Jason Garrison loves going home to Vancouver every summer.
It will be even nicer not having to leave in the fall.
The Vancouver Canucks brought the late-blooming, hard-shooting defenseman home with a six-year, $27.6 million contract as the opening day of free agency wound down Sunday evening. That means Garrison no longer has to worry about making his annual cross-continent flight back to Florida, where he had 16 goals and 17 assists in 77 games for the Panthers last season.
"From traveling from the furthest point you can in the League, to not traveling at all," Garrison told NHL.com over the phone from Chicago, where he spent day at his agent's office fielding offers. "I'm very excited to stay home and play in front of my friends and family in my hometown. Growing up, every kid dreamed of playing for the Canucks, and I was like everybody else."
Garrison was excited enough to leave money on the table after a breakout second season with the Panthers. The 27-year-old didn't play his first full season in the NHL until 2010-11, but followed that last season by finishing third among defensemen with 16 goals – nine on the power play – before becoming an unrestricted free agent on Sunday.
"He was a high priority on our list," Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said after losing defensemen Sami Salo (to Tampa Bay) and Aaron Rome (to Dallas) as free agents earlier in the day. "It's hard to find big, strong defensemen in their prime that you can sign."
Gillis intimated Garrison took less to sign with the Canucks, allowing them to keep intact a salary structure that will see his $4.6 million annual salary cap hit match incumbent Kevin Bieksa's at the highest end, just slightly ahead of Dan Hamhuis ($4.5 million), Keith Ballard ($4.2 million) and Alexander Edler ($3.25 million) among a strong defensive core.
"He had real desire to play here, which he articulated to us this morning," Gillis said of the 6-foot-2 defender. "We have a mobile defense, we wanted size, another guy that can shoot the puck on the power play and we wanted character. He fit all those criteria."
Garrison agreed with the late-bloomer label. Undrafted, he was playing tier-2 Junior A in the BCHL as a 20-year-old before spending three seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he played with Canucks forward Mason Raymond, who is still a "very close friend."
Garrison only played one game in his first pro season after signing with the Panthers in 2008, but split 2009-10 season between Florida and the American Hockey League before moving up for good two years ago. He scored five goals in 73 games his first full NHL season, but more than tripled that last season, setting a single-season franchise record with 16 goals while averaging 23:41 of ice time and helping the Panthers make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
That the breakthrough came playing alongside skilled veteran Brian Campbell has some wondering if it might be a peak for a player who was never drafted and only played 190 career NHL games before becoming a highly sought-after unrestricted free agent this summer.
"I don't think I've peaked yet," Garrison said.
Neither do the Canucks.
"We felt strongly he is a player that is evolving and given our circumstances he would have an opportunity to continue to evolve," said Gillis, who wasn't willing to give Salo the second season Tampa Bay offered. "We have pairings that work and certainly have a place on the power play for a shot like that. We think there's further upside and hope in our environment and style he'll continue to evolve."
Garrison is confident he'll get that chance with a Canucks team that has won the past two Presidents' Trophies as the NHL's top regular-season team. In addition to talking with Raymond about locker-room dynamics, he has gotten to know a handful of other Canucks veterans at pick-up skates around Vancouver over the past couple of summers. And Garrison had a front-row seat for the run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final two summers ago.
"I live downtown, so I was right in the heart of that whole experience," he said, "and I'm not going to lie. I was extremely jealous – I think that is the polite way to put it – and now I'm just looking forward to being in that position with them next time."
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