Very little has changed in personnel on the ice for the Vancouver Canucks, despite huge changes off of it. One possible move is a Conor Garland trade, arguably the best part of Benning’s – arguably – worst trade.
Of Thorns and Garlands
It’s difficult to overstate just how much of a mood elevation the Changing of the Jims – Benning to Rutherford – was for Vancouver. Everyone, from the fans to the media to the players, saw little reason to hope. Say what you will about how players are supposed to play hard no matter the conditions. When you hate coming to work, it shows.
The part salary dump, part getting players Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland trade wasn’t exactly a reason to rejoice. Yes, a load of cumbersome cap hits came off the books. But that $12 million was only going to be on the books for one more season. Instead of patiently waiting – which, to be fair, NO ONE had the stomach for – they brought in six years of just over $7 million. And…
Just who is this Conor Garland guy?
Good Trade, Better Deal?
The biggest downside of playing in a small market for players is a lack of eyeballs (not on the player, obviously. Don’t be weird). Without people seeing you play or hearing your name, opportunities to market yourself are limited. Some players are more comfortable with this, and that’s fine. But if payment opportunities are going to be small, salary compensation should increase. In theory, anyway.
Garland had reached the end of his minuscule two-year, $775,000 contract. He was on the top line of a weak Arizona Coyotes team with Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz. The trio easily had the best expected goals for (57.1%) on the team in 2020-21. That was substantially better than Vancouver’s best line of Elias Pettersson – J.T. Miller – Brock Boeser, which managed 53.8%. The tricky question of how much of that was playing with those linemates, how much was his own play, and how much was opportunity through limited options made getting him a bit of a risk.
Arizona didn’t want to lose Garland, make no mistake. But they also didn’t want to pay one of their better and younger forwards when they had no idea what was coming. Days after Garland arrived in Vancouver, the Canucks inked him to a five-year, $4.95 million deal. And now it’s Vancouver’s turn to ask if they can afford him.
Small, Spinny, and Paid For
The Canucks have been looking for size on the wings and improved speed for years. The Conor Garland trade did neither. Despite his obvious quickness, Garland isn’t particularly fast. On the other hand, he hit a career-high in points last season, getting 52 with 19 goals. But that comes in his first full season, with just his rookie year and two COVID-shortened terms to compare to.
Given the broken-up nature of the year, Garland didn’t get the consistent linemates he had in Arizona. But with his most frequent ones – J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson – the Canucks carried a 59% expected goals for. That’s really very good. His individual stats back this up, with his 5-on-5 points tied with Miller and one back of Alex Ovechkin and Artemi Panarin. We’re going with his 5-on-5 time because he had very little opportunity on the power play. Created a lot of them, though.
If you haven’t seen much of Garland, toss the stats out and watch. He’s tremendous fun, but does drive opponents – and opposing fans – a little batty. He drew them into 64 minutes of penalties in 2021-22 while only taking 26 himself. While that in itself is worth watching, Garland can also get – and keep – possession of the puck in the opponent’s zone. While he perhaps doesn’t use his teammates as much as he should, he is a player who can produce chaos when attacking. And that has value.
Worth More In Than Out
It’s hard to determine what other teams think of Garland, and that’s a vital part of any potential deal. In Vancouver, he’s an excellent 5-on-5 producer. On those numbers alone, he could easily be considered a first-line winger. He was a first-line player in Arizona. But how are the Canucks going to use him in the future?
Assuming Pettersson remains at centre, where the Canucks clearly prefer him to be, Miller goes to the wing. That’s Miller and Boeser on the wings, with Vasili Podkolzin, Tanner Pearson, and Nils Höglander also looking for spots. Pearson had an excellent season last year, and we’ll get to him later, so he may well get a second-line spot. It’s going to be a bit of a jumble in the middle-six, and the only sure thing right now is Garland and Höglander are not going to share a line. We dearly want them to, but it’s hard to picture any coach choosing two small wingers together.
In the meantime, the team has decisions to make about their future that they haven’t yet. It’s understandable, given the time of year. Any major deals are more likely with the playoffs over and Draft Day looming – or here.
Garland has played 249 NHL games, despite being 26 years old. It’s difficult to say exactly what he is right now, or how he fits with Vancouver’s plans. His contract is good, given his production. He could easily find another gear yet. And he has cost certainty for another four seasons. He’d be a fine target for any team looking to shore up top-six scoring. Which also, unfortunately, also defines the Canucks.
Let’s Make A (Better) Deal!
One way to look at the blockbuster deal that happened in 2021’s offseason is to break it into component parts.
Was getting rid of $12 million in cap hit worth the 9th overall pick in 2021? Not unless you’re planning to do something with the space. Just over $7 million was “spent” bringing in Ekman-Larsson – who’s still pretty dang good. The question is for how long? Extremely high risk, and needed because of the corner management painted itself into.
The rest of the deal – the Conor Garland Trade – is a second and a seventh for Garland. Include his contract, and that’s the rest of the $12 million saved for 2021-22. But he’s Canucks property for another four seasons, and he’s not just full value for his $5 million, he’s an outright bargain. If and only if the team can find the right place for him. Should the Canucks use him better – including power-play time – he will easily eclipse his current point totals. And that likely holds true for the rest of his current contract.
Value vs. Cost
The Canucks need cap space, but a Conor Garland trade will need to return far more than that. He drives plays well, he’s productive, and he’s popular with the fans. That’s a lot for a team to turn their back on. While it’s possible Garland’s the odd man out among the forward corps, it’s difficult to see a deal happening they won’t regret.