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Free agent targets

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks management has made no secret about what their primary target is entering free agency: scoring from the wing.

It’s a sensible approach. The club addressed a significant need earlier this offseason with the Erik Gudbranson deal and Vancouver has six NHL-level defensemen under contract at the moment. That number should balloon to eight shortly with Philip Larsen expected to sign and Andrey Pedan having been tendered a qualifying offer. There might be some back-end upgrades available on the open market, but in terms of roster space, the club seems to be set.

It’s a similar story in goal, where Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom will return. They were a bright spot for the Canucks during a tough 2015-16 campaign and remain a solid bet to provide average or better goaltending next season.

Up front though, the club could use some help. Though Vancouver has enough NHL-level forwards to fill their roster at the moment, the club finished 29th in the NHL in goals for a year ago and could use a significant injection of skill and dynamism. It’s expected that the club will chase at least one, and potentially two, scoring forwards when the market opens on July 1.

Let’s group a list of 10 forwards into a few categories – top-six wingers, bottom-six forwards and short-term bargains – and look into what they might be able to provide.

Top-Six Forwards

Milan Lucic

Former Vancouver Giant and prototypical NHL power forward Milan Lucic has been linked heavily to the Edmonton Oilers in recent days, but still remains a probable target for the Canucks.

The 28-year-old has an unmatched physical game, but is also a super-efficient goal scorer – mostly because no one can move him out of the slot – and an under-rated playmaker, who consistently has an enormously positive impact on his teams ability to generate shot-attempts, shots and scoring chances.

The long-term deal it might take to sign Lucic could get a bit funky on the back-half of the deal, but in the short-term, Lucic is a bona fide top-line scoring winger and would make the Canucks so very much tougher to matchup against.

Loui Eriksson

Loui Eriksson has been like the Alex Burrows of the Swedish National men’s Ice Hockey Team since winning World Championship gold with the Sedin twins back in 2013.

There’s a level of familiarity there. Eriksson will turn 31 before next season, but still has the speed and overall checking game to qualify as a high-end defensive winger. He’s also a credible second-line point producer and could conceivably hit 30 goals if given a regular shift with Vancouver’s top line.

Mikkel Boedker

Boedker’s advantage over the other top-six forwards in the market is his relative youth. The former Arizona Coyote is just 26-years-old, which could make him attractive as a Plan B for a club like the Canucks who are likely still a few seasons out from icing a contending team.

Though Boedker has a good deal of speed and skill and has the versatility to play the point on the power play, at even strength he hasn’t historically driven offense or play. He’s also a left-handed shot, which on a team with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, could neuter some of his power play utility.

Andrew Ladd

Hailing from Maple Ridge, B.C. – Andrew Ladd is a 30-year-old forward and two-time Stanley Cup champion that can still contribute at a first-line level on the wing.

Over the past six years Ladd has averaged over 50 points per campaign while playing a high-end physical game and developing a well-earned reputation as a top defensive winger.

Ladd is one of four first-line caliber wings on the market this summer – along with Lucic, Eriksson and Kyle Okposo – and while he doesn’t quite possesses Lucic’s passing ability or overall offensive value, he’s probably a more valuable defensive piece.

Troy Brouwer

Troy Brouwer is another B.C. born forward who plays a heavy game.

Brouwer, 30, is coming off of a stellar playoff performance that could serve to inflate his value in unrestricted free agency. Realistically though, Brouwer is a third-line caliber point producer who hasn’t generally been a positive contributor in terms of his teams ability to control the run of play.

At the right price though, Brouwer could be a good fit, particularly because his size and right-handed shot could be an intriguing fit in a net-front role on the first power-play unit.

Short-Term Bargains

Thomas Vanek

The need to replace Radim Vrbata’s right-handed shot on the power play is paramount, and that’s one area where Thomas Vanek – who was recently bought out by the Minnesota Wild – could make sense on a short-term deal.

Though Vanek is 32-years-old and has seen his production and two-way game atrophy somewhat with age, he’s still a decent bet to score 20 goals and if he’s looking for a one-year deal to rebuild his value he could be a good fit with the twins on the power play.

David Jones

Coming off of a disappointing season, Jones is another candidate for a short-term contract.

The 31-year-old who makes his home in Vancouver is a few years removed from his days as a 20-goal scorer, but he can still rip it and has the right-handed shot the Canucks should be looking for.

Sam Gagner

Gagner, 26, has never lived up to his top prospect billing – he starred on a line with Patrick Kane in junior – but he’s been a reliable 40 point forward when he’s been given the ice time to produce.

Gagner is also a right-handed shot, which merits inclusion on this list. Like Vanek and Jones, he’s worth considering as a Plan B.

Bottom-Six Forwards

Darren Helm

Before putting in two mostly-healthy seasons with the Detroit Red Wings in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Helm, 29, battled significant injuries that wiped out two the better part of two seasons. Fortunately those injuries haven’t inhibited his speed or overall effectiveness.

The speedy forward – and former Medicine Hat Tiger – is versatile and fast. Though he won’t be confused for a power-play contributor, he has the ability to pitch in offense at a third-line rate and has generally shown himself capable of driving play.

At the right price, Helm could be a useful depth piece.

Vernon Fiddler

Vernon Fiddler, 36, is probably best known to Canucks fans for his spot-on Kevin Bieksa impersonation. In recent years though Fiddler has actually managed to turn himself into one of the most consistently productive fourth-line centres in the game.

Fiddler is a reliable bottom-of-the-lineup defensive piece that is also a good bet to pitch in 20-25 points per season, which isn’t all that common for a fourth-line centre. Because of Fiddler’s age he’ll require a risky 35+ contract, which will likely keep the term of his deal down.

If the dollars matchup, Fiddler’s name is an intriguing one.

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