The 2011 NHL free-agent frenzy period was a busy time for all 30 teams, but it was much more hectic for some than it was for others. Thankfully for the Vancouver Canucks, they were one of the teams that weren’t as busy.
The Canucks were the best team in the 2010-11 regular season and the second-best team in the playoffs, so there’s no need to bring in a ton of new faces.
Generally speaking, if you’re part of a team that feels it needs to make a ton of changes, it’s either because you’re not a very good team to begin with, or you’ve just lost many of your top players to the free-agent market.
Obviously, the Canucks don’t fall into the first of those two categories, but they were in danger of losing some of their top players.
It wasn’t easy keeping the core of the 2011 Western Conference champions in place. After all, your top players are bound to get noticed when your team is as good as Vancouver was, so GM Mike Gillis was put to work in order to lock up his free agents.
Let’s refresh and grade the moves the Canucks made in order to solidify and hopefully improve their team heading into the 2011-12 season.
We’ll start by getting the significant loses to the free-agent market out of the way:
There just wasn’t enough room under the salary cap for the Canucks to re-sign both Christian Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa. Therefore, they let Ehrhoff walk to the free-agent market. He doesn’t appear to have the same ties to the city of Vancouver or the Canucks that Bieksa has, and he was looking for a long-term deal that GM Mike Gillis wasn’t willing to hand out.
The Canucks loss is the Buffalo Sabres gain, although they paid a hefty long-term price to get him. Ehrhoff’s 50 points will be hard to replace, and the Canucks didn’t sign another defenseman capable of producing even half of those 50 points.
Instead, the Canucks are hoping the rest of their deep defence core will collectively step up and fill the void left by Christian Ehrhoff.
The 2010-11 season was filled with peaks and valleys for Raffi Torres. But no one can deny the physicality he brought to the Canucks third line.
However, the emergence of trade deadline acquisition Chris Higgins in the playoffs made Torres expendable. It wasn’t that Mike Gillis couldn’t afford to sign Torres, he just chose not to.
Perhaps, Gillis feared the risky nature of some of Torres’ hits might earn him more suspensions in the future or perhaps he just felt he could get a better player from the free-agent market.
Regardless of the reasons why the Canucks chose to let Raffi Torres sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, only time will tell if his forceful body checks and timely scoring will be missed.
Overall, the departures of Ehrhoff and Torres won’t be easy to recover from, but it could have been much worse. The Canucks could have also lost Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Chris Higgins to unrestricted free agency, which would have been a huge blow.
The entire team will need to step up to replace the grit of Torres and the scoring abilities of the Ehrhoff, which is a challenging but reasonable request.
As a potential replacement for the departed Raffi Torres, the Canucks signed free-agent winger Marco Sturm to fill a void on either the second, third or fourth line.
It’s hard to predict what the Canucks will get out of Sturm. He’s nearly 33 years old and played just 35 games for two teams last season, notching 16 points in those games.
The optimist would point out that if you average those totals over an 82-game season, Sturm’s point totals were slightly better than Torres’. But the pessimist would argue that the German forward was given plenty of opportunities to provide offense while playing alongside some extremely talented players on the L.A. Kings and Washington Capitals, and he didn’t even average a point every other game.
At the very least, the $2.5 million awarded to him by Mike Gillis seems like a gamble given his shortened campaign last season. However, the potential is there for him to have a 20-goal season because he’s done so seven times before in his NHL career.
Mike Gillis could have let Chris Higgins sign elsewhere last month, and not many fans would have lost much sleep over it. But Gillis chose to re-sign Higgins, which I believe was a smart move as he was an unsung hero for the Canucks throughout the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Higgins proved he has both the offensive capabilities and the grit to play on either the second or third line, which will come in handy for head coach Alain Vigneault over the course of a long season.
He also appeared to have good chemistry with Ryan Kesler, which is something the Canucks obviously need out of any winger who is going to play on the second line.
Gillis was able to sign Higgins for two years at $1.9 million annually, which is a great deal for a player who stepped up his game at the most important time of the season.
Hopefully, Higgins can bring his drive and passion to the table for a full 82-game season as he’ll be a key component to the Canucks offense in 2011-2012.
For the second straight year, the Canucks and Jannik Hansen came dangerously close to needing salary arbitration to settle their contract dispute. Then again, maybe this was just part of their negotiation tactics, and they really weren’t as close to an arbitration hearing as we thought.
Regardless of how the Canucks qualified Hansen, the deal got signed, and this time, it’s a three-year contract at $1.35 million per season. This is not only a bargain for the Canucks, but it’s a longer term contract than what we’re used to with Hansen so we won’t have to worry about him signing elsewhere or his rights being traded for at least three years.
Hansen was a huge part of arguably the best third line in the league last season. He put up decent offensive numbers, but he also killed penalties, checked tenaciously and was a ball of energy during the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Even though he wasn’t an unrestricted free agent, getting Jannik Hansen signed to a reasonably priced deal was a very good move heading into the 2011-12 season.
This was the Canucks most important move of the offseason. Bieksa was one of the most coveted free agents to hit the market, except he never made it there because Mike Gillis re-signed him to a five-year deal worth $4.6 million a year.
That kind of money isn’t a bargain for Bieksa, but it’s also not an overpayment compared to the ridiculous money thrown at some free agents in the first few days of July.
Bieksa has the most complete game of all the Canucks defensemen. He can score, hit, fight and move people out from the front of the net. He was one of their best players in the postseason and if the Canucks had lost him to another team along with Christian Ehrhoff, it would have been a disaster.
For locking up one of the core pieces to a potential championship team next season, Mike Gillis gets top marks for keeping the man known as “Juice” in Canuck nation for five more years.
If re-signing Kevin Bieksa was the Canucks most important deal of the offseason, re-signing Sami Salo was their best deal.
With player salaries almost as high as they were just before the lockout when there was no salary cap, getting a top four D-man to sign for just $2 million is a steal.
Sami Salo might be 36 years old, and he also might be one of the most injury plagued athletes of all time, but when he’s healthy, he is a strong force on the back end. His powerful slap shot and steady play in his own zone make him a commodity that any NHL team would love to have.
The fact that the Canucks were able to re-sign a solid unrestricted free agent like Salo is a good thing. The fact that they were able to keep him for just $2 million is even better.
Aside from Maxim Lapierre, who has a new two-year contract, the Canucks fourth line and depth forward positions will look completely different this season.
Almost everyone else who played any sort of a role on the bottom line for the Western Conference champs in 2010-11 is gone. That includes Tanner Glass, Jeff Tambellini, Alexandre Bolduc, Guillaume Desbians, and last, but certainly not least, Rick Rypien (rest in peace).
In the place of those players, the Canucks have brought in Mark Mancari, Andrew Ebbett, Byron Bitz and Mike Duco. They’ve also given Owen Nolan and Todd Fedoruk the opportunity to try out for the team, which should make the competition that much stiffer for roster spots.
It’s difficult to grade such a huge overhaul of players that don’t have big roles on the team, especially when little is known about many of the new players that have been added. Hopefully, someone can step up and fill the toughness void left by Rypien and Glass.
One thing we do know for sure is that the Canucks appear to have plenty of depth at the forward position in case of injuries.
One fourth liner who is still up in the air is Victor Oreskovich. He currently does not have a new contract, but the Canucks own his negotiating rights so there isn’t any fear of losing him to another team for the time being.
Expect him to be back in the mix before the regular season begins.
Overall, the most important goal of the Canucks management this offseason was to keep the team's core intact. After all, when you finish one game from winning the holy grail of hockey, there isn’t much need for big changes.
With the exception of a couple of players, their mission was accomplished. The 2011-12 version of the Vancouver Canucks is extremely similar to the team that we watched throughout the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs—at least for now.
Time will tell what the Canucks roster looks like as the regular season takes shape but expect them to be right in the middle of the Stanley Cup hunt regardless of who comes and goes throughout the season.
Final Offseason Grade: B+
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