Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Vancouver Canucks 2014 UFA Wishlist

Unrestricted free agency opens in a matter of hours, so I figured I might as well outline the players I'd target if I were Jim Benning and what I'd want the Canucks' lineup to look like going into next year. I touched on this on Twitter earlier. After playing with Capgeek's Armchair GM function. Here's what I came up with:

Keep in mind that lines are pretty fluid. Nick Bonino is the 13th F here, but that's more because I see him playing all over the lineup as needed rather than in a rigid role, filling in for inevitable injuries as well as regularly playing up and down the lineup. Jeff Sullivan, an excellent Seattle Mariners writer, once pointed out that while you have a 5-man starting pitching rotation planned in the offseason, you really need to plan to have 7 or more starters because someone is going to get injured at some point. In hockey, this is even more true. Even if a guy is projected to be your rarely-used 13th forward, he's still likely going to play the vast majority of your games.

I've also tried to avoid veteran guys who may be over the hill. Specifically, I've targeted guys in their mid-20's who still have prime years of hockey ahead of them. If unrestricted free agency is about paying players for what they've accomplished so far in their careers, then I want guys who haven't accomplished much yet but look like they will in the next 3-4 seasons.

The $3.833M also leaves some wiggle room if you have to pay more for some guys, and not all the names on this list look familiar ("Brett Bellemore?? Why'd you want him?") so I'll go over my reasons for each guy below.

Mathieu Perreault: He's on the young end of the UFA spectrum at 26 (the same age as Nick Bonino), and is basically the player that Jim Benning and the Canucks hope that Bonino is. He's traditionally an effective puck possession player, and a super efficient scorer. Since 2011, his Pts/60 rate is nearly identical to that of Patrick Kane, Max Pacioretty, Patrick Sharp, and James Neal. Here's how he's compared to Nick Bonino over the course of their respective careers:
With Zack Kassian and a strong possession player like Alex Burrows, Perreault could centre a very, very effective "soft minutes" scoring line.

Mikhail Grabovski: Run out of town after being a good depth player in Toronto, Grabovski still brings a strong two-way game at 30 years old. He's the oldest UFA I've looked at, but he's still well suited to a middle-6 C role where he can handle tough minutes and drive possession in the right way while posting some pretty solid boxcars. I don't think that any line with Grabbo on it would be a "3rd line," so I prefer to look at it as a second 2nd line with Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen.

Grabovski's player usage charts are pretty hilarious from the last few years too, as he's been a lone blue dot in a sea of suck like this past year with Washington:
Paul Stastny is probably the ideal UFA option here, but I'd be exceedingly nervous about locking into Stastny for the cap hit and term he's surely going to command on the open market. Grabbo would give the Canucks a massive upgrade in middle-6 C depth, and may be the best #3 centre that Vancouver would ever have.

Michael Del Zotto: Once a promising young player, MDZ's reputation has taken a beating over the past couple of years due to some iffy defensive zone play. While it's true that his Corsi numbers aren't great given his deployment, he still seems to bring solid, second pairing powerplay upside.

The biggest reason to take a home-run swing on an MDZ reclamation is that he's only 24 years old. He still has ample time to find and refine his two-way game, and taking short-term home-run swings on young skill guys is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. Christian Ehrhoff, Anton Stralman, and Tom Gilbert are all legitimately better players right now, but you endanger yourself of locking into a known guy for too much money over too long a term in the UFA period. Going the MDZ route still gives you upside, but also ample flexibility going forward, assuming you're not giving the guy 3 or more years of term.

Del Zotto could become a good 3rd paring guy in the right situation, and he's still young enough that it's possible he has untapped potential. After all, Oilers people love to talk about how much potential Justin Schultz has despite being a train wreck of a defender. MDZ is just 12 days older than young Schultz.

Brett Bellemore: At first glance, Bellemore seems like a standard plodding pylon of a defenseman that was carried by Ron Hainsey in Carolina. At 6'4, 225 lbs he certainly has plenty of meat and potatoes, but his WOWYs are fairly uninspiring. Digging a little deeper though paints a picture of a very effective and nondescript prototypical shutdown defender.

First of all, one explanation for Bellemore's iffy WOWYs is that he played with noted anchors like Jay Harrison when away from Hainsey, while Hainsey was allowed to work with young and dynamic Ryan Murray and a strong possession player in Justin Faulk while not with Bellemore.

Bellemore also had by far and away the lowest ZoneStart% of any regular Hurricanes D while facing slightly above average competition. A 48.4% Corsi isn't fantastic, but it's more than acceptable for a right-handed depth D making less than $1M/yr. Corey Sznajder of the Zone Entry Project fame was very complimentary of Bellemore too, describing him as the "perfect third pairing defenseman [that] isn't over his head in the top-4 with a good partner" and pointing out that Bellemore was among the Hurricanes best defenders at stopping opposing zone entries:
Bellemore is also a really, really good penalty killer, and at a young 26 years of age and presumably pretty inexpensive, the type of meat-and-potatoes I really wouldn't mind the Canucks take a swing at for bottom pair/second unit PK duty.

Zach Redmond: A little-used Jets cast-off, Redmond has seen limited NHL time over the last few years. He's been very effective in this tiny sample however, carrying a career 55.1% Fenwick. Most of the intrigue surrounding Redmond stems from his AHL play though. According to our friend Garret Hohl, Redmond generates a boatload of shots at the AHL level, which bodes well for a possible #6 option with powerplay upside at the NHL level. He's also been a 0.55 Pts/GP D at the AHL level over the past two seasons, and was a huge part of St. John's Calder Cup run this past year, posting 14 points in 21 games - good for 3rd on the Ice Caps in playoff scoring.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding Redmond, I'd probably pencil Brett Bellemore in ahead of him on the depth chart, but he's the type of gamble you'd be smart to make for short term and low dollars, especially since he's just 26 years old. If he works out, you have yourself a cheap 6'2, 205 lbs right-handed defenseman with modest offensive upside. If not, you have an elite AHL defender for Utica to help Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk play in the offensive zone more often.

Justin Peters: As we've learned more and more about goaltending, we've actually learned more than anything that we don't know anything about goaltending. Single season performances are wildly variable, and guys can come out of nowhere to lead their team to the Cup finals (Leighton and Niemi in 2010 anyone?). Even Jonathan Quick wasn't Jonathan Quick when LA won their first cup - and in this past run, he was kinda awful for rounds 1-3.

Locking long-term into goalies for big money seems like a terrible idea then, especially if the guy you're looking at is going to be 34 years old this next season. Instead, and especially since Eddie Lack seems like the real deal to be an above average goaltender (which is really all you need), Vancouver would be better off hedging their bets with Markstrom and bringing in a Thomas Greiss/Chad Johnson/Peters type. I lean towards Justin Peters of those three because he's the youngest, and because Kevin Woodley singles him out in this great discussion on Canucks Army. Really though, any under-30 backup with a track record of strong play is preferable.

In a perfect world, the Canucks can pry young RFA Michael Hutchinson out of Winnipeg, but that's unlikely to happen.

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This Canucks lineup is far from perfect (Linden Vey on the 1st line is definitely a huge question mark, but he can be replaced by some younger farm hands or Bonino or Burrows as needed), but it solves a lot of their middle-6 depth issues, and I think it would be competitive within the brutal Pacific division - barring any huge improvement to Anaheim's D, they could probably take the Ducks in a playoff series.

More importantly, these moves don't handcuff the team going forward. They won't be put in an impossible cap situation next year thanks to massive bonus overages owed to veteran players ("Thanks Jarome!" - Boston), they won't be locked in long-term to a once great playmaking C that has lost it by the 3rd year of his contract, and they won't be paying an aging goalie a dangerous amount of money over his declining years, especially since that worked so well last time

True contenders are built through the draft and through shrewd trading anyways, so perhaps the best thing that Jim Benning can do on his inaugural UFA day is nothing at all.

1 comment:

  1. I like this a lot. It even fits in to what you were saying last month about the (cringe) "LA model": if some of these cheap guys work out well and put up some good numbers, they could be bundled together and shipped off to get us some impact talent and/or first-round picks.

    Unrelated to that, I still like Frank Corrado. Guys with huge contracts notwithstanding, the Canucks blueline definitely doesn't look like it's gonna be a problem going forward.

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