Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next, the all-time best Vancouver Canucks free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
THE ALL-TIME BEST VANCOUVER CANUCKS FREE AGENT SIGNING
2005 – Alex Burrows: One Year, $450,000
To say the Vancouver Canucks have an uninspiring list of free agent signings over the years would be putting it mildly. From the dramatic (Mats Sundin) to the cringe worthy (Mark Messier), Vancouver’s track record of bringing in game-changers from the free agent market is embarrassing.
Only recently have the Canucks been able to buck that trend, as Radim Vrbata proved a smart signing (at least for one season) and Ryan Miller has provided a solid, veteran presence in net, while the book is yet to be written on Loui Eriksson.
However, there is one player the Canucks managed to pluck from obscurity, who went on to become a member of the top line in the NHL and a franchise icon.
Alex Burrows went undrafted by an NHL club, in part because of his late start in major junior. Burrows spent his age 19 season as a rookie with the Shawinigan Cataractes, scoring 30 points in 63 games in 2000-2001. His age 20 season would see an uptick in scoring (35 goals and 70 points in 64 games), however he was still unable to grab the attention of an NHL club, so he set his sights on the ECHL for the coming year.
Early in his career, Burrows appeared to be the quintessential middling professional hockey player who would never quite make the jump to the show. He played for the Baton Rouge Kingfish and Greenville Grrrowl in 2002-03, scoring just 13 goals in his first 66 pro games split between the two clubs. If ever there was a player who appeared poised to toil in obscurity on the minor pro circuit, it was Burrows.
However, the following season completely changed his trajectory. Burrows managed to latch on with the Columbia Inferno, the ECHL affiliate of the Manitoba Moose, which was in turn the AHL affiliate of the Canucks.
Burrows began to make a name for himself with the Inferno, scoring 29 goals and 73 points in 64 games, catching Moose GM Craig Heisinger‘s eye in the process, which earned him a brief two-game call up to the AHL.
By 2004-05, Burrows had become an AHL regular, suiting up for 72 games with the Moose, while scoring 26 points. However, it was more than his production which ultimately caught the attention of Canucks management, as his energetic and abrasive two-way play would ultimately open the door to the NHL.
The Canucks didn’t know it yet, but the 2005 NHL lockout was also the end of the famed West Coast Express era. Things had begun to unravel near the second of back-to-back 100+ point seasons in 2003-04 for the Canucks when Todd Bertuzzi infamously attacked Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, ending the latter’s career and resulting in a lengthy suspension for the former.
The day after the incident, the Canucks went wild on a series of trades, bringing in a number of depth pieces that would make little to no impact in what the club hoped would be a long playoff run. Instead, Vancouver was eliminated by the Calgary Flames in a seven-game first round series (which cost GM Brian Burke his job) and the club limped into the offseason hoping to recapture some of the old magic when NHL play finally resumed.
On Novemeber 8, 2005, the Canucks signed Burrows to a two-way, one-year deal worth $450,000. At the time, the decision to sign Burrows was of little consequence. The 24-year-old had proven his worth at the AHL level, and at worst he would be a quality depth signing for the organization, while his tenacity and work ethic made him an intriguing prospect who could potentially make a contribution at the NHL level.
The 2005-06 season coming out of the lockout was one in which the Canucks were expected to again be a top team in the Western Conference, with the Bertuzzi drama left mostly behind them and the core of the 2004 Northwest Division champs intact.
An 8-1-1 start to the season seemed to affirm that way of thinking, however a rash of injuries, diminishing offense from its top line stars and shaky goaltending ultimately sunk the club, as they finished three points out of the playoffs.
It was in the midst of all this that Burrows got his first taste of NHL action. After a strong start with the Moose (30 points in 33 games), Burrows made his Canucks debut on January 2, 2006, and began to quickly establish himself on the roster as an energy winger in the bottom six.
His style of play quickly endeared him to the fans in Vancouver, and by next season he was a key figure on Vancouver’s number one penalty kill, alongside running mate Ryan Kesler. The duo would prove to be a valuable pair for the Canucks, anchoring a shutdown unit which would prove effective. By 2007-08, Burrows was one of the most popular Canucks on the club, winning the team’s Most Exciting Player and Unsung Hero awards, as voted by the fans.
Despite the accolades and adoration, Burrows had yet to make much of an impact offensively after two-and-a-half years in Vancouver. All that would change during Burrows’ career-altering 2008-09 season.
A Fateful February
While it’s often overlooked, February of 2009 may have been one of the most significant months in Canucks history, though nobody would have guessed so as the calendar flipped over.
Mired in a eight-game home winless streak, it was Burrows who snapped the team out of its funk with a shorthanded goal against the Carolina Hurricanes with 1:22 left to give Vancouver a 4-3 win on February 3. This sparked a turnaround for the Canucks, would then go on a 10-game home winning streak.
One day later, Burrows would re-sign with the Canucks for four years at $2 million per year, a number which seemed perfectly reasonable for a player with his role in the organization at the time. As it turned out, it would be one of the biggest bargains in the history of the NHL’s salary cap era.
Eight days later, during a game against the (then) Phoenix Coyotes on February 12, Head Coach Alain Vigneault made perhaps one of the shrewdest moves of his time in Vancouver by putting the energetic Burrows on a line with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, who were just approaching superstardom.
The trio proved instantly effective. The Sedins finished the season as point-per-game players, each notching 82 in 82, while Burrows took a massive step forward in his own production, increasing his goal total from 12 to 28, and points from 31 to 51. What followed would be a three-season run of dominance by one of the best lines in the NHL.
Burrows hit his apex offensively the following season with 35 goals and 67 points, while linemate Henrik ran roughshod over the league, winning the Hart and Art Ross trophies with 112 points and an incredible 83 assists, which remains the 4th highest total in the post-lockout era. For Burrows, the highlight of the season was back-to-back hat tricks against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Coyotes in January.
Burrows would follow up his career year with two more 20+ goal seasons (26 in 2010-11 and 28 in 2011-12) before injuries and inconsistency would eventually see him bumped down the lineup. He had just five goals in 2013-14 and despite a small resurgence the following year, finished with just nine goals and 22 points last season amid rumors his time in Vancouver was nearing an end.
Proving His Worth
In total, the undrafted ECHL alumnus has played 767 NHL games, all for the Canucks, scoring 184 goals and 364 points to go along with more than 1000 penalty minutes.
However, his impact in Vancouver has gone far beyond the stats sheet, and it hasn’t always been rosy. Burrows has been suspended or fined multiple times by the NHL for incidents ranging from spearing and punching a player from the bench to his controversial criticism of official Stephane Auger, not to mention (some say allegedly, but the video seems obvious) biting Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron‘s finger during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
For Canucks fans though, the positives far outweigh the negatives where Burrows is concerned, and its not just about the points. There is no debate that the Sedins took their offensive game to another level once Burrows was inserted onto their right wing, as his puck pursuit and tenacity in all three zones meshed perfectly with the Twins’ cycle game. It’s hard to argue they would have been able to reach such great heights without Burrows on their wing. If the Sedins one day make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame, they have Burrows to thank.
He’s also produced some of the most famous goals in franchise history, from his slump-buster against Carolina to his series winner in overtime against the St. Louis Blues in 2009, his overtime game winner in Game 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, and of course his overtime series winner against this Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 earlier in that 2011 playoff run which would earn him the nickname “Dragon Slayer.”
But perhaps as important, his current role as an elder statesman in the locker room. While General Manager Jim Benning has been (deservedly) derided for many of his personnel decisions as the club clumsily attempts to become competitive again, the choice to retain Burrows isn’t one of them.
The now 35-year-old Burrows has proven to be a solid mentor for many of the team’s up and coming prospects, including Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi and Jake Virtanen, while still making a meaningful impact on the ice in a bottom six role.
All this from an undrafted ECHLer signed to a flyer two-way deal more than a decade ago.