Vancouver Canucks: Grading Jim Benning’s 5 free agent signings


The Vancouver Canucks played it safe and went in the free agency bargain shopping bin, but did general manager Jim Benning sign the right players?

Following a dismal 2016-17 regular season that saw them finish 29th in the NHL, the Vancouver Canucks knew that it wasn’t logical to chase big-named free agents on Canada Day.

But not wanting to just sit back entirely, general manager Jim Benning chose to find a number of bang-for-your buck players who could fill up the holes in the roster without having to commit a lot of dollars.

When all was said and done, Benning signed forwards Sam Gagner and Alexander Burmistrov, defencemen Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch, and backup goalie Anders Nilsson.

None of those players were among the marquee free agents available, but they could bring very good value to the team in 2017-18.

Here is a breakdown plus the grades of Vancouver’s five free agent signings.

Sam Gagner

Since when does a 27-year-old centre coming off an 18-goal, 50-point season come cheap? The Canucks got Gagner for three years worth a total of just $9.45 million. It’s a wonder that Vancouver got him with ease at a very low price.

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Gagner has been a steady No. 2 or 3 centre throughout his career. When healthy, he should be good for a minimum of 15 goals and 40 points in a season. He also had a Corsi-for percentage of 54.8, according to

Coming off a resurgent year with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Gagner plenty of speed and puck possession to a Vancouver team that was deprived of both last season.

He’ll likely be the third centre behind Bo Horvat and Henrik Sedin, but a strong showing at some point could get Gagner onto the top line.

The Canucks know what they’re getting with Gagner. He’s not a superstar, but he’s going to produce like a quality second-liner. If it doesn’t pan out, it’s only costing Benning a little more than $3 million a season. No risk here.

Grade: A

Michael Del Zotto

A decent puck-moving defenceman nabbed for two years and $6 million. If all goes according to plan, Del Zotto could be one of the Canucks top-four blueliners for 2017-18.

The 27-year-old made headlines in his rookie 2009-10 season, scoring nine goals and 37 points with the New York Rangers. But besides a 41-point campaign in 2011-12, Del Zotto’s numbers have dried up. His defensive play has been a bit iffy, at best.

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But Zel Dotto is an ideal stay-at-home defenceman. He’s registered at least 140 hits at even strength five times. Del Zotto has also posted total 317 blocked shots at even strength over the last three seasons.

Health is a concern, however. He missed 61 games over the last two seasons, and hasn’t played 70 games since 2011-12. Nonetheless, Del Zotto can hit, block shots and lead a second power-play unit. This could be one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.

Grade: B-

Anders Nilsson

With Ryan Miller joining the Anaheim Ducks on a two-year deal, Benning had to find a suitable replacement for Jacob Markstrom. So he found Anders Nilsson, signing the 6-foot-6 Swede to a two-year deal worth $5 million.

Nilsson’s record with the Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17 was just 10-10-4. However, he also had a terrific .923 save percentage on a pretty mediocre team. And he may be more than just a backup in Vancouver.

According to Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre, Benning said that Markstrom and Nilsson will be fighting for the starter’s role this upcoming season.

Nilsson is good enough to at least be a backup goalie. He’s not being paid too much nor is he expected to compete as a No. 1. Worst case scenario, he plays behind Markstrom and gets 20-30 starts a season. No long-term risks here.

Grade: B

Alexander Burmistrov

The Canucks signed Burmistrov to a one-year deal worth $900,000, hoping the 6-foot-1 centre can provide some toughness and depth down the middle.

Burmistrov was drafted eighth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010, but he hasn’t come close to living up to his potential. His best season in the NHL was 2011-12, scoring 13 goals and 28 points for the Winnipeg Jets.

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With Horvat, Sedin, Gagner and Brandon Sutter all slotted in at centre, Burmistrov has his work cut out for him. Unless Sutter is moved to the wing, it’s unlikely that Burmistrov’s a regular in Vancouver’s lineup.

But again, Benning is losing nothing with this signing.

Grade: C

Patrick Wiercioch

Wiercioch joined his home province team, signing a one-year deal worth $650,000.

But this is nothing more than a move to add depth on the blue line. With Chris Tanev, Alexander Edler, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, Erik Gudbranson and Michael Del Zotto on the blue line, Wiercioch isn’t going to see that much ice time.

Wiercioch does have great size (6-foot-5, 202 pounds), so the Canucks could use him frequently against physical opponents like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

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He hasn’t played more than 57 games in a season, so don’t expect to see a whole lot of Wiercioch. It’s just better to use him (if a defenceman gets sidelined), instead of calling up inexperienced players from the minors.

Grade: C