NHL free agency opens on Wednesday and the Canucks, with a few distinct roster needs, will be active.
That said, they’ll need to be careful not to overspend. The buyouts of Jake Virtanen and Braden Holtby have opened up a little bit of cap space, but the Canucks still don’t have a lot of wiggle room.
Most importantly, the Canucks still need to sign restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, with the threat of a Pettersson offer sheet looming over the proceedings. While an offer sheet for Pettersson is unlikely, it’s also not out of the question and the Canucks need to keep cap space open for that possibility.
Still, the Canucks need a new backup goaltender to replace Holtby, a right-side defenceman — two if they trade Nate Schmidt — and a bottom-six centre, as well as the forward and defence depth needed for a full 82-game season.
What could be coming for the Canucks as early as Wednesday? Let’s break down some of the rumours and reports.
Luke Schenn could be coming back
According to multiple reports, it looks like the Canucks will be bringing back right-shot defenceman Luke Schenn on a two-year deal, likely near the league minimum of $750,000 per year.
St. Louis Blues reporter Andy Strickland was the first to report this rumour, with Canucks reporter Rick Dhaliwal echoing the report on the Donnie and Dhali show on CHEK TV.
The 31-year-old defenceman played 18 games for the Canucks in the 2018-19 season, winning over fans with his physical play and helping to calm the nerves of rookie Quinn Hughes as he entered the league.
“He calmed me down,” said Hughes of Schenn. “I honestly wasn’t nervous at all in that first game and those five games, I wasn’t nervous. I think because, you know, he was always talking to me, he’s really communicative and he was good, like we didn’t spend a lot of time in the D zone. He helped me out a lot.”
It’s unlikely that Schenn would play on the top pairing with Hughes — he’s better-suited to the bottom pairing or as a 7th defenceman — but he could be a fit with the Canucks’ next rookie defenceman. Schenn’s stay-at-home style might be a stylistic fit for the offensive-minded Jack Rathbone.
What has Schenn done in the two years since playing for the Canucks? Not much. Just won two Stanley Cups as a depth defenceman for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Jaroslav Halak linked to Canucks
The Canucks need a backup goaltender to play behind Thatcher Demko but have to spend wisely. By buying out Braden Holtby, the Canucks added $3.8 million in cap space; spending too much on a backup would render the Holtby buyout useless.
That’s why a veteran like Jaroslav Halak might be the answer. Multiple reports have linked the Canucks to Halak, including from New York Islanders reporter Arthur Staple.
The veteran netminder had a below-average season in 2020-21 with a .905 save percentage, but was consistently above average in previous years. He had a .919 save percentage in 31 games in 2019-20 and a .922 in 40 games the season before. It’s a reasonable bet that the 36-year-old Halak can be at least a decent backup and has the potential to be a very good one.
The trick is how to get Halak signed to a reasonable deal. If the Canucks can get Halak signed to a one-year deal at a reasonable cap hit, he would make sense as a backup for Thatcher Demko and potential safety valve if Demko struggles or gets hurt.
Nate Schmidt reportedly blocked trade to Winnipeg
Yes, Nate Schmidt wants out of Vancouver, but he evidently doesn’t want out that badly. He’s not at send-me-to-Winnipeg levels of wanting out.
Like John K. Samson, Schmidt apparently hates Winnipeg. According to a report from Winnipeg Jets reporter Scott Billeck, Schmidt has used his modified no-trade clause to block a move to the Jets.
Schmidt’s modified no-trade clause allows him to submit 10 teams to which he can be traded, a list he’s already submitted to the Canucks. The Jets are evidently not on that list.
EDIT: Or maybe not? According to Darren Dreger, Schmidt has indeed waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to the Winnipeg Jets. The Canucks will receive a 2022 3rd round pick in return.
Canucks working on Danila Klimovich contract
The Canucks’ first selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft came in the second round, where they selected Belarusian forward Danila Klimovich 41st overall. While Klimovich is a creative goalscorer with great hands and an excellent shot, he lacks structure to his game and is a bit of a raw talent.
There’s a chance that the Canucks could have a close hand in developing Klimovich. As a draft pick out of Europe, Klimovich could potentially play in the AHL next season. According to Rick Dhaliwal, the Canucks are working on signing Klimovich.
While Klimovich has signed a tryout agreement with Dynamo Minsk in the KHL, his preference is to play in North America next season. If the Canucks sign him, there are three possibilities for him to play in North America: he could make the Canucks out of camp, play for the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL, or he could join the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL.
Klimovich was selected by the Huskies in the 2020 CHL Import Draft and was supposed to play for them last season, but the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic kept him in Belarus.
The QMJHL is Klimovich’s most likely destination but the possibility of working more directly with him in Abbotsford is an intriguing one. It could all depend on how he performs at training camp. The Canucks will get a chance to see where he’s at after training all summer before making a decision.
Brogan Rafferty is moving on
After he led all rookie AHL defencemen in scoring in 2019-20 with 45 points in 57 games, it seemed like Brogan Rafferty could be a key depth piece for the Canucks. Instead, got just one game last season — he had an assist — and never got another look.
It’s clear that Rafferty was never going to get a chance to play in Vancouver, so it’s unsurprising that the 26-year-old unrestricted free agent is looking to sign elsewhere in free agency. It feels a little like a missed opportunity. In a lost season, why couldn’t the Canucks give Rafferty more games to evaluate him?
Free agent target: Jujhar Khaira?
The Edmonton Oilers chose not to qualify the contract of restricted free agent Jujhar Khaira. As a result, he’ll hit free agency and the Canucks could be interested.
Khaira is a 6’4” winger who would be a fit on the Canucks fourth line. He brings a physical element the Canucks have sometimes missed. While his defensive impact slipped last season compared to previous seasons, he can still play a role in a bottom-six as a big, hard-forechecking winger.
There’s an appealing local angle to signing Khaira as well. Khaira was born-and-raised in Surrey, BC, a hotbed of Canucks fandom. He’s also one of few players of South Asian descent playing in the NHL.
Re-signing Travis Boyd?
There’s some buzz that the Canucks could re-sign Travis Boyd as a bottom-six centre.
Boyd was claimed by the Canucks off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. He didn’t have the best audition for the Canucks, with just 2 points in 19 games and some ugly underlying numbers, but he has a decent track record of point production in the past.
At the very least, the 27-year-old shouldn’t break the bank, which is a key consideration for the Canucks right now. A league-minimum deal should get the job done for Boyd, particularly considering the clear opportunity for NHL ice time.