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Canucks notebook: Chasing Coyote blue-liner tough with asking price high, cap space low

Veteran defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, left, sticks close to Adam Gaudette of the Vancouver Canucks during NHL action earlier this year. Is it possible the two could become teammates next season?
Veteran defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, left, sticks close to Adam Gaudette of the Vancouver Canucks during NHL action earlier this year. Is it possible the two could become teammates next season?

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning is hoping to get a lot done in the coming days.

But that might not happen, the man who has now been in charge of the Canucks for six years, told Postmedia News on Thursday.

“I’m not getting much accomplished, but I am laying a lot of ground work,” he said, without revealing much in regards to the various issues he has in front of him.

He then downplayed the situation: “I don’t know if I’m going to get anything done.”

Benning has three high-profile free agents to either retain or send on their way in goalie Jacob Markstrom, winger Tyler Toffoli and defenceman Chris Tanev. It’s likely that Benning would be unable to retain all three, given there’s just $15 million in cap space available and the GM needs to sign six players.

He also has a pair of restricted free agents to make decisions on in defenceman Troy Stecher and winger Jake Virtanen.

With all this in mind, here are some thoughts on where the Canucks sit with just over a week before free agency:

Chasing a defenceman

It’s believed Benning has enquired about Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The skilled 29-year-old blue-liner has been linked to a number of teams, so it’s not a big surprise the Canucks might have called.

It also fits a pattern. Benning recently enquired about the Wild’s Matt Dumba. Add in the report from TSN 1040’s Rick Dhaliwal that the Canucks have yet to make an offer to Chris Tanev and you can see Vancouver looking to shift the composition of their blue-line in a bigger way than just adding one or two youngsters like Olli Juolevi or Jack Rathbone.

The problem there is that Ekman-Larsson’s deal is enormous — it runs for another seven years and will pay him $8.25 million per season.

To bring in the veteran defenceman, Benning would likely have to send Loui Eriksson and his $6-million cap hit the other way. Eriksson is only due $5 million more over the remaining two years of his contract and there’s no doubt that Coyotes’ owner Alex Meruelo, who is facing financial challenges, would jump at the chance to save nearly $6 million each of the next two seasons by making this swap, even if there’s a clear on-ice downgrade between the two players.

Benning hasn’t said it directly, but the Canucks are looking for way to get out from under Eriksson’s deal, since that would allow them to make other moves, including possibly retaining all three of the high-profile free agents. If they were to add Ekman-Larsson, it’s difficult to see how they retain Tanev.

A trade for Ekman-Larsson would also surely involve draft picks and prospects to make it palatable for the Coyotes. With Quinn Hughes and Alex Edler already locked in on the left side and Jack Rathbone most likely still a year away from being NHL-ready, would Olli Juolevi perhaps find himself going the other way?

The Virtanen question

It was interesting to hear Jake Virtanen’s name surface with two different “insiders” on Tuesday. Both Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and TSN’s Darren Dreger claimed that GM Benning had been taking calls on Virtanen, who is a restricted free agent and holds arbitration rights.

It’s widely expected that Virtanen and his agent Kevin Epp would opt for salary arbitration if they don’t receive a solid offer from Benning. And given how much salary arbitration cases are weighted on simple counting stats, the fact Virtanen scored 18 goals is a big checkmark in his favour.

Most observers Postmedia News have spoken to believe Virtanen would win a deal that would pay him around $3 million per season.

A win like that for Virtanen would more than double what his last cap hit was and given how tight the Canucks’ salary cap situation is, if nothing else were to change — like, say, being able to remove or at least reduce Loui Eriksson or Brandon Sutter’s cap hits through a trade — that would make it difficult for Benning to construct an optimal roster for 2020-21.

We know that Virtanen has been pitched to other teams as a trade chip in the past, but the Canucks’ asking price — a first-round draft pick — was deemed too high by potential suitors.

Benning expressed disappointment in his initial draft pick this summer, both in the fact that Virtanen was seen on social media carousing in public before July’s training camp — even if he was following the rules in place at the time — and that he was mostly quiet during the playoffs.

Other teams have taken note of this and likely won’t be interested in shipping a first-round pick for Virtanen. And when they ponder the raise that Virtanen is seeking and the chance that the Canucks don’t qualify him because they want to avoid an arbitration battle, they could also say “why trade for the player now if he’s going to be an unrestricted free agent in a week?”

All that said, here’s another variable to consider: Epp is also Ekman-Larsson’s agent.

Escrow

A variable that is worth considering in the Eriksson situation: if the Canucks end up not finding a trade partner and are forced to bite the bullet and simply re-assign him to the Utica Comets, his salary won’t be subject to escrow.

While in the AHL, players aren’t members of the NHLPA and thus aren’t subject to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.

That means Eriksson would receive the full value of his contract while in the minors, and not have 20 per cent chopped off as has been agreed by the players and owners for 2020-21.

After being paid out this summer on a $3 million signing bonus, the veteran Swede is now owed just $5 million over the remaining two years of his contract.

pjohnston@postmedia.com

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