The Vancouver Canucks have a couple of significant contracts coming off the books. Brandon Sutter’s $4.375 million cap hit and Alex Edler’s $6 million cap hit are both gone this offseason, along with several other, lesser contracts.
That frees up a decent amount of cap space for the Canucks but it will almost immediately be taken away by new contracts for the teams’ franchise forward and defenceman, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
Once Pettersson and Hughes are re-signed, the team will have limited cap space available to address some pretty significant needs. The Canucks need a third-line centre unless they plan to play J.T. Miller there, in which case they need a top-six winger. On defence, they need a legitimate top-four defenceman to replace Alex Edler. That’s not to mention all the other myriad improvements around the margins the team needs to make if they want to be a playoff team next season.
It would be really nice if the Canucks could find some more cap space. Buyouts are an option, one that general manager Jim Benning specifically mentioned as part of their offseason strategy, but they’ll only get the Canucks so far.
A Braden Holtby buyout, for instance, would give the Canucks an extra $3.8 million in cap space for next season. There are two catches: one is that they would have to replace Holtby with another backup goaltender for Thatcher Demko; the other is that a Holtby buyout would cause the Canucks to have a $1.9 million cap hit for the 2022-23 season.
As they say in infomercials, there’s got to be a better way!
Loui Eriksson and his $6 million cap hit
What the Canucks really need is some way to clear Loui Eriksson’s $6 million cap hit next season. That would clear a significant amount of room to make improvements elsewhere on the roster.
The Canucks buried Eriksson on the taxi squad this past season, where he still had a $4.925 million cap hit. Combine that with the cost of a replacement player in the lineup, even at a league-minimum $700,000, and they barely saved any cap space.
Exercising a buyout on Eriksson would save a little bit of money — he’d have a $4 million cap hit compared to a $4.875 million cap hit while buried in the minors — but at the expense of costing the Canucks another $1 million in cap space in the 2022-23 season.
The Canucks could pursue an Eriksson trade, but that’s something they’ve been trying to do for some time, with no takers. There is a team, however, that has to take someone from the Canucks’ roster this offseason and will have plenty of cap space available: the Seattle Kraken.
Canucks expansion list offers little to the Kraken
The Kraken have to take someone from the Canucks in the expansion draft. The question is, who?
One of the benefits of being a bad team with an expansion draft coming up is that the Canucks don’t have a lot of good players they need to protect. That also means there are very few good options for the Kraken.
Who is the best player that Kraken could claim from the Canucks?
Braden Holtby is a one-time Vezina-winning goaltender, but he’s coming off two straight seasons with a sub-.900 save percentage as he tries to reinvent his game.
Madison Bowey was once a top prospect, but now he’s 26 and couldn’t crack a thoroughly mediocre Chicago Blackhawks blue line.
The best option for the Kraken might be Jonah Gadjovich, who racked up goals in the AHL this season, but there are major concerns still with his skating and two-way game. He just doesn’t seem like the most compelling player for the Kraken.
The pickings are slim enough that the Kraken might just pick a pending unrestricted free agent from the Canucks and let them go to free agency.
Perhaps the Canucks could instead entice the Kraken with a veteran two-way forward with plenty of experience on the penalty kill? And some pretty reasonable underlying numbers for those interested in the fancier side of statistics? Could Loui Eriksson play for the Kraken next season?
Let’s be honest: the Kraken won’t take Eriksson on his own. While he may have a little hockey left in him as a fourth-line defensive specialist, he’ll also be 36 years old next season and played just seven games this past season. If the Canucks want the Kraken to take Eriksson, they’ll need to sweeten the deal.
Examples from the Vegas Golden Knights
How sweet does the deal need to be?
The Vegas Golden Knights made several similar deals at their own expansion draft in 2017. They took on contracts for Mikhail Grabovski, David Clarkson, and Jason Garrison, acquiring a bevy of draft picks and prospects in the process.
None of those three players played a game for the Golden Knights — Clarkson was already retired at that point — so these were purely cap dumps for the other teams involved. Each of them paid a very high price.
To get out of the final year of Grabovski’s $5 million cap hit, the New York Islanders traded their first-round pick in the 2017 draft — 15th overall — as well as a 2019 second-round pick and prospect defenceman Jake Bischoff.
Clarkson had three years remaining with a $5.25 million cap hit. For taking him off their hands, the Golden Knights got the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round pick in 2017 — 24th overall — and a 2019 second-round pick, as well as ensuring the Golden Knights would take William Karlsson in the expansion draft, who would go on to score 43 goals in his first year in Vegas.
Shedding the final year of Garrison’s $4.6 million cap hit didn’t cost the Tampa Bay Lightning their first-round pick, but they did give the Golden Knights top prospect Nikita Gusev, a 2017 second-round pick, and a 2018 fourth-round pick.
A more recent example is the Patrick Marleau trade in 2019. The Toronto Maple Leafs, desperate to clear cap space to sign Mitch Marner, traded Marleau and his $6.25 million cap hit to the Carolina Hurricanes. It cost the Leafs a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, which ended up being 13th overall. In other words, the Hurricanes essentially bought a first-round pick for $6.25 million.
In other words, the going rate to take on a hefty contract like Eriksson’s appears to be a first-round pick.
Is the cost of clearing cap space worth it for the Canucks?
The Canucks’ 2021 first-round pick should be a non-starter — ninth-overall just seems too valuable — but would it be worth it for the Canucks to offer their 2022 first-round pick? They’d obviously be counting on doing better next season to make it a late first-round pick.
What if the Kraken took Eriksson in a trade and Holtby in the expansion draft for the 2022 first-round pick, along with a handful of other picks? Would it be worth it then?
It’s an intriguing question. The Canucks could clear up $10.3 million in cap space if the Kraken could be persuaded to take on both Eriksson and Holtby’s contracts. That might even be enough to go after the biggest name in free agency, Dougie Hamilton, who would be a monumental upgrade on the right side of the Canucks’ defence.
If rephrased as a first-round pick (plus other picks) for Dougie Hamilton, does it feel a little more reasonable for the Canucks?
On the other hand, the Canucks are arguably not in a position to be trading away first-round picks. They did so in the J.T. Miller trade, but the Canucks’ performance this past season suggests they’re not as close to contention as they might have thought when they acquired Miller.
If the Canucks want to focus on the future and building around Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, they’ll need all the top draft picks they can get, as drafting and developing is still the best way to bring in cost-controlled, high-end talent.
With that in mind, the Canucks’ best move is probably eating the final year of Eriksson’s contract, accepting that they may not be a playoff team next season, and focussing on building a quality team for the 2022-23 season. Of course, with Benning prioritizing getting back to the playoffs and promising an aggressive offseason, that may not be in the cards.