The Vancouver Canucks had a miserable season, and knees are liable to jerk. No worse does kneejerk syndrome flare up than on the opening days of free agency.
And why not? For hungry, desperate fans, free agency reads like the label on a bottle of miracle cure: “A quick fix for all of your woes! Find success in the post-season and enhance your rookies! (May contain traces of cyanide and snake cartilage.)”
But Vancouver should avoid those free agents. And that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Here’s the hard truth: free agents don’t want to come here, at least not unless the Canucks throw a ton of money at them. If July 1st is a proverbial stork carrying a bunch of baby lambs to their new mothers, Vancouver is the sheep no one wants.
OK, there are exceptions to that rule: the player could be an extremely loyal lifelong fan, or they could be coming off a down season looking for a fresh start.
But the big names will go to the big teams, because players of that age want to win. They’ll sign with Chicago, Pittsburgh and (inconceivably) Edmonton.
I actually have zero problem with that. It’s rare that a big free agent steps in and changes a franchise’s fortunes. Especially not in a year like this. Take a look. There isn’t a name on that list that will materially change things for Vancouver.
Tempting as it must be for management, I hope they don’t bother making a splash. But that said I understand they’ll have to wade into the pool a little. So what can we expect this summer?
Thatcher Demko may sound like the protagonist in a J.D. Salinger novel, but he’s also Vancouver’s best and only real prospect in net. And he won’t be ready for the gig this fall.
I predict the Canucks will ease him into the big leagues, a la Cory Schneider; at least another half-year in Utica for the netminder.
That means Vancouver is officially lacking a goalie. They can’t rely on just Jacob Markstrom, who has done little to prove he’s ready for a 60-game workload. Who’s out there?
-Jonathan Bernier: He may not re-sign with Anaheim, and he’s proven capable of handling over 50 games per season. Bernier is still young and could make a good tandem with Markstrom. Just be aware he may have PTSD following a blowout playoff loss to Edmonton.
-Steve Mason: Steve looked shakier this season in Philadelphia and with heir-apparent Anthony Stolarz in the wings, the Flyers seem ready to sign a replacement and move on. It seems unlikely his numbers would improve in Vancouver, but then again whose numbers would? Mason could be a solid pick-up.
-Ryan Miller: OK, Miller could be back. Free agency may be cruel to the 36-year-old, and though I suspect he wants a fresh start, preferably further down the west coast, he might not get many knocks at his door. Vancouver is a familiar scene and he’s proven capable of stopping those 40 pucks a night here.
There are others, but I don’t see the Canucks nabbing, say, Ben Bishop. Even if he doesn’t sign with Dallas, he’ll cost too much. Or there’s Brian Elliott, but his forgettable season in Calgary raised eyebrows.
Getting a marquee forward in free agency is a bit like getting a drone for your birthday: within five minutes everyone will hate it and it's likely to crash and burn.
By function of RFA rules and the grim, inevitable passage of time, most UFAs are often well past 30. They command big salaries and grand expectations. Vancouver is best to avoid all this. Particularly the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes.
I believe there’s room to add a few bottom-six players on one-year contracts. Useful players like Tom Pyatt, Tommy Wingels, maybe Derek Ryan, to name a few. The advantage is obvious: they help round out the lineup, and they are moveable assets when the trade deadline arrives.
Obviously Vancouver’s greatest need is scoring, but last year’s Loui Eriksson signing proves that free agency is a risky solution to that at best.
This is the hardest area to predict. What appeared to be a position of relative strength degraded quickly. The biggest variable in that degradation was literally the biggest human: Nikita Tryamkin left for the KHL.
That departure leaves next season’s defensive core pretty hazy. Given his draft position, I suspect Ollli Juolevi will be given every opportunity to make the roster out of camp. Throw in a (hopefully) healthy Erik Gudbranson, and it’s hard to know what to make of Vancouver’s blueline.
With Tryamkin gone I expect Jim Benning will attempt to sign a bottom-pairing defender or two. But that’s it. Remember that Vancouver doesn’t hold much appeal to a coveted UFA; don’t expect one of the big name defenders to sign. And by “one of” I mean Kevin Shattenkirk.
A savvy signing or two can set a team up for success, and those often come from outside the NHL pool. Perhaps there’s reason to hope for help from Europe. After seeing the success of Artemi Panarin, Nikita Zaitsev and Alex Radulov, it’s easy to understand why many teams are turning their attention east.
The Vegas Golden Knights recently signed KHL free agent Vadim Shipachyov, and they are also rumoured to be interested in Evgeni Dadonov.
So who’s out there for Vancouver?
Jan Kovar: This smaller Czech has had season after season of success in the KHL. If rumours are true Vancouver has expressed interest in the scoring centre, and that’s a smart move. Kovar would be sure to step into Vancouver’s top six.
This is a match made in heaven: say "Jan Kovar to Vancouver" ten times fast. Meant to be.
Anton Rodin: After all the hype, excitement, and pre-season scoring of Shirokovian proportions, Rodin suited up for just three games in 2016-17. That’s disappointing to say the least. There’s no saying whether Rodin’s knee injury will end up being a career-ender, but it’s hard to forget his recent Elitserien MVP award and his fantastic 2016 training camp. Rodin remains a compelling option. There’s little risk to it, so I’d give him another whirl.
July 1st will roll around once again, and I predict the same fan hysteria we’ve grown accustomed to. I also expect a quiet day for Vancouver, and that’s a good thing.
Given what’s available and what they’re working with, Vancouver shouldn’t try to make a free agency splash; in fact, they should mostly stay out of the pool.