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What should the Canucks do with their 20 pending free agents?

Of the 25 Canucks who played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, 11 are pending free agents in need of a new contract.
Filip Hronek heads into the 2024 offseason as a pending restricted free agent in need of a new contract from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Vancouver Canucks could look like a very different team next season. 

Of the 25 players that played for the Canucks in the playoffs, 11 are pending free agents, with eight of those being unrestricted free agents. That’s 11 players that need new contracts from the Canucks or they’ll be playing for different teams next season.

That includes some big names who played significant roles for the Canucks, like Filip Hronek, Elias Lindholm, Nikita Zadorov, Dakota Joshua, Tyler Myers, and Arturs Silovs. 

On top of that, the Canucks have nine more pending free agents in the AHL also in need of new contracts. That’s a total of 20 free agents in need of some attention from general manager Patrik Allvin.

For the Canucks, cap space will be at a premium. Elias Pettersson’s $11.6 million contract kicks in next season, while the cap hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s buyout jumps from $146,667 this past season up to $2,346,667. 

With big names to re-sign, the Canucks’ cap space could disappear in a hurry. Since Allvin will also be looking to address significant needs like another top-six winger to play with Pettersson, that means several of their free agents are likely to hit the open market and sign with other teams.

“The players expressed their interest to stay,” said Allvin. “We all know we have a salary cap. We want to be a competitive team moving forward, so there's only so much I can pay certain individuals and hopefully we can find ways to keep a lot of players because I do think that a lot of them have a chance to, with the coaches here, take their game to the next level.”

So, which free agents should the Canucks keep? Which ones can they keep? Let’s take a look at all of them in order of their projected cap hit from Evolving-Hockey. Consider this a broad overview, with some deeper looks to come in the future.

Elias Lindholm - UFA

Contract Projection: 8 years, $7,841,000

Allvin prioritized adding Lindholm ahead of the NHL trade deadline this year, believing that what he brought to the table was what the Canucks needed most in the playoffs. That belief bore fruit: Lindholm was mediocre in the regular season while hindered by an injury but came through with some big performances in the playoffs, tallying 5 goals and 10 points in 13 games, while playing a key role on the team’s excellent penalty kill.

The question now is whether the Canucks can keep him.

With a 42-goal season under his belt and a reputation for strong two-way play, Lindholm can ask for a lot in free agency and there could be teams willing to meet his asking price, particularly those in dire need of a top-six centre. His contract projection suggests he could creep close to an $8 million cap hit on a long-term deal.

Is that something the Canucks could — or should — do? Let’s keep in mind, Lindholm is 29 years old and had only 44 points this past season. The Canucks already have J.T. Miller signed to an $8 million cap hit through his thirties; do they want to have another older centre signed to that kind of deal?

If the Canucks decide they can’t make it work — or shouldn’t make it work — then they might make a trade rather than let him go to free agency.

Lindholm can only sign for eight years if he’s re-signing with his current team, so a team might be willing to trade for Lindholm ahead of July 1 if they want to sign him to an eight-year deal. That would allow the Canucks to recoup an asset or two if they decide to move on.

Filip Hronek - RFA

Contract Projection: 4 years, $6,318,000

Hronek had 48 points in 81 games while averaging over 23 minutes per game on the top pairing with Quinn Hughes. It was a tale of two seasons for Hronek, who had 36 points in his first 42 games, then saw his production fall off a cliff, with just 12 points in his final 39 games. He then had just two points in 13 playoff games.

While Hronek denied that he was dealing with an injury, that may not be the whole truth.  

Hronek is a restricted free agent, but he has arbitration rights, which gives him some leverage. With the types of minutes he plays and the numbers he’s put up, Hronek would have a very strong arbitration case, of which his agent is well aware. 

There has been talk that Hronek is asking for an $8 million contract, which would make him the highest-paid defenceman on the Canucks. That doesn’t match with the comparables that feed Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, which suggest a $6.3 million cap hit on a four-year deal is the most likely outcome. 

The second most likely outcome, however, is an eight-year deal with a cap hit of $7,747,000, so maybe Hronek’s ask isn’t all that outrageous. There are definitely comparable players that fit that ask, like Mikhail Sergachev, Jacob Trouba, and Vince Dunn.

The trouble with assessing Hronek is that he was joined at the hip with Hughes all season. How much of what he did this season is because of his elite defence partner and how much was because of his own talent? 

On the other hand, would Hughes have led all defencemen in scoring without Hronek on his right side? How much is that worth and is there a cheaper option out there that could provide a similar benefit to Hughes?

Those are just some of the questions management will be wrestling with as they consider Hronek’s contract negotiations. While he’s a restricted free agent, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be back with the Canucks, as they could look to move him in a trade to fill the team’s need for a top-six forward.

But it’s far more likely that the Canucks and Hronek get a deal done. It’s just a question of how much and for how long.

Nikita Zadorov - UFA

Contract Projection: 4 years, $3,931,000

There have been rumours that Zadorov is seeking a six-year deal worth $6 million per year but Zadorov himself shot down those rumours.

“How much do you think I should be making?” he quipped on Thursday when asked if he might have priced himself out of Vancouver with his playoff performance. “I don’t know where you get those numbers — from the trees? I don’t know. You’ve got to stop listening to Edmonton reporters.”

Zadorov was clear that he loves Vancouver, as does his family, and the feeling seems to be mutual, as he’s won over the fans not only with his performance on the ice but also his personality off the ice.  

If there’s a mutual interest in keeping Zadorov in Vancouver, can a deal could be worked out in the $4-5 million range? Considering he’s technically third on the depth chart on left defence behind Quinn Hughes and Carson Soucy, the Canucks need to be careful not to overpay.

It’s more likely that Zadorov commands $5+ million on the open market. He’s likely looking for a long-term deal after a series of one and two-year contracts. Those numbers might not make sense for the Canucks.

Tyler Myers - UFA

Contract Projection: 2 years, $3,474,000

Tyler Myers reinvented his game this season as a steady, reliable defensive defenceman. In the playoffs, he was used on a match-up pairing alongside Carson Soucy and proved himself capable in that role. 

The system introduced by Rick Tocchet seemed to be a great fit for Myers, helping him calm his game down and avoid some of the costly mistakes that plagued his game in previous seasons. The emphasis on protecting the guts of the ice means Myers spends more time using his reach and size to disrupt chances in the slot and less time chasing on the perimeter.

Myers calls B.C. home, spending his summers in Kelowna. He’s grown comfortable in Vancouver and is interested in staying.

“What we’ve been able to build here the last year and a half, I think it’s really special to be a part of,” said Myers. “It’s an unbelievable city, the fans were quite amazing in the playoffs — it was something special stepping out for every game and I would love to be back.”

If the Canucks decide to trade Hronek, then Myers will almost certainly be back. Trying to find two top-four right-handed defencemen in one off-season is too much. Even if Hronek returns, Myers could be re-signed.

Ideally, the Canucks would find an upgrade on Myers and move the 34-year-old veteran into a third-pairing role. With that in mind, it would be nice if the Canucks could get Myers on a discount but it’s unlikely the Canucks could get him below $3 million per year.

Ian Cole - UFA

Contract Projection: 1 year, $2,430,000

Cole had a disastrous series against the Edmonton Oilers but he was dealing with an injury. Until then, he was a steadying influence on the backend for the Canucks, particularly on the penalty kill. He was also an important part of the room, providing veteran wisdom throughout the season. 

Does that mean the Canucks bring him back? Maybe not. At 35, Cole is starting to get a bit long in the tooth and his physical, shot-blocking style of play leads to a lot of wear and tear. If he’s looking for another $3 million contract, he’ll likely have to find it elsewhere in free agency.

If he’s willing to take a little less, however, the Canucks could bring him back. His versatility as a left-shot defenceman who can play on the right side shouldn’t be overlooked.

At some point, the Canucks will have to make a decision between all of their free agent defencemen — it’s unlikely that they can keep all of them.

Casey DeSmith - UFA

Contract Projection: 2 years, $2,138,000

One minor injury may have ended DeSmith’s time with the Canucks. After starting Games 2 and 3 against the Nashville Predators in the first round, the Canucks kept the slightly-injured DeSmith out of Game 4 as a precaution since Thatcher Demko was already out with a significant injury. 

That meant Arturs Silovs stepped into the Canucks’ net and ultimately never left. With Silovs likely locking down the backup job, DeSmith will surely hit free agency.

Dakota Joshua - UFA

Contract Projection: 2 years, $2,080,000

Joshua will almost certainly get more than this contract projection suggests, which is perhaps a bit of a red flag. But Joshua is a jack-of-all-trades for the Canucks. He spent time this season as a checking-line winger, a top-six scorer, a bruising power forward, and a dogged penalty killer — sometimes all in the same game.

After a career high of 18 goals and 32 points in 63 games in the regular season, Joshua followed that up with 4 goals and 8 points in 13 games in the playoffs. He formed a dynamic partnership with Conor Garland that saw the Canucks out-score their opposition 31-to-13 when they were on the ice together at 5-on-5.

There is some question of how much Joshua’s success was dependent on playing with an outstanding 5-on-5 play-driver like Garland but there’s no arguing how effective they were together.

The Canucks like Joshua a lot and will certainly want to bring him back and the feeling seems mutual.

“I want to stay,” said Joshua. “I want to be here and build off of what just happened. Obviously, there’s more things that go into it that are out of my control but yeah, I want to be here.”

But Joshua also has an opportunity for a big contract in free agency that could set him up for life. He’s coming off a two-year deal at just $825,000 per year and might be able to get $4+ million per year in free agency given his rare profile as a big, fast, scoring, penalty-killing power forward. 

You have to wonder if the Canucks — or some other team — will see Joshua as their Brandon Tanev: a comparable middle-six winger who got a six-year deal with a cap hit of $3.5 million from Jim Rutherford when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

If the price gets too high for Joshua, the Canucks might have to walk away. Allvin said they’ll be looking to find “the next Dakota Joshua” — they’ll have to if their current Dakota Joshua leaves in free agency.

Sam Lafferty - UFA

Contract Projection: 3 years, $1,913,000

Lafferty made a splash after coming to the Canucks in a trade with the Maple Leafs, scoring a few big goals in the first half of the season. That scoring dried up as the season progressed and he was held entirely off the scoresheet in the playoffs.

That said, Lafferty’s role was as a speedy, fourth-line forward meant to crash and bang on the forecheck. Scoring was just a bonus. 

The issue for Lafferty is that he’s a bottom-six forward who doesn’t kill penalties. I can’t see the Canucks committing that much cap space to Lafferty when they could find someone similar who provides more value on special teams.

Teddy Blueger - UFA

Contract Projection: 2 years, $1,792,000

Blueger did basically everything that was asked of him this season. He was excellent on the penalty kill, won faceoffs at a 53.1% clip, and played a strong two-way game at even strength, particularly when he was matched with Garland and Joshua on the Good Job Boys line. 

He even chipped in some secondary scoring, matching his career high of 28 points.

It would make sense for the Canucks to bring back Blueger, particularly since Allvin has repeatedly emphasized the importance of depth down the middle. With Lindholm likely heading to free agency, the Canucks will likely look to re-sign Blueger to something similar to the $1.9 million cap hit he had this past season.

“It’d be nice to get another crack at it with this group,” said Blueger. “The way we went out and having a taste of some success, I think it makes you hungrier.”

Linus Karlsson - RFA

Contract Project: 1 year, $830,000

The Canucks clearly like Karlsson quite a bit, calling him up from Abbotsford ahead of other players who were thought to be above him on the depth chart and even putting him on a line with Elias Pettersson during the playoffs.

Karlsson had an excellent season in the AHL, with 23 goals and 60 points in 60 games, but he couldn’t translate that offence to the NHL, where he has yet to tally a point in his six games between the regular season and the postseason. 

While Karlsson has solid two-way instincts, with sound defensive positioning and a knack for winning board battles, he’s a step slow at the NHL level, which makes it tough for him to take advantage of those instincts. At 24, it might be too late to address that issue, so the question is whether he can carve out an NHL career in spite of it.

As a restricted free agent, Karlsson should be easy to re-sign to a cheap contract to see if he can take the next step next season. But Karlsson will also have plenty of options in Sweden, where he could be a legitimate star.

Mark Friedman - UFA

Contract Projection: 1 year, $784,400

Friedman played well early in the season for the Canucks but some defensive errors knocked him out of the lineup and he found it tough to get back in. But there’s a reason why the Canucks kept him up in the NHL aside from a brief conditioning stint — he was a reliable option when they needed him.

“It’s an unbelievable place to play, the treatment we get here is second to none” said Friedman. “I’m not 21, I’m 28 now. I understand my role. You know what you’re going to get, whether it’s left, right, a couple shifts at winger — whatever it is — I’m willing to do whatever it takes. That’s just me as a player and me as a person.”

Friedman is a good team guy and won’t break the bank, so he could return as a seventh or eighth defenceman next season.

Arturs Silovs - RFA

Contract Projection: 1 year, $775,000

Silovs’ unexpected starring role in the Canucks’ playoff run has essentially secured him the backup job for next season and is likely to earn him a bigger contract than his projection, which is largely based on regular season performance.

Not that much bigger, mind you. Silovs is still a restricted free agent with just nine regular season games in the NHL. A one-way, two-year contract for around $900,000 per year would seem pretty reasonable — we’ll see if the Canucks get a bit more aggressive with term to lock him down for longer at a low cap hit.

Cole McWard - RFA

Contract Projection: 2 years, $775,000

It was a bit of an underwhelming first professional season for McWard, who showed a lot of promise at the end of last season. McWard had 17 points in 47 games with the Abbotsford Canucks and got into just one game in the NHL.

Still, there’s plenty of room for growth for the 22-year-old defenceman, who now has a better idea of what he needs to do to take his game to the next level and make the NHL. As a right-shot defenceman, he could have a better opportunity than some others.

There’s potential for McWard to become a steady third-pairing defenceman in the NHL; even though he had limited offensive production, he was solid defensively for Abbotsford. He might be worth a multi-year contract to keep his cap hit down if he does make the jump to the NHL.

Sheldon Dries - UFA

Contract Projection: n/a

Dries spent almost the entirety of the 2022-23 season in the NHL with the Canucks; he didn’t play a single NHL game in the 2023-24 season.

While Dries was one of the top scorers for the Abbotsford Canucks, the 30-year-old forward likely wants one last shot at playing in the NHL and could head to free agency looking for a team more willing to give him that opportunity. 

Aidan McDonough - RFA

Contract Projection: n/a

McDonough looked like a dark horse to make the Canucks out of training camp last season. Instead, the 24-year-old winger spent the entire season in the AHL and didn’t have much to show for it.

11 goals and 19 points in 58 games is pretty underwhelming production, though he had a few hot streaks during the season, such as 7 points in 7 games during a mid-March stretch.

Clearly, McDonough still has some work to do to become an NHL-caliber forward and the onus is on him to put in the work this offseason. As a 10.2(c) free agent, McDonough is not eligible for an offer sheet or arbitration, so will likely re-sign for somewhere near his $874,125 qualifying offer.

Matt Irwin - UFA

Contract Projection: n/a

When the Canucks signed Matt Irwin, it seemed like he would play a larger role in their plans for the 2023-24 season. After all, he had played 61 games for the Washington Capitals in the previous season. Surely, he would be the team’s seventh or eighth defenceman or, at the very least, a call-up option in case of injuries.

Instead, Irwin spent the whole season in Abbotsford and was solid enough as a veteran leader for their defence corps. 

It was the first time in eight years that Irwin spent a full season in the AHL. The 36-year-old defenceman might look for one last NHL contract with another team that gives him another NHL shot. 

Jett Woo - RFA

Contract Projection: n/a

Woo took big steps last season to revitalize his potential as an NHL prospect and he continued in that vein this season, putting up 31 points in 62 games from the blue line while playing big minutes in all situations. He was a go-to penalty killer, 5-on-5 match-up defenceman, and even played on Abbotsford’s top power play unit with Christian Wolanin out with an injury.

Woo even got called up to the Canucks a couple of times during the season, even though he didn’t get into a game. That seems like a pretty solid vote of confidence for the 23-year-old blueliner.

With all that in mind, another two-way contract for Woo seems likely. Depending on who the Canucks bring back on the blue line, Woo could finally play some NHL games next season.

Zach Sawchenko - UFA

Contract Projection: n/a

Sawchenko proved to be an essential part of the Canucks’ goaltending depth. When Arturs Silovs was pressed into duty in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Nikita Tolopilo had to be called up as an emergency backup goaltender, Sawchenko had to start for the Abbotsford Canucks in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Sawchenko had one truly fantastic game in the playoffs for Abbotsford, making 47 saves on 48 shots in the deciding third game of their series against the Colorado Eagles. It was an astounding and season-saving performance by the 26-year-old netminder, securing the 2-1 overtime win to send Abbotsford to the second round.

Unfortunately, Sawchenko got lit up in that second round by the Ontario Reign in a three-game sweep. 

Could the Canucks bring Sawchenko back? Sure. But the Canucks could probably find a better goaltender to back up Tolopilo in Abbotsford next season.

Nick Cicek - RFA

Contract Projection: n/a

Cicek came to the Canucks from the San Jose Sharks in a trade for Jack Studnicka. It was a tough trade for Cicek, who was getting close to an NHL look in San Jose but wasn’t really a consideration to get one in Vancouver.

It’s not that Cicek was terrible for the Abbotsford Canucks. He even played some top-pairing minutes on his off-side when Woo went down with an injury. It’s just that there are far too many defencemen ahead of him on the depth chart on the left side, with young defencemen like Elias Pettersson and Kirill Kudryavtsev on the way to push him even further down that depth chart.

It’s certainly not out of the question that the Canucks could re-sign Cicek — he’s a restricted free agent, after all — but it’s hard to see where he might fit into their plans. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Canucks let him go to free agency without a qualifying offer.

Filip Johansson - RFA

Contract Projection: n/a

The Canucks took a chance on Johansson, signing the former first-round pick after the Minnesota Wild chose not to sign him. He had a decent enough season in the AHL with Abbotsford, putting up 18 points in 55 games, and he progressed well over the course of the season.

Still, there was little sign that Johansson had an NHL future. In fact, Johansson has already committed to return to Sweden, signing a two-year deal with Rögle BK.