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The Canucks Head to Free Agency

Well, after looking at Calgary and Minnesota, I took a dive to the bottom of the standings and looked long and hard at the scorched-earth plan of the Colorado Avalanche. Now it's time to take a trip to the top of the standings and see what the Vancouver Canucks might do to (gulp) improve their chances at winning the Stanley Cup.

What have they done so far?

Signed D Kevin Bieksa to a five-year contract with a cap hit of $4,600,000 (with NTC) - I did a bit of a double-take when Bieksa described this contract as taking less to stay in Vancouver, but the fact is, the man is right. He played on the Canucks' top pairing with Dan Hamhuis and they looked good doing it. His offense is also quite underrated because he doesn't get much time on the power play. As I watched the Canucks in the playoffs, I was consistently impressed with Bieksa's intuition about when to pinch, and looking over the stats, I noticed that Bieksa was tied for 49th among defensemen in EV scoring during the regular season with 19 points. His age during this contract (30 to 34) is a small concern, but with the Canucks trying to win now, this deal looks excellent to me.

Traded D Christian Ehrhoff to Long Island and received a 4th round pick in the 2012 entry draft - It looks like the Canucks decided that Ehrhoff would be too rich for them, which I found surprising. That said, as one of the only top-notch defenders still available heading into July 1st, Ehrhoff may be asking for something like $5.5M per season on a long-term deal. Gillis showed some good discipline by passing, and managed to get a pretty good pick too.

Signed F Maxim Lapierre to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,000,000 - This contract surprised me a little bit, but I think it's a great deal for the Canucks. Lapierre is an excellent fourth-line center, and as he showed in this year's playoffs, gives the Canucks reasonable insurance in case one of their top three guys goes down. But the signing also says something about Cody Hodgson, namely, that he's probably not in the team's immediate plans. Hodgson's AHL debut was something of a disappointment, and at this point, it looks like the Canucks might be ready to cut ties to help improve the team now either by adding a good player or as part of a package to move Keith Ballard to another team.

Signed D Andrew Alberts to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,225,000 - With Alberts signed, the Canucks now have seven defenders set for the 2011-12 season, but the group isn't quite as strong as it once was. They've got just two righties signed (Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev) to go with five lefties (Alberts, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Alexander Edler, and Aaron Rome), so it seems to me that Alberts is a bit redundant here if the Canucks don't send Ballard down the road. He's a solid #5, and the price is okay, so this isn't a disaster, but this will probably make more sense in September than it does now.

Looking ahead to 2011-12

Those who've read here before know that I like to use the chart below as a cap space guideline. Because it's based on percentages, we need to decide on a budget figure for each team, and for Vancouver, I've decided to use the cap ceiling of $64.3M, which means the numbers listed below will be cap numbers instead of salaries. Here's the chart:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or 17.68M
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or 12.86M
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or 17.68M
Goaltending - 10.0% or 6.43M
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or 9.65M

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

Top 3 Forwards - Sedin, Sedin, Kesler - 26.7% or 17.20M
Middle 6 Forwards - Raymond, Samuelsson, Malhotra, Burrows, ???, ??? - 14.9% or 9.55M
Top 4 Defenders - Bieksa, Hamhuis, Ballard, Edler - 25.7% or 16.55M
Goaltending - Luongo, Schneider - 9.7% or 6.23M
Bottom 8 Players - Lapierre, Alberts, Rome, Tanev, ???, ???, ???, ??? - 6.0% or 3.88M

Looking over this sheet, the Canucks are in great shape, and it shouldn't be any secret that they're building to win now. Their top three forwards and goaltending are both excellent and both come in slightly under-budget, which enables the Canucks to spend more in other areas. Last year, they chose to spend on the defense and that strategy served them well throughout the regular season and playoffs, so I expect we'll see at least one more defender signed - probably the right-handed Sami Salo - and probably another if the Canucks can move Ballard to another team.

The need to ship out Ballard one year after acquiring him is indicative of what I think is a pretty consistent pattern in Mike Gillis' tenure as general manager. He's done an excellent job of understanding what he has, and negotiating with the talent that's already in the organization, which has really solidified Vancouver's core, but his record with regard to players brought in from other organizations is a mixed bag of successes and failures (although to be fair to Gillis, I thought his acquisition of Ballard was a good one at the time).

This off-season, he needs to get one more defender (and a replacement for Ballard if he can be moved), and two or three more top nine forwards (it doesn't hurt to have ten). He's got about $11.5M to get it done, which should be plenty of money to attract players to a winner. So who are the targets? Well, I've mentioned Salo already for the defense slot, and one of those forward spots will certainly go to Jannik Hansen. The biggest weakness looks to be on the right side, so players like Erik Cole, Joel Ward, and Tyler Kennedy would be at the top of my list. If I were a Canucks' fan, I'd be thrilled to see the Canucks sign all three of those players for an average of $3M each, add Hansen at about $1.5M, Salo at about $3M, and move Ballard out with a prospect to make room under the cap for the guys at the end of the roster. As an Oiler fan, I hope they decide to add a line of enforcers instead. Remember Mike, it was toughness that cost your team the Cup!