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How To Rebuild A Defence Under A Salary Cap

In the salary capped NHL one must be careful when rebuilding a team.  It is important to do it while avoiding the long and often unnecessary process of blowing up everything and spending years out of contention.  Most teams are not in such bad shape that blowing everything up is a defenceable move.  The Vancouver Canucks have a top level goaltender in Roberto Luongo and a pretty good group of forwards led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin.  Their defence was looking rather thin.  The Canucks had four returning defencemen who had reasonable success last season in Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Sami Salo and Willie Mitchell.  The only other proven NHLer on defence was Shane O’Brien, who played a lesser role with the team last year.  It was clear that some additions were needed on defence.

When in that situation, most teams show up money in hand on the first day of free agency ready to hand a lot of it to the best defenceman they can find.  It is a move that can work out, but it often doesn’t as teams usually spend a lot of money in a long term contract that lasts well into the decline phase of the player signed.

Only two defencemen changed teams this summer who can truly be classified as all stars.  They are Jay Bouwmeester who jumped from the Florida Panthers to the Calgary Flames and Chris Pronger who jumped from the Anaheim Ducks to the Philadelphia Flyers.  Neither was truly available on the open market.  Calgary traded to get Bouwmeester’s negotiation rights before free agency began and had him signed before he officially became an unrestricted free agent.  Pronger was traded (at a significant price) to Philadelphia.  Both players signed long-term expensive contracts.  Both players come with question marks.  Bouwmeester has never been a serious Norris Trophy candidate and has put up some very poor puck possession numbers while playing for a bad Florida team.  Pronger turns 35 in October and should be into the downside of his career.  Both deals could wind up as large overpayments. 

When a team cannot acquire an all star to fill their vacancies (or feels that it is too big a risk) it is important not to show up when free agency opens to throw a lot of money at whichever lesser player you think best fills your needs.  Even if that player is a member of your team, as Mattias Ohlund was, letting him go if another team (in this case the Tampa Bay Lightning) offer $24.5 million over seven years is intelligent.  You only have so much salary space and there is no point using it up to overpay players when their replacements come at a fraction of the costs.  Most of the non-all star players signed early in the free agency period get huge longer term contracts that will become a burden to the team that signs them.  There are always players who don’t get signed early in the free agency period and players who become available relatively cheaply in trades when teams want their salary cap space.  Waiting for these guys to become available at a cheap price is a very valuable move.

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks saw that opportunity.  They traded to acquire Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich from the San Jose Sharks.  It cost tow players who are failed prospects.  Pat White and Daniel Rahimi were the cost.  White is struggling in the NCAA.  He scored 16 points in his sophomore year with the Minnesota golden gophers last year.  Daniel Rahimi scored six points in the AHL last year.  They are former 1st and 3rd round draft picks respectively, but at this point neither project to be significant NHLers.  The trade was a salary dump for the San Jose Sharks.  Last year Ehrhoff scored a career best 42 points, but showed some defensive weakness. He is only 27 years old and could still be improving.  A different role on a different team might allow him the chance to succeed.  Brad Lukowich is a solid but unspectacular defenceman.  Neither come with huge long-term salary hits that an early July free agent signee would.  The Canucks also signed free agent defenceman Mathieu Schneider.  Schneider is on the downside of a very good career, but still was quite useful last season.  This gives them the defensive depth they did not have earlier this summer and they did it without making any large long-term salary commitments. 

It is very possible that the Vancouver Canucks new defence will perform equally well as a much higher priced one would have if they acted in early July, but without the cost and long-term commitment.  If these defensive additions do not work out in Vancouver they can try again to replace them next summer.  This is unlike the early July additions where teams are stuck with them at large cost for many years into the future.

Vancouver GM Mike Gillis had an intelligent plan to rebuild the Vancouver Canucks defence and executed it well.  He resisted the urge to jump in too early and overpay, but he brought back talent nevertheless.  The talent he brings back comes cheaper and without long-term commitment.  This is a smart way to add depth to a team in the salary capped NHL.

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.

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