Vancouver Canucks Free Agency Review

The Canucks made a big splash in free agency, but now they're out of money and still have holes to fill.  There aren't a lot of big mistakes here, but when taken as a whole, Mike Gillis has gotten himself into a pickle.  After the jump, I'll look at each of his moves individually and then take a look at the big picture.

Individual Transactions

 

Traded the 25th overall pick in 2011, Michael Grabner, and Steve Bernier to the Florida Panthers for D Keith Ballard and F Victor Oreskovich - I don't think the Canucks gave up much in this deal in terms of what's listed above.  In my preview I said it would be a good thing to move Bernier along; he just isn't worth $2M.  I tend to agree with Gabe Desjardins that Michael Grabner won't turn into a strong NHL player (his calling card is offense and he just doesn't have great AHL numbers), so there's little lost there.  And the 25th overall pick will turn into a truly useful player only about a quarter of the time, so turning that selection into a good player you have under control for five seasons is a very good deal.  Or at least, it's a good deal so long as the guy you've acquired is worth his contract.  Is that true of Keith Ballard?  I think it's close.  Ballard is a guy who has played tough minutes in both Phoenix and Florida in two of the last three seasons (the exception being his first year with the Panthers), but he hasn't had a great deal of success in that role.  His first year in Phoenix was passable (Corsi of -7.5/60 but positive goal differential), but last season he was beat up pretty badly (-17.85/60 Corsi suggests that he was having trouble moving the puck out of his own end against good players).  In my view, he's likely best suited to starting the season on the second pairing and filling in on the first in case of injury.  If your team is building a defense without a clear number one, then Ballard at $4.2M can make sense, especially if you think the cap is only going up (and that looks to be the case).  Ballard has also very durable thus far in his career having played all 82 games in four of five seasons, something both Vancouver fans and management will appreciate. Oreskovich is a throw-in.  He'd actually retired from hockey for a couple of years and then came back just last season to score six points in fifty games with the Panthers.  He doesn't add any value over other freely available options.  In the end, I think this is an okay deal for the Canucks.  The biggest asset they gave up was cap space and, in my opinion, it's costly.  I think they needed a forward more than they needed a defenseman and although Ballard's contract isn't bad, it's not good enough value to tempt me to take money allotted for forwards and move it onto the blueline.

Signed F Manny Malhotra to a one-way contract for three years at $2,500,000 per year - I really like this deal for the Cancuks because Malhotra is exactly the kind of player they need.  Malhotra's role in the last few seasons has been taking faceoffs in the defensive zone against decent or good competition and then getting that puck moving back in the right direction.  Over the last three years he's had 58.1% (2007-08), 56.6% (2008-09) and 54.7% (2009-10) of his end-zone starts in the defensive zone.  Both his Corsi and his goal differential have been positive each time, culminating last season when he the competition wasn't quite as tough and the end-zone ratio not quite as onerous - he led the Sharks in goal differential.  On top of that, he's a good penalty killer and one of the best faceoff-men in the entire league.  This is a significant value contract for any team, but particularly for the Canucks who are well-situated to maximize Malhotra's skill-set.  With Kesler on one line and Malhotra on another, the puck will be pushed up the ice with regularity and the Sedins will be right there to take advantage.  This is a fantastic deal for Vancouver.

Signed F Joel Perrault to a one-way contract for one year at $510,000 per year - I don't really understand the logic behind giving Joel Perrault a one-way deal.  Perrault has barely played in the NHL in each of the last two seasons and his numbers in the AHL over that time - 85 points in 93 games - are nothing to get excited about considering he was already in his mid-twenties.  If the Canucks are willing to send him to Manitoba, as I expect they are, then this signing doesn't hurt much because it's just one more depth player who can fill in on the big club when needed.  The one-way contract should help him to earn a roster spot out of camp as the 13th or 14th forward.

Signed F Jeff Tambellini to a two-way contract for one year at $500,000 per year - Tambellini is a solid depth signing who will likely be competing for the last one or two hypothetical roster spots available at Canucks' camp with players like Joel Perrault, Victor Oreskovich, Cody Hodgson, Sergei Shirokov, Alexandre Bolduc, and Jordan Schroeder. If this spot exists, it means that the Canucks didn't need to take a player back for one of their defenders, which likely means that the Canucks will probably be looking for this last spot to go to a player capable of playing top nine minutes.  In my view that would seem to give Schroeder (or Hodgson if he converts to wing) the inside track.  Tambellini has outstanding numbers in the AHL (194 points in 169 games) but he hasn't been able to produce offense in the NHL with only 46 points in 180 NHL games.  That's a lot of opportunity.  A guy like Martin St. Pierre, for example, has similar AHL totals, but only 38 games in the show.  For Tambellini to win this spot, he'll need to significantly outplay the younger guys who haven't gotten their shot, unless of course the Canucks stay tight to the cap at which point his league minimum salary becomes his very best friend.  If Tambellini doesn't make the Canucks, he'll be a fine player with the Moose and will likely earn a call-up at some point during the year.  

Signed D Dan Hamhuis to a one-way contract for six years at $4,500,000 per year - Dan Hamhuis is a player who provides value by playing tough minutes at even strength and a big role on the penalty kill.  In Nashville, the even strength role was taken over by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter this season, so it made sense for the Predators to let Hamhuis walk away.  But in 2008-09 and 2007-08, Hamhuis was trusted with all of the most difficult assignments and was asked to start in his own zone a lot of the time.  Although Hamhuis was minimally outshot in both of those seasons, I think it's fair to say that he did the job well.  When his responsibilities lessened in terms of competition, Hamhuis outshot his opponents and posted a very impressive zone shift (46.4% of end-zone starts were in the offensive zone, compared to 52.4% of end-zone finishes).  Hamhuis may not have been taking on the toughs, but he was certainly helping his team win.  Penalty killing is always tricky to evaluate because, looking at the numbers we have, it always seems to be more a "sum of its parts" kind of thing.  In 2008-09, all of the regular Nashville defenders had a shots against rate between 30.0/60 and 36.0/60.  In 2009-10, they were all between 41.0/60 and 50.0/60.  Hamhuis himself went from a rate of 35.9/60 to 46.6/60, which is a huge change, but he himself probably didn't do that much differently.  Some of the personnel were swapped out for new guys and, bam, the guys you had that were doing well before, aren't doing so well anymore.  Basically, I'm saying that I have no idea how good Hamhuis is on the PK.  I do know that, for at least the last three seasons, he's been one of the leaders in PK ice time with the Predators and that their PK has been very good in two of those seasons and very bad in the other.   As for the contract itself, it takes Hamhuis to age thirty-three, which is a very nice cut-off point for the Canucks since that's right around the time defensemen start to fall off a cliff.

Signed F Alexandre Bolduc to a two-way contract for one year at $500,000 per year - Bolduc is in the same spot as Tambellini but without the offensive pedigree in the AHL, so I don't really like his chances.  If the Canucks move out a couple of defenders (they have nine on the roster right now), it could create an extra forward spot, but I doubt that's going to happen.  As such, Bolduc looks to be destined for Manitoba. 

Signed D Shane O'Brien to a one-way contract for one year at $1,600,000 per year - Before this signing I had always thought of Shane O'Brien as a bit of a dummy, but he made a very good decision when he signed his qualifying offer.  In some ways, I can understand why Mike Gillis decided to give him that chance.  The Canucks hadn't yet signed Dan Hamhuis and didn't know if they'd be able to get a top quality defender in free agency.  If O'Brien could have been counted on as the Canucks' fourth defenseman, this would make sense.  However, O'Brien was already fifth at best among the guys already under contract and, more importantly, he flat-out sucks.  He plays pretty soft minutes and takes oodles of penalties while doing it.  Last year, his penalty differential (taken v. drawn) improved from -1.7/60 in 2008-09, the second worst rate in the league among regular defensemen, to -1.1/60, good enough to tie for sixth from the bottom.  That's a pretty terrible starting point, and considering the fact that O'Brien doesn't do much else well, I fell confident in saying that he has negative value.  As such, there was no reason for the Canucks to want him back at all, and that makes giving him a qualifying offer a pretty big mistake.  Using $1.6M in cap space to pay a guy with negative value is not a good way to build a contender.  I'm sure Gillis is trying to unload him as we speak (good luck with that).

Signed F Tanner Glass to a one-way contract for one year at $625,000 per year - As I said above, the Canucks chose to go a different way than I would have, making significant upgrades on defense and only minor upgrades at forward.  Given that decision, bringing back Glass at close to the league minimum makes some sense.  Glass had a tough gig last year, taking on a huge amount of defensive zone draws with poor teammates for most of the season.  The goal differential ended up being positive, which would normally have been impressive, but in this case, Glass was still getting wildly outshot and was being rescued by a .953 save percentage behind him.  I don't expect he'll be posting a positive differential again this season, but as a depth forward, they could certainly do worse than a big physical player who has some experience in a challenging role.

Signed G Tyler Weiman to a two-way contract for one year at $500,000 per year - With Cory Schneider moving up to the Canucks in 2010-11 the Canucks will need a new goaltender for the Manitoba Moose.  Weiman is a solid choice for that role, having been an AHL starter for the last four years.  In the last two years, he's put up save percentages of .915 and .912 and can likely be relied upon for a steady performance.  He'll be in competition for the starting job with Swedish netminder Eddie Lack.

 

The Big Picture

The cap has been announced at $59.4M, but I like to use $59M is a guideline because most teams will start the year with at least a small amount of wiggle room.  Here's the chart I've used before:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or $16,225,000
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or $11,800,000
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or $16,225,000
Goaltending - 10.0% or $5,900,000
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or $8,850,000

And here it is again with the players the Canucks have signed:

Top 3 Forwards - Sedin, Sedin, Kesler - 29.2% or $17,200,000
Middle 6 Forwards - Samuelsson, Burrows, Malhotra, ???, ???, ??? - 11.9% or $7,000,000
Top 4 Defenders - Hamhuis, Salo, Ballard, Edler - 26.2% or $15,450,000
Goaltending - Luongo, Schneider - 10.6% or $6,233,333
Bottom 8 Players - Rome, Alberts, O'Brien, Ehrhoff, Bieksa, Hordichuk, Rypien, Glass - 20.7% or $12,200,000

Honestly, this is a bit of a mess.  The Canucks may not be overspending on "top four defensemen" but they're certainly overspending on defensemen in general.  Right now, they've got nine for a total cap cost of $25.7M or 43.6% of their budget.  Now, there are teams who do this, but they usually have at least one really top notch guy, someone like Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara.  The Canucks don't.  They also don't have any money left.  $0.8M isn't enough to fill three small holes, let alone three big ones.  When things shake out, it's likely that two of the spots will be filled by Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond.  I'll estimate that cost at $3.5M, which leaves $2.7M to clear away plus enough to fill one more spot.  That player may well be a new acquisition.  It's easy enough to say that Gillis should trade O'Brien and Bieksa without taking any money back, but that's not easy to do even when the players you're trading are actually good.  In the end, he may end up needing to include a carrot and take an undesirable body back in order to make things work.  A scenario like O'Brien, Bieksa, Hordichuk and Hodgson (or another "A" level prospect) to New Jersey for Dainius Zubrus would likely be something that would work, though even that would leave a bit more work to do and probably isn't a good decision for the long-term.  The other option is just to send the two defenders to the minors ($5.35M in savings) or buy them out ($3.4M in savings).  That's the funny thing about this salary-capped NHL - if you've spent your way into a problem, you can always spend your way out!

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