Canucks bet big on grit in Free Agency, but at what cost?

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The Canucks made a number of signings on the first day of NHL free agency, and if you’re anything like me, it left you with a bad taste in your mouth. That, and some salty language.

But let’s see if we can fix that, shall we?

Jim Benning and Co. have truly embraced the idea of making the Canucks grittier by signing three depth players in Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Tim Schaller. But there’s a major catch; it came at a premium cost of $9.8 million per year and, in the case of Beagle and Roussel, long term four-year deals.

Regardless of whether or not these contracts make sense for a team in the Canucks’ situation, with the amount of games and money at stake the club absolutely has to make this work. So today let’s take a look at the three newest Canucks, see what each of them bring to the table and figure out what Vancouver needs from each player to bring the team success.

Jay Beagle – 4 years, $12 million

One of the, er, “big names” to hit the free agent block on July 1 was Jay Beagle, thanks in large part to his role during the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup this spring. The 32 year-old centre scored eight points and played in all but one of Washington’s postseason games en route to putting “Stanley Cup Champion” on his resume.

Beagle comes to the Canucks with 471 games worth of experience over the last ten seasons with the Caps, scoring 116 points in that timeframe. The Calgary native has honed his craft as a depth piece behind the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, while earning a reputation as a skilled faceoff man.

Last season Beagle finished fourth in the league in faceoff percentage among players who took 300 or more draws, winning a career high 58.5% of the 998 faceoffs he took. At even strength his winning percentage in the dot improves to 60.1%, putting him in third behind only Antoine Vermette and Ryan O’Reilly in that category.

Aside from faceoffs, Beagle brings a level of toughness that Travis Green has been desperate to bring into the Canucks lineup. Measuring in at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Beagle will be expected to take big minutes on the penalty kill and outmuscle the opposition at both ends of the ice.

But there are two major issues facing Beagle and the Canucks, the first of which are his low offensive numbers. Beagle’s best scoring season came in 2016-17 when he notched 30 points, but last year the number sank to 22. The second problem is age; Beagle will turn 33 just a few weeks into next season and he’ll be 36 by the time his four-year deal expires. These two factors lead me to believe that, unless a lot of things go the Canucks’ way, Beagle’s stats will likely decline over the course of his Vancouver tenure.

Antoine Roussel – 4 years, $12 million

Fun fact; this a return of sorts for Antoine Roussel, who’s first NHL action came as a Canucks PTO during the 2010-11 preseason.

Roussel is coming off a tough year offensively, posting a career low 17 points with Dallas, but scoring has never been his greatest asset. What the 28 year-old does bring are his fists of fury and the ability to get under the opponents skin.

According to hockeyfights.com, Roussel dropped the mitts six times last season, which is actually the lowest number of his six-year NHL career. But the “Fighting Frenchman” still took 126 penalty minutes, thanks to a massive amount of antagonization and a few rude taps with the hockey stick.

The belief among Canucks fans and local media is that this new wave of grit stems from a Jan. 23 game against the Kings where LA’s Trevor Lewis took a run at Brock Boeser and no Canuck came to his defense. Roussel’s intended role will be deterring opponents from taking runs at the Boesers, Horvats and Petterssons of the world and preventing hits like this one.

That’s not to say Roussel can’t contribute offensively, either. Prior to last season, Roussel had hit the 25 point mark for four consecutive years with the Stars. Assuming that he gets a similar opportunity with the Canucks, he’ll likely put up numbers in between those marks.

But the biggest worry with Roussel is how much he can limit his penalty minutes to fighting majors. The Canucks can’t afford to play big parts of games on the penalty kill, and having agitators in the lineup means taking that risk.

Tim Schaller – 2 years, $3.8 million

When I heard that the Canucks had signed Tim Schaller, I only had one question.

Isn’t that the guy who fought Erik Gudbranson last year?

It sure is!

Aside from fighting good-looking lumberjacks, Schaller is a 27 year-old centre coming off a career season with the Boston Bruins, where he played in all 82 games and put up 22 points. As a member of an NHL franchise known for its grit, Schaller also set a personal best in penalty minutes in 2017-18 with 42.

Schaller fills the need for a younger, checking line player who can keep up with the speedy, high powered offense of teams like Winnipeg and Edmonton and shut them down in his own end of the ice. His 6-foot-2 and 210 pound frame mixed with his quick skating could also make him a go-to for penalty kills.

His ceiling isn’t very high, but with his statistics steadily improving over the last four seasons there’s reason to believe that, if given the opportunity, Schaller can find a permanent home in the Canucks’ bottom six.

A Small Rant and Final Thoughts

When I first heard about the Canucks’ signings, I was left shaking my head and completely disappointed. Sinking a massive amount of money and term just for gritty depth players made no sense for a team that’s still a ways off from making the playoffs. For me, it felt like yet another case of Jim Benning and Trevor Linden not understanding where the Canucks are in the rebuild process.

And now, after nearly two weeks to calm down and go over the pros and cons, my mind hasn’t been changed much overall. The Canucks are a team in desperate need of youth and offense, and none of these players provide that.

When the Sedins choose to retire back in April it meant the Canucks would need to find their combined 100+ points a season elsewhere. Not only do these three signings barely help replace the twins’ totals, but they’ll likely end up keeping the players who could out of the lineup.

Assuming the Canucks bring Elias Pettersson home next season and don’t make any other changes, here’s what the team’s offensive depth chart could look like:

Canucks2018-19Roster18-07-13

Comets2018-19Roster18-07-13
Do me a huge favour and ignore the line combos, please.

As skilled prospects like Nikolay Goldobin and Jonathan Dahlen improve their game over the next couple seasons, they’ll find it next to impossible to crack the team thanks to a fourth line making $9.8 million a year.

The Beagle contract in particular stands out to me as the one the Canucks will come to regret. Aside from his faceoff skills, Beagle doesn’t bring much else to the table that the team doesn’t already have. And in the likely event that his stats have already hit their peak, there’s a good chance that Beagle finds himself as a healthy scratch by Year 3 or 4.

But with all of that being said, I have had a change of heart in some aspects of these deals. The Tim Schaller deal not only strikes me as the best of the three, but one with a lot of potential upside. Schaller’s much-needed skills as a checker will make him a favourite of Travis Green, and in the right environment his scoring totals could improve too.

As for Roussel, while I think the term is one or two years too many (especially for an enforcer in 2018), his Alex Burrows-esque play is sure to make him a fan favourite and put a few extra butts in the seats. But more importantly, if his reputation as a brawler makes opponents think twice about running guys like Boeser and Horvat, then the price becomes much easier to stomach.

The Canucks are going to be a very different, grittier team come October. Whether it’s for better or worse, we’ll have to wait and see.


Thanks for reading! What’re your thoughts on the Canucks’ free agent signings? Leave a comment below!

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