Since joining the Vancouver Canucks as general manager in 2014, Jim Benning has never been shy about making a splash in free agency.
In his first offseason, Benning picked up two of the biggest names available at the time, signing Radim Vrbata and Ryan Miller. Benning signed Loui Eriksson in 2016 to a contract which he now surely regrets, and added a quartet of roster players last year in Sam Gagner, Michael Del Zotto, Tomas Vanek, and Anders Nilsson.
Armed with a ton of cap space and a pair of roster spots left behind from the Sedin twins retiring, expect Benning to partake in the free agent frenzy again this summer.
He’ll have plenty of financial flexibility if he chooses to do so. According to CapFriendly, the Canucks have just shy of $22 million in cap space available to them. Even after signing all their restricted free agents – Sven Baertschi, Jake Virtanen, Markus Granlund, Derrick Pouliot, and Troy Stecher need new contracts – they should have between $16-18 million to work with.
With that in mind, here are seven unrestricted free agents (UFAs) the Canucks could chase this offseason.
1. John Tavares (New York Islanders)
Stats: 82 GP, 37 G, 47 A, 84 PTS
This is definitely a long shot to happen, but the Canucks are one of only a handful of teams with enough cap space to realistically sign John Tavares this summer.
Whether the 27-year-old Tavares would come play for the Canucks is the question. Nobody knows yet if he is leaving New York, and there will certainly be other teams trying to land him if he does. Players who put up 84 points in a season don’t normally hit free agency.
But it would be a franchise-changer for Vancouver to land a player like Tavares. The Ontario native would immediately be the Canucks’ best player and first-line centre, and boost an offence that has been one of the league’s worst in the past few seasons.
Tavares would likely be looking at a contract in the $10-11 million range with term, but it would be well worth it to add a player of his calibre.
2. James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs)
Position: Left wing
Stats: 81 GP, 36 G, 18 A, 54 PTS
He’s not the biggest fish in the free agent sea, but James van Riemsdyk will generate plenty of interest among teams. The 29-year-old had a career-high 36 goals with Toronto in 2017-18, and will be looking for a raise on his next deal.
Van Riemsdyk would be a great addition to the Canucks’ top-six, but the cost needs to be carefully considered before putting pen to paper. If Evander Kane’s contract is any measure, JVR will probably be looking for a long-term deal worth around $7 million annually.
Is that worth it for a guy who puts up 55-60 points a season? It might be, but the length of the deal needs to be heavily considered to avoid another Loui Eriksson contract abomination.
3. Riley Nash (Boston Bruins)
Stats: 76 GP, 15 G, 26 A, 41 PTS
With Henrik Sedin out of the equation for next season, the Canucks will likely need to sign a centre this summer.
It would be nice to add Tavares to solve that problem, but the most realistic outcome is for the Canucks to look elsewhere to fill that hole.
One good option at centre is 29-year-old Riley Nash.
The Alberta native had a career year with the Boston Bruins last season, putting up 41 points in 76 games in a bottom-six role.
He’s fared pretty well on the defensive side of the puck as well. Nash has maintained a strong 51.7 Corsi-For percentage despite starting nearly 55% of his shifts in the defensive zone.
While not the sexiest option, Nash could be a great fit as a middle six centre in Vancouver.
4. Chris Wideman (Ottawa Senators)
Stats: 16 GP, 3 G, 5 A, 8 PTS
With six defencemen under contract and another two likely to be signed still (Stecher and Pouliot), the Canucks might not have many spots available on their blue line next season.
But a lot can happen between now and the start of the season. Don’t bet against Benning making a trade to shake up the team’s back-end, something that would be made easier if he signs another blueliner in free agency.
A low-profile free agent defenceman option is Chris Wideman.
The 28-year-old right-handed defenceman had his 2017-18 season cut short due to a ripped hamstring after just 16 games. It’s a shame for him since he was on pace for his best season yet.
Wideman had eight points in 16 games until the injury, a 41-point pace. It’s a small sample size, but given his prolific scoring levels in the AHL, there looks to be some potential offensive upside here.
5. Thomas Vanek (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Position: Left wing
Stats: 80 GP, 24 G, 32 A, 56 PTS
Benning signed him once, will he do it again?
Thomas Vanek quickly became a fan favourite in Vancouver last season before he was dealt at the deadline for Tyler Motte and Jussi Jokinen.
Vanek has said that he would be willing to re-sign with Vancouver in the offseason. Did the Sedins’ retirement change those plans?
If he’s interested in another one-year deal at a low cap hit, the Canucks should welcome him back if they have an open roster spot. They might have to wait until late in the summer again for that possibility.
6. Jannik Hansen (San Jose Sharks)
Position: Right wing
Stats: 46 GP, 2 G, 12 A, 14 PTS
Speaking of returning Canucks… Jannik Hansen, anyone?
The Honey Badger was dealt to San Jose by the Canucks at the 2016 deadline, but never found his game with the Sharks.
He fell out of favour in San Jose and was regularly a healthy scratch. He had a disastrous season in 2017-18, and wasn’t dressed for a single playoff game.
So how about a return to Vancouver? Hansen’s work ethic and defensive game made him a valuable player for the Canucks in the past. Bet he didn’t lose it all in one season.
Aside from his on-ice play, his leadership in the locker room would be a huge addition, especially with the Sedins no longer around.
Don’t spend it all in one place
Yes, the Canucks have a lot of money available, but they need to be very careful how they spend it – or if they even spend it at all.
Ever since the salary cap was implemented, cap space has become a valuable asset for NHL GMs. Benning and company need to make sure they use it wisely.