Trent Leith / June 17, 2021
Jim Benning said the Vancouver Canucks are going to be aggressive this off-season, and free agency is a tool in his toolbelt. With that in mind, one area of the team that Canucks need to improve the most is their defence. While they don’t have lots of cap space, there are a number of interesting suitors that will be hitting free agency this summer, that Jim Benning will likely at least kick tires on. As well as there being a few defencemen already in the organization that are worth thinking about retaining too.
With the cap space limitations that the Canucks currently face it’s hard to see a route where signing a big-ticket free agent defenceman is likely. At least without some forward-thinking, clever manipulation of the Seattle expansion draft and trades.
Let’s just say for the purpose of this exercise that Jim Benning has an ace up his sleeve, like maybe enticing Seattle to take Tyler Myers or Braden Holtby in the expansion draft. If Benning can pull something off where he is able to create cap space and allow the Canucks to sign a major defenceman in free agency, that will move the needle for the team’s return to contention. This is a list of 4 players that the Canucks either are likely to make a push for or could make a push for, should they be able to free up the space.
Alex Edler has a long history with the Canucks and is arguably the best defencemen in franchise history, and he is now going to require a new contract. While his age has been showing the last couple seasons, he is still a serviceable player, even if he isn’t top pair caliber anymore.
Edler is 35 and certainly, his best years are behind him. Anyone who has watched attackers blow past him on the rush, understands that his foot speed is his biggest issue, and that is only natural at his age.
Edler should be slotted into the bottom pair, on the left side and relied upon less than he has been in previous years, should he re-sign in Vancouver. Edler would thrive on a lighter workload at this stage in his career. The issue with slotting him as the 3rd left-shot defender, is that is also where Olli Juolevi would play if he makes the team out of camp.
Benning does not like to give up on “his guys”, and Juolevi is one of them. Just look at Jake Virtanen’s production versus his deployment over the last few seasons to see the leash that Benning is willing to give. I would expect if Edler is to re-sign, he and Juolevi would be in constant competition for the final spot on the bottom pair.
Edler is a guy who can play up in the lineup should he have to due to injuries, but Juolevi has not earned that same trust. It would be in the Canucks best interest to sign a one or two-year deal, to keep Edler around a little longer until either Juolevi finds his game, or doesn’t. Hopefully by that point the Canucks have sought out a more long-term solution. Edler serves as a nice stepping stone for the next guy. Plus, they can’t let him retire on 99 goals.
The Canucks should not sign Edler for more than 2 years, and preferably get him onto 1-year deals until he can’t play anymore or decides to retire.
Travis Hamonic has stepped into the “Chris Tanev Dad” role for the Canucks, staying home and holding the fort while Quinn Hughes is off playing with his friends. The pairing didn’t have immediate success finding that chemistry and working as well as a pair as Hughes and Tanev, but as the season went along, the pairing worked great.
May I suggest the nickname “Step-Dad” for Hamonic? Quinn’s dad (Tanev) leaves, his mom’s new boyfriend, Travis, comes in and he stepped up even if it was rocky at first, he stuck with it and has become a second father to Quinn.
When building out the defence of this team, the left side is the “offensive” side with Hughes and now the potential of Jack Rathbone’s offence as well. That means the right side will have to have solid defensive reliability. Players that will be able to adjust for when their partner is off gallivanting in the offensive zone is an absolute must on the right side.
Hamonic has the potential to be that guy, and the Canucks should try and lock him in for two to three years. The problem you start to face if you bring back both Edler and Hamonic, is where is the change? The defence hasn’t been good enough for the Canucks and something has to give somewhere, trading Jordie Benn was a start, but that may not have been enough. It makes you wonder if names like Nate Schmidt and Olli Juolevi are pieces that might be in play to create space for some other big names.
The analytics community says to stay away, and the eye test people say trade the farm for him. There is potentially only one other player with as much of a divide on analysis in the UFA pool this year. (We will get to him too)
I am going to tip my hand here and say, I tend to lean a little to the analytical side of things. That said, I’m not afraid to say Seth Jones is a good player. A great player? Maybe not. Jones is going to end up commanding a massive and long contract. Big right-shot defenders are a hot commodity these days and they tend to get paid as such.
Seth Jones has only ever played one full season (not including two full shortened seasons) so injuries are a factor for whoever signs him to a long-term deal that could go into his mid-thirties. His injury history isn’t enough to scare me off personally, I just suggested they re-sign Alex Edler after all, but it has to be a consideration.
Jones has had a dip in production in his last 3 years, with a steady decline in point pace going from 0.73 points per game in 2017-18 down every year until 0.5 points per game this year. Jones’ defensive play isn’t exactly his bread and butter either, having a negative Corsi percentage in each of the last two seasons.
If Jones is looking for a homerun, long-term contract, I would be nervous to find out the Canucks are pursuing him. With the Canucks already the “winner” of the Tyler Myers sweepstakes, and now the potential for Nate Schmidt’s contract to age out with decline, taking a third contract on a player whose decline has already started seems like more cap mismanagement.
Perhaps the exact opposite of Seth Jones is Dougie Hamilton. Analytics crowds are gaga over Hamilton, and those who rely on the eye-test often consider him overrated. Dougie Hamilton is a year older than Jones, but a better long-term bet in my opinion.
Hamilton’s points production is actually going up in the last few years. Hamilton went from 0.54 points per game in 2017-18 to 0.95 points per game this season. This offensive uptick didn’t come with any significant cost to his strong defensive reliability as his Corsi has only dropped less than 2% to a still solid 58.7%.
Dougie Hamilton is a player that is actually still improving as far as the numbers show, whereas Jones seems to be on the decline numbers-wise. No matter what, signing a player to a 7-8 year deal in free agency will almost always come with a negative value in the back end of the deal. Hamilton though is a better bet to minimize the harm to the team’s cap in the back end of the deal, compared to Jones.
Hamilton could come with an additional asset cost, however, as the Carolina Hurricanes have given his camp permission to explore his worth on the open market. This potentially allows for the Canes to recoup an asset on his way out the door in a sign and trade deal with Hamilton’s new suitor. This also would allow for an 8th year to be added to his deal where only 7 can be signed once he hits the open market.
The options are seemingly endless and these 4 players are only the tip of the iceberg as far as options go for Jim Benning to improve the team this year. While his hands are somewhat tied due to the flat salary cap, and the cap mismanagement, Benning will have to get creative if he wants to make any major changes.