With the exception of Thomas Vanek, every Vancouver Canucks free agent acquisition from last summer have failed to live up to expectations through the half-way point.
Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning played the free agent market smart last summer. Instead of handing out one big contract to a marquee player (hello, Loui Eriksson), Benning went shopping in the bargain bin.
Benning wanted to up the offence, so he signed Thomas Vanek to one-year deal worth $2.5 million and versatile forward Sam Gagner to a three-year pact worth $9.45 million. He also signed former first-round pick Alexander Burmistrov to a one-year contract.
So far, Vanek has been one of the top free agent signings. He has 13 goals and 32 points over 45 games, and may very well be traded at the deadline as the Canucks try to load up on draft picks and prospects.
But the other four signings have not worked out so far. All have failed to generate major impacts on the ice, and it’s contributed to this team being near the bottom of the Western Conference once again.
Gagner’s struggles, Burmistrov out
Gagner was supposed to be the Canucks’ biggest impact free agent signing. Coming off a career-high 18 goal and 50-point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Gagner was supposed to bring speed and play up-and-down the lineup.
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But no matter where head coach Travis Green has put Gagner, the 28-year-old hasn’t found his footing in Vancouver.
He has just seven goals and 21 points through 45 games, and a woeful Corsi For percentage of 45.8. Gagner’s minus-15 rating also leaves a lot to be desired.
As for Burmistrov, he didn’t get much playing time under Green. He suited up for just 24 games, scoring two goals and four assists. Burmistrov was brought in to add depth down the middle, but he wasn’t pleased enough with that.
Burmistrov retired from the NHL, and signed with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan. It was simply a one-year deal, so Benning won’t be at fault for giving it a chance. But Gagner’s been a major disappointment, and the Canucks may want to look at shedding his salary in the offseason.
Del Zotto and Nilsson regressing
Del Zotto took the league by storm as a rookie for the New York Rangers in 2009-10, scoring 10 goals and 37 points. With the exception of a 41-point season in 2011-12, Del Zotto hasn’t topped his rookie season.
So the Canucks knew what they were getting in Del Zotto when they gave him a two-year contract. What they have is a merely average No. 4 defenceman with two goals and 14 points on the season. Del Zotto’s Corsi For percentage of 44.9 is also woeful, to say the least.
According to Corsica, Del Zotto has a -1.2 Relative Corsi percentage, and a -0.06 expected goals differential per 60 minutes. Simply not good enough.
As for Nilsson, he won four of his first five starts and looked like a legitimate threat to Jacob Markstrom for the starting job. But Nilsson has lost his last five starts. He’s up to 6-7-1 on the season with a 3.57 goals against average and .901 save percentage.
The good news here is that both Del Zotto and Nilson are playing as we expected them too. Neither were supposed to be game-changers, and they’re both under contract for just one more year at fairly cheap $3 million salaries.
At the end of the day, Benning made a handful of low-risk, high-reward signings — with only Vanek paying off so far. The good news is that unlike the Eriksson contract, none of them carry long-term cap constraints nor consequences.
There is time for Del Zotto, Gagner and Nilsson to turn things around, but all three have struggled through the first half of 2017-18. Of course, any Canuck not named Brock Boeser or Chris Tanev has struggled throughout the season.
But if the free agent additions continue to struggle, it will serve as another reminder that the Canucks have to be careful in free agency. More often than not, signing players have failed for this team in recent years.
*Stats courtesy of Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted*