mikheyev and Vasily Podkolzin on the team will hopefully make things easier for Kuzmenko in his rookie year.
“Really improved our bottom-six.”
The Canucks also added to their depth at centre with the signing of Curtis Lazar.
“Really happy to have a local kid come here,” said Allvin. “Being 27 years old, I think he's settled in as a good, versatile bottom-six guy. Great character, great PK, right shot, so really improved our bottom-six.”
Allvin was also quick to mention another one of their signings — Dakota Joshua. The 6’3” centre played 30 games with the St. Louis Blues last season and seemed like he could potentially just be AHL depth for the Canucks, but Allvin brought him up multiple times completely unprompted and firmly believes that he’ll be on their NHL roster.
"I definitely see him as an NHL player," said Allvin. "Our group believes that he's capable of doing more and, with more opportunity, become a full-time NHL player...His size, his skating ability, his versatility — he can play centre or wing — and he's a hard guy to play against."
If Joshua is in the Canucks' lineup, that potentially gives them two centres on the fourth line — one leftie and one rightie — which could give them an advantage on faceoffs. The other alternative is that Lazar plays up on the third line. it depends on what the Canucks do with Jason Dickinson and how they want to arrange their top-nine forwards.
“You need to be good in the special teams.”
There was a common theme to the Canucks’ signings on the first day of free agency: penalty killing. Though it improved from its historically bad start, the Canucks’ PK was still an issue last season, finishing 30th in the NHL at 74.9%.
The new signings should help. Lazar was a regular on the Boston Bruins’ penalty kill and Allvin called Mikheyev “one of the better PK guys in the league.”
“In order to be a good team, you need to be good in the special teams,” said Allvin. Our power play was really good and with the addition of Curtis and Ilya and Dakota, he's killing penalties too, it gives the coaches more options.”
The Canucks let two of their primary penalty killers last season, Matthew Highmore and Juho Lammikko, go to free agency when they didn't give them qualifying offers. Lazar and Joshua make sense as replacements on the fourth line and on special teams, but Mikheyev brings even more utility to the lineup.
“Internal competition in all positions.”
For Allvin, the signings were not just about creating depth, as he repeated the phrase “internal competition” multiple times, both in relation to the signings of Kuzmenko, Mikheyev, Lazar, and Joshua, but also in relation to the prospects who skated at development camp. Players like Linus Karlsson and Nils Åman could have a chance to push for a spot in the lineup at training camp.
That internal competition extends to the goaltenders, as Allvin added Collin Delia to the goaltending depth chart on Wednesday. He anticipates this creating some competition with the Abbotsford Canucks as well.
“You want to have that internal competition in all positions in the organization,” said Allvin. “[Delia] gives us competition for the backup but also a good player. Whoever goes down to Abbotsford, to have a good depth guy down there together with Silovs and DiPietro.”
“I didn’t feel that we needed to rush into something.”
What the Canucks didn’t do is address their needs on defence. The team lacks depth on the right side of their defence and, long-term, needs a true top-pairing option to play with Quinn Hughes.
For Allvin, addressing that need wasn’t something they could do on the first day of free agency.
“We talked about it,” said Allvin. “We realized that there wasn't really anything on the market for us today to get into, so it probably will be over time, maybe look into different trade scenarios. I didn't feel that we needed to rush into something here and then take other options away from us leading up to training camp.”
“We’re really excited to have J.T. here for another year.”
The trade scenario that is most likely to get the Canucks that long-term fix on the right side of their defence would probably involve J.T. Miller, but Allvin said there were no talks with any teams on Wednesday about the Canucks’ leading scorer.
“I think Jim mentioned that there have been teams kicking tires, checking in. It hasn't gotten much further than that,” said Allvin. “We're really excited to have J.T. here for another year. I believe he's excited and ready to come back. And who knows, anything can happen here over the next couple of weeks/months, but we're happy to have him back.”