May 152009

Willes’ and Cole’s premise that the Canucks need to trade Roberto Luongo – and free up salary cap space to upgrade other positions – doesn’t make complete sense. It’s true that Detroit and Anaheim won the Cup with Osgood ($800,000) and Giguere ($3.9 million). But this year, Chicago and Pittsburgh made the Final Four with Khabibulin and Huet (combined $12.375 million) and Fleury ($5 million). In fact, what these teams have in common isn’t that their goaltenders take up less cap space, it’s that they have players on their roster who outperform their contracts.

Leave it to Tony Gallagher (Vancouver Province) to point this out:

People say Vancouver had too much money tied up in its goaltending with Luongo making $6.75 million this year.

Well, the victorious Blackhawks have $12.75 million tied up in goaltending with Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet combined. But Chicago also has legions of young stars playing great hockey on entry-level contracts.

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Cam Barker, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith are all making peanuts, which allowed the team to pick up Brian Campbell for a load of cash.

Granted, GM Place might not be standing if the Canucks missed the playoffs 11 straight years like Chicago did, but that’s another issue.

Boston, Anaheim and Washington all have solid players on rookie contracts. Even Detroit has Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Andreas Lilja (injured, but big last year), Tomas Kopecky and Jonathan Ericsson all making big contributions at entry-level wages. The Canucks had Alex Edler, Alex Burrows and Rick Rypien, but all are due or already have contracts for big raises next year.

To add to that, Pittsburgh made the Stanley Cup Finals last year with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on entry-level contracts. (Malkin is still on his ELC this season and the Penguins are back in the Eastern Conference Final.) The year before, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were on their ELC, which allowed the Ducks to have both Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger on their blueline; the Ducks of course won the Cup.

Notice the similarities yet? Big contributions, small salaries… and all drafted by their own teams.

In a salary cap world, it’s practically impossible to build a Cup-winning team via free agency. The very nature of free agency – i.e. highest bidder gets the player – pretty much assures that the player will never outperform their contract, which of course has a trickle-down effect through the rest of the roster. (Ask the Lightning and the Rangers.) Teams need to build from within, something the Canucks have had but limited success with in their history.

More from Tony:

As time goes on, and fewer and fewer quality players emerge from the dire poverty that has been the Canucks farm system, murdered by first-round picks such as Patrick White and Michael Grabner, and ravaged by the unfortunate death of Luc Bourdon.

When Dave Nonis took the GM job in Vancouver he identified the farm system as the chief problem from day one. He made marginal improvements but admitted more needed to be done.

Vancouver’s been falling into a deeper and deeper hole relative to other teams in this area, the Canucks now absolutely starved for incoming players who can make a major contribution.

Until this changes the Canucks are almost always going to have too many issue areas and not enough money to plug the holes.

To a point, Mike Gillis was successful in plugging in the holes this season. He was lucky that Dave Nonis left him the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler on discounted contracts and all had career years. He was lucky that the entire defense were signed for reasonable contracts. That said, he was also astute in picking up Kyle Wellwood ($997,500), who chipped in with 18 goals. He got better value from Pavol Demitra ($4 million) than Nonis did with Markus Naslund ($6 million) and Brendan Morrison ($3.2 million). Ditto Shane O’Brien ($950,000) vs. Aaron Miller ($1.5 million). Ditto Ryan Johnson ($1.1 million) and Darcy Hordichuk ($775,000) vs. Byron Ritchie ($675,000), Brad Isbister ($525,000) and Jeff Cowan ($725,000). Gillis then spent his savings on Mats Sundin, who, while overpaid, also filled a role – big, second-line center – and filled it reasonably well.

Next season, the salary cap is expected to stay at around $56.6 million. With only $33 million committed (and Luongo still signed at a relatively cap-friendly $6.75 million), Gillis has approximately $23 million to re-sign or replace the Sedins and Mats Sundin in the top-six, re-sign or replace Kyle Wellwood, Taylor Pyatt, Jannik Hansen and Rick Rypien in the bottom-six, add another defenseman (preferably a puck-moving one) to replace Mattias Ohlund, and sign a back-up goaltender.

The season after is the season most GMs are dreading. Because of the economic crisis, 2009/2010 league revenues are expected to drop and the 2010/2011 cap is expected to be 20%-ish lower than what it is now (to $45 million-ish). By then, the Canucks will most certainly need some of their prospects to fill key roster spots. Within the next couple of years, they need to build a big enough prospect pool because building a contending team through free agency won’t be – or shouldn’t be – their primary option.

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