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THN.com Blog: Canucks must catch big fish in small UFA pond

The Vancouver Canucks had a disappointing 2007-08 campaign, missing out on the playoffs by three points. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The Vancouver Canucks had a disappointing 2007-08 campaign, missing out on the playoffs by three points. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

So despite his experience as an NHL player agent, newly minted Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis is still the new kid on the block as the wild, frothing anticipation begins for July 1 and the launch of free agent season.

And if Gillis’ first moves as a GM are any indication, Vancouver fans are in for some wasabi-level gut burn come next season.

When Dave Nonis was dumped from the GM job in Vancouver, it was clear the man had a master plan which had yet to come to fruition, but was possibly only a season behind schedule: The ‘Nucks had a franchise goalie in Roberto Luongo and a real tough band of defensemen, who, unfortunately for Nonis, all broke down at least once this season.

In fact, the top four rearguards on the team – Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Willie Mitchell – played an average of 55 games this year, with Mitchell the only one to crack 70 games (he played 72). So give Nonis a mulligan on the defense.

Naturally, the forwards were abysmal; that was clear to everyone. But it stands to reason that this summer would have been the time Nonis rectified that.

As it stands now, the Canucks are going to have nearly $20 million of cap space to play with and most of that can go towards forwards. Vancouver also needs a backup goaltender (which can easily be done for under $1 million) and depth on defense (the top six rearguards are already under contract).

So why does Gillis need to have an impressive summer? Because his first moves have not been mind-blowing. In drafting Cody Hodgson with the No. 10 pick, Gillis got a blue-chip prospect, but not one who is likely going to step in right away.

The zeitgeist before the draft was that Gillis intended on trading the pick for a roster player and despite the fact many teams landed big names on the first day (Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri, Olli Jokinen), he couldn’t find a dance partner.

Then, in the lead-up to free agency, Gillis took Kyle Wellwood off the Leafs’ hands when the Buds waived the diminutive center.

Once a promising young talent with exciting speed, Wellwood has had his first and second gears grinded off by a sports hernia and recently became the first person ever to actually get injured playing soccer.

Then there are the questions about his commitment to conditioning. Now, maybe Wellwood will turn the ship around, but bringing a guy with motivation issues into the most laid-back city in the nation may not be the best fit.

And where do the Canucks expect to slot him? Wellwood does play the wing, but he’s traditionally a center and you already have Henrik Sedin and Brendan Morrison ahead of him on the depth chart. Morrison, of course, is an unrestricted free agent and could bolt, but then the optics of replacing Morrison with Wellwood become downright scary.

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The Canucks are already losing Markus Naslund to free agency (‘losing,’ ‘pushing towards,’ whatever) and Trevor Linden to retirement, so the forward corps is somehow getting even thinner.

Which means Gillis has a blank slate to play with. There is no reason he can’t land Marian Hossa and that should be the priority: Vancouver has the cap space and needs the offense.

If he could pair Hossa with fellow Slovakian free agent (and Gillis client) Pavol Demitra, all of sudden you’ve got the makings of two pretty good offensive lines, with the Sedins becoming Threat 1A and Hossa/Demitra 1B.

Give Hossa five or six years at $7 million and convince Demitra to take $4 million per season for the next two. That gives you 12 forwards under contract and about $9 million in cap space for your backup goalie, seventh and eighth defensemen and a couple more forwards should the AHLers on the cusp not get over said cusp.

The Canucks have the opportunity to be much better this season, but Gillis is going to have to learn the GM ropes pretty fast – and he isn’t the only wheeler and dealer coveting skill in a soft free agent market.

Should the team once again count on the Sedins alone for offense (Ryan Kesler and Taylor Pyatt are fine players, but they’re not exactly Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry), it’ll be a long winter in Lotus Land.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his features, The Hot List and Year of the Ram, appear Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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