How the Vancouver Canucks should handle their restricted free agents

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 28: Sven Baertschi
VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 28: Sven Baertschi /

Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks will make decisions on 11 restricted free agents this summer. Here is how I would go about on dealing with each of them.

This offseason for the Vancouver Canucks will be busy in more ways than one. Fans will get to go through the masochistic ritual that is the draft lottery very soon, setting up expectations for the upcoming draft.

Vancouver is losing two of the best players to have ever worn the jersey and could look to replace their production (good luck with that). The addition of unrestricted free agents is interesting because on one hand, the Canucks are planning on being significantly below the salary cap. On the other hand, the team is very interested in James Neal and Tyler Bozak. Go figure.

As of today, the Canucks have 32 NHL contracts out of the maximum 50. With 11 restricted free agents, that would bring the total up to 43 (assuming everyone is brought back). That leaves seven contract slots for prospects and free agents from the NHL, Europe, NCAA and CHL.

Cap space won’t be an issue as the Canucks could have anywhere between $25-30 million to work with depending on the final salary cap next season. I would prefer to use that to extract picks from cap-strapped teams. But, Canucks fans have learned that we can’t have nice things. Let’s take a look at who should return and how much money is fair for each player.

*Note: All contract information is courtesy of CapFriendly

RFA’s in Utica

Five players will become restricted free agents this summer. This group includes Griffen Molino, Michael Chaput, MacKenze Stewart, Anton Cederholm and Cole Cassels. Let’s cut to the chase. I don’t think the Canucks should bring back Stewart or Cederholm.

Stewart has been in the Canucks system since 2015, playing a grand total of six games for the Utica Comets. Flip flopping between defenceman and forward, Stewart could hardly produce in the WHL, so it’s no surprise he struggled in the ECHL. He was a nice story, given his circumstances, but it’s time to cut the cord. If Benning is desperate to keep him, sign him to an AHL deal.

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Cederholm is a prospect from the Gillis era. I don’t know why Benning has hung on to him for this long, considering his struggles in Sweden and North America. There is no reason to keep him around. I would let he and Stewart go unqualified.

There’s not a lot to say about Michael Chaput. He’s a good AHL forward that can serve as a 13th forward for the Canucks. I would qualify him with a one-year deal, worth $721 875 (105% of his current salary).

Molino was not very good this season, putting up 10 points in 46 games. He is depth for the Comets, so the Canucks could retain the 24-year-old forward. His single year qualifying offer gives him $874 125.

Cole Cassels, son of former Canuck Andrew Cassels is still finding his way in Utica. Despite only putting up 26 points this year, Cassels is a regular checking centre for the Comets. Remember when he shut down Connor McDavid in the OHL playoffs? That felt like it happened ages ago.

He probably won’t play too many NHL games, but is worth qualifying since he won’t count as a veteran yet. Cassel’s qualifying offer is set at $715 000.

Troy Stecher

The Canucks already have six defencemen committed to next season, so it appears Jim Benning’s job is easier in this area of his NHL roster. For him, the easier of the two restricted free agents is Troy Stecher.

Richmond’s pride and joy had a bit of a down year from his rookie season with 11 points instead of 24. Keep in mind, Travis Green drastically reduced Stecher’s even strength minutes at the start of the season and kept him off the power play all year. Still, when the injuries piled up, Stecher did what he always does and stepped up to hold down the top pair with Alex Edler.

He is 24 and I would look to offer him a two-year bridge deal in the range of $1.5-1.85 million per season. Jim Benning should have learned from Ben Hutton‘s contract that he shouldn’t commit too much money on a small body of work. If Stecher solidifies himself in the top four, then the Canucks won’t mind paying him later.

Stecher does have arbitration rights, but I don’t think his agent could argue for a deal above $2 million per year. I like him a lot, but he had 11 points.

Derrick Pouliot

As for Derrick Pouliot, I have concerns. He also has arbitration rights and is very likely to exercise them. Pouliot may be Benning’s first real test with arbitration.

With 22 points and a fixture on the second unit power play, Pouliot has comfortably found a place in Travis Green’s defence. It helps that Pouliot is one of the coach’s favourites as well. His draft status as a former 8th overall selection should have little value, but it will. Hockey culture strikes again! It’s silly that draft status can affect negotiations, but welcome to the NHL.

I would look for a two-year bridge with pouliot in the $1.6-$2 million AAV (average annual value) range. The Canucks should make sure that he can consistently produce in tougher minutes next year and not be a flash in the pan like Yannick Weber was in Vancouver.

To me, Pouliot’s offensive contributions don’t outweigh his defensive flaws. If Benning wants to win his arbitration hearing with Pouliot, he needs to be tough and show why his shortcomings will prevent him from an expensive deal. Can he do it? Anything could happen. But I would guess no.

Jake Virtanen and Reid Boucher

Last, but not least is the forward group. Reid Boucher is a solid 13th forward for the Canucks if they give him enough of a chance. I do wonder that the addition of prospects and UFA’s will push him off the main roster. The leading scorer for Utica should be qualified to a one-year deal worth $721 875.

Jake Virtanen should be an easy contract to negotiate. He has no arbitration rights, is coming off a 20-point season and has not made enough improvements to warrant a substantial raise. I have seen Canucks Twitter and it is scary how many of you are ready to hand out four-year deals like they are nothing. The money they are talking about is ridiculous as well.

If it were up to me, Virtanen gets the Sven Baertschi-style bridge deal. Two years, $1.85 million per year. Throw in a performance bonus if Jake hits 15 goals. There is no reason the Canucks should overpay just because he was Benning’s first draft pick and the Canucks have a lot of cap space. Save that space for the future when Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson cash in.

Markus Granlund

Moving on to Markus Granlund. The Finnish forward had a disappointing season, which benefits Jim Benning during this negotiation. However, Benning has to be very careful with Granlund. There are too many times where he pays for players based on what they can be and not what they are.

At 25 years old, Granlund is looking more and more like a bottom six winger with the utility of a centre. He is not Patrice Bergeron, nor does he defend remotely to the same efficiency. I think he can be a useful player going forward, but the Canucks don’t need to commit to Granlund.

A fair deal would be another two-year bridge, $1.15-1.35 million per season. There is no reason to buy UFA years on Granlund because to be honest, he is very replaceable. He may have arbitration rights, but I will be impressed if he is awarded anything above $2 million per season.

Sven Baertschi

Finally, we can talk about the big fish. Sven Baertschi is looking to cash in this summer. Jim Benning overpays many of his players, but even he won’t be able to avoid arbitration on this one. I am concerned that Baertschi’s camp will be looking for somewhere north of $4 million per year with term.

That scares me. Baertschi is not a first line forward and his offence gets a significant boost from Bo Horvat. Add in Brock Boeser this year and Baertschi could ride that line to a payday. Keep in mind, all of his analytics are terrible. He is a good finisher and decent playmaker, but there is no data that supports the idea that his production is sustainable.

Remember, Baertschi is the same age as Granlund, so he is right in the middle of his expected prime years. Benning can’t fall into the same trap of paying for what he thinks Baertschi is. The Swiss forward is not part of this core; he’s a stop gap forward.

This is why I would prefer to trade Baertschi. Jim Benning is not winning an arbitration hearing with Baertschi’s camp. These negotiations are going to be rough for Benning. He is going to get burned. Seeing Baertschi making more than $4 million per year on the third line will be a bad look. And sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time a contract backfired on this group.

Benning needs to realize that not all players need UFA years bought out. That’s how you get burned and stuck with disappointing players with term. Short deals give you flexibility with your cap and your roster.

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This helps you avoid signing anchors like Loui Eriksson and Erik Gudbranson. Having this much cap space can be scary since Benning is so quick to spend money. A calm and calculated approach is the key to success this summer. The Canucks can’t just look at what will happen next season, they have to really look with the future in mind. Managing your RFA’s is a big step in doing that.