Earlier this month, the NHL went through yet another frenzy of free agent signings. The majority of players who had expiring contracts were looking to cash in with one of the other 29 teams that would pay them more money.
These annual bidding wars and frenzies of signings are far from what a free agent once represented. As recently as 20 years ago, the main reason a player became a free agent is because his team didn’t want him anymore. The athlete marketplace wasn’t like it is today, and there weren’t many star players who ever made it to free agency.
During the history of the Vancouver Canucks, the majority of their teams have been built through the draft and through trades. For example, almost the entire Vancouver Canucks team that made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994 were players drafted by the team (Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure) or were traded to the team (Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall, Greg Adams, Jyrki Lumme, Jeff Brown, Kirk McLean).
But there were a few free agents that came to the Canucks in their early days and made an impact, and the team has evolved into an active player in the free agent market today. Let’s take a look at the seven best free agent signings in the 40-year history of the Vancouver Canucks and rank them accordingly.
Like I alluded to in the opening slide, there weren’t many star players who ever made it to free agency 30 years ago, so NHL teams needed to be creative when it came to acquiring new players. In the Vancouver Canucks' case, this meant thinking outside the box and looking outside the continent.
Signing European players in the early 80’s wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, but the Canucks have always had a special relationship with the country of Sweden.
Lars Molin was a skilled forward who enjoyed a successful career playing for the legendary Swedish Elite League club Modo prior to signing with the Canucks in May of 1981. The Canucks already had two of Molin’s former Modo teammates playing for them in Thomas Gradin and Lars Lindgren, so this likely helped sway him to sign in Vancouver.
Molin’s best season with the team was his first, as he notched 46 points in 72 regular season games. He was also an unlikely hero for the Canucks in their equally unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982, as he tallied 11 points in just 17 playoff games, which tied him for third on the team that year.
In total, Molin played just three seasons in the NHL (all with the Canucks) before finishing his career back in Sweden. He may not have been the most memorable Swedish player to lace up the skates for the Canucks, but his contributions should not be forgotten.
The Smithers, B.C. native was thrilled to sign with the only NHL team in his home province on July 1 of last year, and the Canucks were equally happy to have him.
Dan Hamhuis is arguably the Canucks best defenseman right now, and his 23 points in 64 games don’t even tell half the story of how good he is at shutting down the opposition. He is also a feared body checker and played a huge role in getting the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals this year.
Hamhuis will likely move up on this list if he keeps playing like the elite NHL defenseman he is. But for now, he has only completed one full season with the team, so we need to put things in perspective.
He has five more years remaining on his $27 million contract, and so far, he appears to be worth every penny.
Much like Hamhuis, it’s difficult to rank Mikael Samuelsson because he is still playing with the Canucks. He may move up on this list within the next couple of years, but that’s far from a guarantee.
Of the two seasons Samuelsson has played here in Vancouver, his first was easily his best. He reached 30 goals for the first time in his career and also achieved a career high in points with 53. But his best work came in the 2010 playoffs, when he led the team in scoring with 15 points in just 12 games.
An injury unfortunately forced Samuelsson to miss much of the Canucks 2011 playoff run, and when he did play, he was not nearly as effective, putting up just three points in 11 games.
It’s difficult to say how much longer Mikael Samuelsson will remain a Canuck. He signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal in July of 2009, so he has just one more year left under that contract. He is 34 years old, so his time with the Canucks might be almost over, but he has been a steady offensive contributor to the best roster in Canucks history and deserves to be recognized for it.
His most memorable years in the NHL may have been with the Hartford Whalers, but Andrew Cassels did spend three years with the Vancouver Canucks as a playmaking second-line centre.
Cassels was a strong contributor to the Canucks team that transitioned from the dark days of the Mark Messier era to the West Coast Express era that saw the Canucks as contenders once again. He had a total of 168 points in 198 games in his three seasons as a Canuck, which was third best on the team during those years behind only Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi.
This offensive production from Cassels helped get the Canucks back into the playoffs in 2001 for the first time since 1996.
Andrew Cassels isn’t one of the most memorable players in Vancouver Canucks history. But during an era where almost all the top Canucks were either draft picks or were acquired through trades, he was one of their best players who signed on the dotted line as a free agent.
As the Canucks transitioned out of the West Coast Express era and into the Sedin twins/Roberto Luongo era, former GM Dave Nonis was looking for a strong stay-at-home defenseman to protect Luongo. He found that man during the free agent frenzy in July of 2006.
He was born in Port McNeill, B.C., and many Canucks fans remembered him as a member of the Minnesota Wild team that eliminated the Canucks from the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Willie Mitchell is one of those players whose contributions go far beyond the stat sheet. His long stick came in handy for knocking the puck away from the opposition, and his strong play in his own zone resulted in him being a plus-49 in his four seasons with the Canucks.
Mitchell’s best season was in 2008-2009, where he racked up a career high 23 points and was a whopping plus-29. Unfortunately, in the 2009-2010 season, Mitchell was forced to miss the final 34 regular season games plus the playoffs due to a concussion. That marked the end of his four-year contract and the Canucks didn’t resign him that summer.
But despite how Willie Mitchell’s career as a Vancouver Canuck ended, he should be remembered as one of the better defensemen in team history. He played an important role on some of the better teams in Canucks history and was a great free agent signing back in 2006.
Another former member of Modo of the Swedish Elite League, Lars Lindgren signed with the Canucks on June 5, 1978. In the five seasons that followed, he became one of the best defensemen in franchise history and is still a Canuck legend from the early 80’s.
Lindgren was a very talented puck-moving defenseman who also played tenaciously in his own zone. His career high in points was 35, which came in the 1979-1980 season. However, the following season was his best, as he put up 22 points in just 52 games and was a plus-16.
In the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982, he was integral once again, as he played a ton of minutes and notched six points from the back end.
On October 20, 1983, the Canucks traded Lars Lindgren to the Minnesota North Stars, and that marked the final season Lindgren would ever play in the NHL. He returned to Sweden to finish his career, but he’ll always be remembered as one of the top defensemen during an important era in Canucks history.
There wasn’t a single person in the entire city of Vancouver who took notice back on October 21, 2003 when the Canucks AHL affiliate (the Manitoba Moose) signed a young ball hockey player by the name of Alexandre Burrows to a minor league contract.
Close to same apathy was displayed by the Canucks fan base when the actual NHL team signed him to a two-way contract back in November 9, 2005. But since then, Burrows has gone from a fourth-line agitator who was used mostly in penalty killing scenarios to a first-line sniper who has scored some of the Canucks biggest goals in recent history.
Over the last three seasons, Burrows has been one of the most valuable players on a team filled with high-end talent. He does it all for the Canucks. He’s still the same physical agitator who is great on the penalty kill, but he has developed his offensive skills to the point where he notched more than 25 goals in each of the last three seasons. His best goal and point totals came in the 2009-2010 season, where he scored 35 times and picked up 67 points.
Who knew that of all the free agents that have signed with the Vancouver Canucks in their 40 year history, the best of the bunch wouldn’t be a high-priced talent in the prime of his NHL career. Instead, it is an undrafted journeyman whose career began in the ECHL.