Vancouver Canucks Kick Off Free Agency with Flurry of Activity

USATSI_10002744_154158418_lowresThe Vancouver Canucks were among the busiest teams on Saturday, making the most of the first day of NHL free agency.

They signed forwards Sam Gagner and Alexander Burmistrov, defencemen Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch, and goalie Anders Nilsson. They also saw goalie Ryan Miller sign with the Anaheim Ducks and re-signed Anton Rodin.

The Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild, but the acquisitions on Canada Day seem more about establishing some veteran presence than charting a new course. That’s by design.

“We wanted to add experienced players to help with the development of our kids,” general manager Jim Benning said. “These players are still relatively young, they add speed and skill, and it will help with the competition for ice time and jobs. Now our young players have to earn spots.”

Gagner was signed to a three-year contract worth $9.45 million. The 27-year-old spent 2016-2017 with the Columbus Blue Jackets but has been somewhat of a journeyman as of late. He’s skated with the Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, and Edmonton Oilers. He spent the bulk of his career in Edmonton, scoring 49 points in his debut season. He had 50 points in Columbus this season.

Burmistrov split last season between the Winnipeg Jets and Coyotes and piled up 16 points, including five goals with Arizona. The 25-year-old is a versatile forward and a natural centre, although he can suit up at all three positions.

Del Zotto was signed to a two-year deal worth $6 million. The 27-year-old defenceman had 18 points in 51 games with the Flyers in 2016-2017, including six goals. In 484 games for the Flyers, Nashville Predators and New York Rangers, Del Zotto has 189 points. He’s a good skater and will find a spot on Vancouver’s power play.

“The biggest thing in free agency was the opportunity for me, being able to get back to more of an offensive role that I didn’t have the last couple of years,” Del Zotto said.

Burnaby’s Wiercioch is tall at 6’5 and cuts an imposing figure to go with impressive reach. He was signed to a one-year deal worth $650,000. He’s surprisingly mobile for his size and is capable of putting up solid offensive numbers. He had a dozen points for the Colorado Avalanche this season and was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Nilsson is, simply put, an enormous goalie. At 6’6, 229 pounds, he covers a lot of the net in the butterfly. He went 10-10-4 for the Buffalo Sabres this season, with a 2.67 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. The Swede joins 6’6 goalie Jacob Markstrom, also a Swede, to form one of the tallest tandems in the NHL.

The Canucks apparently tried to re-up Miller, with Benning noting that he talked contract with the netminder. In the end, Anaheim had the better offer and Miller signed a two-year deal.

Vancouver’s been looking for defensive depth and some of these signing will help in that regard, with Luca Sbisa picked up by the Vegas Golden Knights and Nikita Tryamkin heading back to Russia. With Alexander Edler still at the top of the blueline marquee, there’s room for movement and growth. Chris Tanev, Troy Stetcher and Ben Hutton should see expanded roles in 2017-2018.

Will this flurry of activity change things in Vancouver? That seems likely. The team had a poor season in 2016-2017 and can only improve from the basement, but there’s still a way to go as well. The rebuild is in full swing and its direction, at least for now, seems to involve a strong mix of veteran presence and youthful growth.

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