What we're hearing about the Canucks' draft plans and free agency priorities

As busy as the Vancouver Canucks have been in the past 48 hours — extensions for Teddy Blueger, Dakota Joshua and Tyler Myers, a cap-clearing deal to shed most of Ilya Mikheyev’s salary — the club still has every intention and the flexibility required to remake its roster over the course of the upcoming long weekend.

Functionally, the Canucks still have about $15.5 million in cap space to spend, and only four skaters and a backup goaltender to add to a projected roster that is now rapidly filling up.

Next up is the NHL Draft, which begins on Friday evening in Las Vegas. Vancouver will continue to work the phones and stay in the mix at the event, but the importance of this year’s draft is diminished for the club relative to the normal offseason flow.

The Canucks have already used their draft picks to upgrade last season’s 50-win side. They won’t be on the clock for the first time until late in the third round on Saturday and only hold five 2024 draft picks in total.

This year the draft is more of an appetizer from a Canucks perspective. There’s work to be done for Vancouver’s amateur scouting staff and value to be mined in the later rounds, but the bulk of the club’s attention is fully trained on the beginning of the 2024-25 league year, and the opening of the market for unrestricted free agents on Monday.

Canucks hockey operations leadership is excited about how the market is shaping up. For the moment anyway.

Things can and do change in a heartbeat as rival teams continue to work toward extensions with their own expiring free agents, as the Canucks have themselves throughout this week. As it stands, the Canucks intend to swing aggressively and have the cap space to do so.

The goal is a simple, but ambitious one. This is an organization that believes it’s close to meaningfully contending for the Stanley Cup. On Monday, the club will look to add an established scoring forward to the top six. That’s the top priority. The club also intends to try to identify solid glue guys at affordable prices while continuing to add to and upgrade the defence corps.

At the top of the market, we’re hearing the club linked to the usual suspects. Obviously Jake Guentzel is widely viewed as Vancouver’s No. 1 target. The club bid for Guentzel’s services at the trade deadline and it’s expected to do so again if he hits the open market on July 1.

There appears to be a meaningful fit here. Our understanding is that the player finds the prospect of joining the Canucks and flanking Elias Pettersson to be an appealing one. There’s also built-in familiarity between Guentzel and Vancouver’s coaching staff and management team from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Of course, there are still major obstacles that could prevent Vancouver from ever having a chance to even pitch Guentzel in the first place. The Carolina Hurricanes are pushing hard to extend the star winger they acquired at the deadline before July 1. Don’t ignore that the Hurricanes have a massive advantage in contract talks: the ability to offer Guentzel that eighth year, which nobody else can. It’s a factor that dramatically adds to the total value of the contract the Hurricanes can offer the player.

Guentzel’s status is the major one to monitor between now and July 1, but it’s not the only one on our radar.

Vancouver is believed to have at least some level of interest in a variety of the other top forwards bound for the market on July 1, including Tyler Toffoli and Chandler Stephenson. One league source also suggested to us on Thursday that, should Guentzel sign elsewhere, the Canucks would be likely to take a swing at signing Stanley Cup-winning goal scorer and West Vancouver native Sam Reinhart in the event the winger makes it to market without signing an extension in South Florida.

Beyond big-game hunting for an established scoring winger, the Canucks will still look to add at least one defender, most likely two, to their lineup. Right-handed defenceman Chris Tanev — another player the club pursued ahead of the trade deadline — will be a player of considerable interest to the Canucks if he’s still available come Monday morning.

Freeing up additional cap space in the Mikheyev trade has given Vancouver some hope of adding a secondary big-ticket item on the back end, even after extending Joshua and Myers on Thursday.

Tanev would certainly fit the bill if he doesn’t sign an extension with the Dallas Stars before July 1. Make no mistake, the Canucks view Tanev as a world-class person and competitor. His return would be welcomed by his former Canucks teammates, and there’s no doubt that Vancouver still holds a special place in Tanev’s heart given the decade he spent in this city to start his NHL career.

Whether the Canucks are able to land their preferred targets or not is impossible to accurately project at this point. Guentzel will have a lot to think about this weekend as he continues to negotiate with Carolina, and there will be a number of teams in the mix if he makes it to July 1.

Dallas, meanwhile, is pushing to extend Tanev, and suitors like the Toronto Maple Leafs are believed to be planning an aggressive move of their own to recruit Tanev to his hometown team.

What’s clear, however, is that Tanev and Guentzel have been on Vancouver’s radar for a long time. If the club gets a chance to pursue one or both players on Monday, we expect it to prioritize doing so.

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If the Canucks land one or two high-profile free agents, they’re unlikely to have the cap space to keep Nikita Zadorov. (Derek Cain / Getty Images)

Another busy day

Late on Wednesday night and into Thursday morning the Canucks circled back in contract talks with Myers and Joshua.

The club had been holding firm in talks with both players. Its offers had been meagre, especially relative to what both Joshua and Myers could reasonably expect on the open market. Both players, however, wanted to remain in Vancouver, and the Canucks had a sense of that.

On Thursday morning, the club moved to consummate deals with both players. It’s tempting to draw a straight line from the Mikheyev trade to the movement in contract talks with Joshua and Myers, but it’s somewhat more complicated than that, especially in Joshua’s case. The Athletic’s understanding, in fact, is that what primarily drove a resolution between the Canucks and Joshua was that the gritty winger concluded that he just wanted to stay in Vancouver, was willing to leave money on the table and just wanted to get the deal done.

Vancouver upped its offer considerably to Joshua over the past week, finally getting close enough that Joshua and his camp felt comfortable with agreeing to a fair deal — even if they left at least a few million in total contract value on the table.

The impact of the Mikheyev trade was felt somewhat more directly in talks between the Canucks and Myers. Myers is a deeply loyal player and had no intention of departing Vancouver, but the Canucks needed to at least get into the same ballpark as what Myers could expect on the open market for him to agree to stay for less. Vancouver’s offers had been in the low $2 million range, but with more space available to them, the Canucks moved to complete the deal on Thursday, resulting in the three-year, $3 million AAV contract that the two sides agreed to.

So where do the agreements with Myers and Joshua on Thursday leave pending free-agent defender Nikita Zadorov?

Those talks will go a bit quiet for at least the next 24 hours, as Zadorov’s agent Dan Milstein of Gold Star focuses his attention on the NHL Draft. Milstein has 15 clients poised to be selected in Las Vegas this weekend, including as many as six in the first round.

Our understanding is that both sides would still like to find a way to do a deal if they can find common ground, but if Vancouver is intent on pushing chips into the centre of the table and pursuing pricey unrestricted free-agent players like Tanev and Guentzel, how will it have the space to still retain Zadorov?

Change of plan in the crease?

This is an interesting one.

Ever since Vancouver was eliminated in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the widespread expectation was that Casey DeSmith would depart as an unrestricted free agent. There had been no contact between DeSmith’s camp and the Canucks for weeks, until something changed over the past 72 hours.

On Wednesday, the Canucks — who had been behaving like a club intent on trusting Arturs Silovs to backup Thatcher Demko throughout May and June — reached out to DeSmith’s camp to explore the possibility of an extension.

Rather suddenly it seems as if Vancouver might prioritize identifying a veteran goaltender to serve as a primary NHL backup.

Whatever changed has also shifted the equation for Vancouver’s planning in the crease at the AHL level. After weeks of positive talks with minor league netminder Zach Sawchenko, talks dissipated this week, and the club’s Calder Cup playoff hero is now poised to hit the open market. That would imply that the club is keeping a slot open in the AHL, perhaps for Silovs to fill.

So what’s changed to alter Vancouver’s thinking in goal? Has the club decided to purchase additional veteran insurance in goal given that Demko sustained two serious knee injuries at the end of last season? How will Silovs — who believes he’s ready to stop pucks at the NHL level, and proved as much this past spring — react to the change of plans?

There appears to be some smoke and some intrigue around how the Canucks are shaping their plans in the blue paint with the free-agent frenzy approaching.

Odds and ends

The Canucks had multiple options on where to send Mikheyev, The Athletic understands. Both Chicago and the San Jose Sharks were ultimately in the mix, with the player — who had both teams on his modified no-trade list — ultimately preferring the Windy City to the Bay Area. It’s been suggested to us that if Mikheyev had been willing to waive to join the Sharks, that the Canucks may have been able to pull off a similar trade without having had to retain any of Mikheyev’s salary.

One roster-building subtlety to track as the Canucks go through the draft, the qualifying offer deadline and the free agent frenzy this weekend is the 50-contract limit. The club already had 39 of 50 contracts on the books for next season, according to CapFriendly, leaving space for only 11 more contracts (and teams tend to prefer to maintain a few empty slots for flexibility purposes).

With the contract limit in mind, it appears that the Canucks will not tender promising big-bodied forward Aidan McDonough a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. McDonough, 24, had 11 goals in his rookie campaign with the Abbotsford Canucks, and the club invested a lot of time and effort into recruiting him throughout last season. This is a surprise, to say the least.

While McDonough will be cut loose this weekend, the club intends to qualify Jett Woo, although it seems the club is trending toward reaching an agreement with the young, physical defensive blueliner prior to the qualifying offer deadline.

One other Canucks AHL situation to monitor is that of Danila Klimovich, the club’s second-round pick in 2021. Klimovich endured a miserable season last year, battling through injury and inconsistency. With NHL size and NHL offensive tools, Klimovich’s development has appeared to plateau in recent seasons, and there was mounting frustration on both sides as a result.

The club, however, seems to have ironed it out and won’t be giving up on Klimovich this summer. A key selling point to Klimovich’s camp, we’re told, is the opportunity to build a new relationship with first-year AHL head coach Manny Malhotra.

(Photo of Jake Guentzel and Thatcher Demko: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)

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