Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning Sets the Stage For Next Summer

Even the most optimistic Vancouver Canucks fan knows that next season is going to be a painful one, however Canucks General Manager Jim Benning did his best on the opening day of free agency to mitigate that pain for the coming year and beyond by signing versatile 30-year-old Swedish forward Loui Eriksson to a six-year, $36 million contract.

For a man who’s taken his fair share of criticism from all corners of the hockey world, most recently for speaking out of turn about P.K. Subban and Steven Stamkos and earning a fine from the NHL, the Eriksson signing serves as a nice little reminder that Benning can occasionally hit one out of the park.

Hopefully that fact can provide some comfort to the fans around British Columbia and beyond who are pulling their hair waiting for this “retooling” to bear fruit, as Benning will need to use every ounce of contract negotiating know-how over the next 12 months.

Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning Sets the Stage For Next Summer

For now, the Canucks roster for the 2016-17 season seems nearly set. They have a little more than $4 million dollars in cap space, and while the team is still looking to add a depth forward, one thinks they’ll want to keep as much flexibility as they can.

However, by the end of next year the Canucks are going to be faced with a number of key RFAs to sign, and even with both Alexandre Burrows ($4 million) and Ryan Miller ($6 million) coming off the books, Benning will need to walk a tightrope to get them all in under the cap (assuming it doesn’t rise too much higher than the current $73 million for the 2017-18 season).

Two-Way Center Bo Horvat is Key

First and foremost is 21-year-old center Bo Horvat, the Canucks 1st round pick (9th overall) in 2013, who portends to be the club’s second-line center for a number of years. This past season Horvat did not fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, improving his totals in goals (16), assists (24) and points (40), all while being thrust into some very difficult minutes in the absence of Brandon Sutter.

In 2015-16 Horvat played a role very similar to some of the top two-way centers in the league. The best comparable for Horvat at this point is probably 23-year-old Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier, who is lauded as a great two-way force who doesn’t (or hasn’t yet) put up huge offensive numbers.

When looking at both players in a vacuum, last season Horvat had slightly better point totals, while Couturier posted much better possession numbers. Nevertheless, Couturier’s latest contract (six years, $4.3 million per) would be a good indication of what Horvat will likely earn.

Horvat has been pegged for some time now as a potential future captain of the Canucks who could possibly be in the Selke conversation one day, so getting him locked up to a reasonable contract is going to be key.

Shoring Up the Defense

Currently Vancouver has veteran Alexander Edler signed for three more seasons at $5 million per year and 26-year-old Chris Tanev for four more years at $4.45 million. However, next summer the club will have a trio of young defensemen in need of new contracts who all look to be key pieces of the club’s future on the blueline.

First up is Ben Hutton, who exploded onto the scene last season after leaving the University of Maine to be named the Canucks best defenseman as a rookie. Hutton has already shown that he has the tools, talent, and attitude to be a consistent top-four defenseman for many years. His price point within the Canucks salary cap structure is going to be crucial.

A good comparable for Hutton might be New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic, who plays much grittier than the Vancouver rearguard but otherwise has a very similar game. Last season Hutton put up 25 points; Hamonic scored 26 in his rookie campaign.

After Hamonic’s entry-level contract expired, the Islanders locked him up to a six-year deal worth $3.85 million per season. Depending on how Hutton performs next season, the Canucks should be looking for something similar, maybe closer to $3 million. Along with Horvat, this signing is going to be key.

Aside from Hutton, Vancouver will also need to sign blueliners Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Tryamkin next summer.

Gudbranson is still just 24 years old and currently making $3.5 million per season. At this point what kind of impact he’ll make in Vancouver is completely unknown, so it’s difficult to speculate what kind of a raise he might demand.

Generally defensive-defensemen (a nice way of saying a blueliner who produces little offense) don’t break the bank, and Gudbranson definitely falls into that category. Still, would it be too much of a stretch to suggest he’ll come in at $4.5 million-plus, similar to what Dan Hamhuis was recently making in Vancouver?

As for Tryamkin, he’s even more of an unknown, despite suiting up for 13 games with the Canucks last season. The 21-year-old is a colossal 6’8 and has an out clause which will ensure he stays in Vancouver for the duration of the season unless the team wants to risk him heading back to Russia.

Much will depend on how Tryamkin performs. Likely he’ll be getting bottom-pairing minutes for the bulk of the season while also moving up the lineup to play bigger minutes when other defensemen are out. If he is able to adapt to the North American game and realize some of his potential, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tyamkin earn something in the $2-3 million range on his next contract.

Setting the Crease Succession

As mentioned before, Miller’s $6 million will be coming off the books after next season, however current backup and future starter Jacob Markstrom will also be an unrestricted free agent, and that’s where things get interesting.

Marstrom proved last season that he is a bonafide NHL goaltender, after years as “the best goalie not in the league.” Assuming Markstrom confirms his status next season, he could be the Canucks starter for a number of years, as he’s still just 26 years old. However Thatcher Demko, one of the highest regarded goaltending prospects in the world, is going to turn pro next year after being named the top goalie in the NCAA last season and is undeniably the goaltender of the future in Vancouver.

As such, Markstrom’s contract must be handled with care if the team hopes to avoid another Roberto LuongoCory Schneider-type situation. The prudent move here would be to sign Markstrom to a three- or four-year deal, somewhere in the neighborhood of $4-5 million, which would give Demko enough time to develop.

Time For Benning to Get to Work

Vancouver has $48.6 million committed for the 2017-18 season already. Adding these players at these price points (plus moving Demko up to the big club) would put the Canucks somewhere in the neighborhood of $68.4 million, and they would still need to sign some depth players. Given the uncertainty of the salary cap, which was at risk of falling for the first time ever this year, that’s a scary number.

Benning’s tenure thus far has focused on breaking down the old core and establishing the new core, while keeping the team competitive. His performance as an executive in Vancouver has been analysed ad nauseam, however it is yet unknown how well he will perform when it comes to signing a large number of key young players.

Having a bevy of young talent is a double-edged sword when it comes time to pay them all, as Benning is going to learn in very short order. Collecting a nice stable of youth means nothing if you’re not able to make the puzzle fit together long-term, both on the ice and financially. It’s going to take some yeoman’s work from Benning.


All contract numbers via General Fanager.

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