The Vancouver Canucks declared their opening day roster on Monday, seemingly signifying that they were done making cuts from the team. It turned out that wasn’t the case as they had one more move to make or, rather, a pair of moves.
On Tuesday, the Canucks put winger Zack MacEwen on waivers, freeing up a roster spot to sign Alex Chiasson, who was with the Canucks on a professional tryout (PTO). Chiasson signed a one-year contract with a league-minimum salary of $750,000.
Let’s break this down.
Return of the Mac (to the AHL)
Over the last couple of seasons, Zack MacEwen has been held up as proof of the Canucks’ ability to develop players in the AHL. MacEwen spent 155 games with the Utica Comets, working his way up from a depth role to the top of the lineup and eventually up to Vancouver.
MacEwen made waves in the 2019-20 season, scoring 5 goals in 17 NHL games and getting some top-six time on a line with Bo Horvat. Last season, however, he struggled to find the back of the net, finishing with just 2 points in 34 games.
It seemed clear that MacEwen’s path to staying in the NHL wasn’t as a goal-scoring, top-six forward. Instead, he needed to find a role on the fourth line, where his size and willingness to play the body could still see him contribute to the lineup. From there, his above-average hands and decent shot could just be a bonus, rather than the focus of his game.
Accordingly, MacEwen got a look on the penalty kill during the preseason as the team looked to replace not just the traded Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, but also Tyler Motte, who is still recovering from off-season surgery, and Brandon Sutter, who GM Jim Benning reported is dealing with long COVID symptoms.
Unfortunately, MacEwen’s preseason was just a little too quiet, apart from an ill-fated fight against Zack Kassian. There were too many other players pushing for a spot and MacEwen didn’t do enough to stand out from the pack. When the Canucks traded for the 6’3” Juho Lammikko, who brings penalty-killing acumen to go with his grit, the writing was on the wall.
When it became clear the Canucks were going to sign Alex Chiasson, the wall came crashing down.
Assuming MacEwen clears waivers, he’ll be assigned to the Abbotsford Canucks, where he’ll be in a familiar position: attempting to earn a call-up to the NHL. The Canucks still like the 25-year-old winger and he could quickly find his way back to Vancouver if injuries strike.
UPDATE (Oct 13): He did not, in fact, clear waivers.
Don’t go Chiasson waterfalls
Alex Chiasson has been on several PTOs in his career. Every time, he earns a real contract.
First, it was the Washington Capitals in 2017, walking onto the team on a PTO and getting a one-year deal out of training camp. He played 61 regular season games for the Capitals and another 16 in the playoffs as the Capitals won their first-ever Stanley Cup.
Some Capitals were able to parlay having a Stanley Cup on their resume into a big payday on their next contract but Chiasson instead had to settle for another PTO, this time with the Edmonton Oilers. Once again, he turned that PTO into a one-year deal and cashed in for 22 goals while playing on the power play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
That finally earned Chiasson a two-year contract with the Oilers but, when it expired, he found himself having to sign yet another PTO.
“I’ve bet on myself three times,” said Chiasson. “So far, I’ve come out on the right side of it. It’s not always been easy. Sometimes you leave and you don’t know where you’re heading and how long you’re going for but I’ve learned as time goes — and this is my tenth year in the league — go one day at a time and just try to show what I’m capable of doing.”
The Canucks brought him into training camp and initially played him with bottom-six forwards like Jason Dickinson but it seemed clear there was a top-six opportunity for him. Sure enough, as camp and the preseason progressed, Chiasson got time with top-six forwards and on the first power play unit.
When the Canucks practiced on Monday and Tuesday, Chiasson wasn’t just in the top-six but on the top line with J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson.
“He’s super-talented,” said Chiasson of playing with Pettersson. “He’s really calm out there and an easy guy to play with. He reminds me a little bit of Leon [Draisaitl]. He’s a guy that likes to have the puck, he doesn’t need anyone close to him. He’ll find the plays when they’re there.”
A big reason why Chiasson’s opportunity expanded is that Brock Boeser suffered a mystery injury that could keep him out of the lineup for the start of the regular season. But Chiasson also found a way to impress the Canucks’ coaching staff and complement a top player like Pettersson with his ability to win board battles down low and get open in front of the net.
Most importantly, he provides a different element on the power play, where he has the size and experience to be a net-front presence.
There are some causes for concern, of course. As much as Chiasson has been effective on the power play in the past, that was only with McDavid and Draisaitl. He’s never been able to produce much at 5-on-5, so it’s unclear if he could actually be a long-term fit in the top-six.
Once Boeser returns, where does Chiasson fit? He’s unlikely to stick on the first power play unit and will he provide enough value on the second unit? And, if he ends up on the fourth line, will he be asked to kill penalties? He was a regular on the penalty kill early in his career but hasn’t killed penalties for the last two seasons.
Still, on a league-minimum deal, it’s hard to find fault with signing Chiasson. If he can be a complementary player and score a few goals — he was on-pace for 16 goals over 82 games last season — then he’ll be a bargain.