There is no rest for the weary, as the saying goes, and for NHL general managers the adage appears to be very true. Certainly Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks would agree; after dropping their head coach and dipping into the AHL for his replacement, Benning now has to set his sights on the draft and the looming free agency period.
There is no question that the Canucks have not found success, and in that regard Benning has not been successful in managing the team. On the other hand, the Canucks have only two unrestricted free agents to worry about heading toward July 1 and only one has been a key player for Vancouver in the past few seasons.
Benning must re-sign Ryan Miller. The veteran goaltender is getting on in years — Miller will be 37 just after the free agency period begins. His performance hasn’t been incredible in his three seasons in Vancouver, but his statistics haven’t wavered so much that he doesn’t deserve at least another year.
It’s especially important that Benning keeps Miller because, at this time, there is no plan B. Backup Jacob Markstrom has yet to prove he’s a viable NHL starter. There isn’t anyone in the pipeline that is ready for the league, either; Miller is the only proven starting goaltender on Vancouver’s roster.
The only other UFA is Jack Skille — a $700,000 right wing who turns 30 on Friday. Perhaps it’s marginalizing him to say that players of his ilk are a dime a dozen but, truly, Vancouver can find another player of Jack’s … skill level … for probably the same price.
What follows the pair of unrestricted free agents is a hefty list of young talent in Vancouver’s restricted free-agent pool. Four Canucks have hit the end of their entry-level contracts, and several more are looking for bridge deals, and with less than $20 million in salary cap space, Benning has some big decisions to make.
One decision that’s a no-brainer will be re-signing Bo Horvat — it’s beyond a given that he will be back. The young forward has been one of the most dominant players in Vancouver’s lineup; he led the team in points in the 2016-17 season and was one of the team’s most consistent two-way forwards.
He has improved statistically in each of his three seasons in Vancouver and has even seen his possession stats improve over his career. This season, his points per 60 jumped from 1.71 to 2.40, over half a point per even-strength 60 minutes.
The Canucks struggled to score all year, which makes Horvat irreplaceable. It almost doesn’t matter what Horvat is asking, Benning is going to have to pony up. Of all of the players that Vancouver has, the Canucks can least afford to lose Horvat, his production, or his potential leadership.
Thanks fans for your support this year! Can't wait to get back out there in front if you next… https://t.co/qp0RrzV7SL
— Erik Gudbranson (@Guddy44) April 21, 2017
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson will be another key signing for Benning this offseason. Injury shortened the 25-year-old’s season, but when he’s healthy, Gudbranson is a stout blueliner — one thing that Vancouver is noticeably short on.
It is also reasonable to expect that Gudbranson will contribute offensively, as well. Though he managed only six points in his 30 games this year, his points per game improved on a team that performed far worse than the Florida Panthers, where he played his first five NHL seasons.
Gudbranson saw his most icetime in Vancouver, which is an indication of the team’s trust in the young defender. The Canucks will be close to the cap, so shoring up a top-four defenseman will be key for Benning this offseason.
Heavy is the head that bears the crown, and in Vancouver, that head is Benning’s. He has a lot of work to do in a short time. The Canucks have been terrible, and it will be unacceptable for the team not to hit the 2017-18 season in a better position than they have been over the past two. Surely, Vancouver can take a few steps in the right direction by signing these three players who will be integral the the team’s success in the coming season.