While I do love the image of Roberto Luongo stalking the rafters in the Rogers Arena in a dark robe, perhaps slung over half his face (and Luongo himself might be tempted to actually act this out given the goofball he is) it’s not quite that simple. It’s not even totally the fault of either Luongo or the Canucks, as the cap-recapture penalty is one of the dumber things the NHL has ever instituted and it’s not clear what the players got for acquiescing to it in the 2013 CBA. Because through that process, more chickens are coming home to roost, i.e. two young players still without a contract when all they did was kick everyone’s ass during their first contract.
Canucks training camp opens tomorrow, and yet their two best players, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, will not be there. Both are restricted free agents after their entry-level contracts expired last season. Both are among the league’s best young players at their respective positions. And it might be some time before either one is back with the team, because the Canucks only have $10.6 million in space. That’s not enough to give both Pettersson and Hughes what they deserve as the market has gone.
Part of the problem is that Luongo’s cap-recapture penalty of $3 million still sits on the Canucks payroll like some lazy yet obstinate hippo. Luongo’s massive contract was signed 11(!) years ago, and he was traded to Florida nearly seven years ago. But because it was signed two CBAs ago, under a different set of rules, its cap-number-lowering tactics are still being punished. If the Canucks were $14 million under the cap, as they would be without this silly and over punitive admonishment from this CBA, that might just be enough to get both of their young stars into camp. At least it would be if they took bridge deals.
There are other factors, of course. When GM Jim Benning is the one captaining the ship, you never need a forensic team to figure out how it ended up in the parking lot upside down. The Canucks pulled off a massive deal this summer, money-wise, with the Arizona Coyotes to remove a lot of their dead weight both on the ice and on the cap in the forms of Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and Jay Beagle. The trade did net Vancouver Conor Garland, perhaps one of the only useful players on the Coyotes. But it only saved them a few hundred thousand, thanks to having to take Oliver Ekman-Larsson along with Garland. OEL hasn’t been good in three years, and he’ll be sucking down $7.6 million per season until the Earth’s heat death.
Benning’s splashing of a combined $9 million on Tyler Myers and Travis Hamonic, who together can fill up most of a doorway and not much else, isn’t helping matters much either. And in a flat-cap world, no one is coming to save them on those deals. There’s a fair bit of the Canucks doing this to themselves.
Without Hughes and Pettersson, the Canucks lack any genuine top-line forward other than Brock Boeser or any genuine top-pairing defenseman. WIth them, they’re almost certainly a lock for the playoffs given the Pacific Division’s hilariously weak state (the Golden Knights might push 115 points this year if they feel like it).
Figuring out precisely how much each should get is even harder, and the Canucks are forced to play hardball thanks to their cap situation and both players’ restricted status. And thanks to the Blackhawks suffering some sort of brain bubble and throwing all the money in the world at Seth Jones to the tune of $9.5 million a year, the market for defensemen is completely out of whack. Hughes has unquestionably been better than Jones the last two seasons. Rasmus Dahlin just signed with the Sabres for $6 million a year as a restricted free agent, and Hughes’s agent can easily claim he’s better than Dahlin, too.
Pettersson’s 0.93 points-per-game the past three seasons ranks 31st among all forwards, slotting him in alongside names like Toews, Backstrom, Landeskog, O’Reilly, and Gaudreau, who all earn $7 million or far more. Kirill Kaprizov just re-signed in Minnesota for $9 million a year, and Pettersson could easily make the case that he’s had two and a half (last year he only played 26 games due to injury) seasons that are the equal of what Kirill The Thrill just produced in only 56 games. Cleary, $10 million isn’t enough for both.
There’s some bad luck, and also some baffling decisions keeping Pettersson and Hughes away from Canucks camp. But laying underneath, or above if we continue the metaphor from the intro, is Luongo. This is the last year of the recapture penalty, and then the Canucks will be free of Luongo’s aura that has followed them everywhere the past decade, even when he wasn’t on the team. But can they ever be free? Given the Canucks’ history and their fans’ persecution complex, it would seem not.