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Jeff Paterson: Free agency fun

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks

While so many teams around them broke the bank to land new talent when the window opened on National Hockey League free agency, the Vancouver Canucks instead appear to be banking on a couple of veterans returning to form to provide offense for the hockey club next season.

While admitting interest in a few of the notable free agents available but not at the prices they were ultimately able to command on the open market, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis opted to – in his words – gamble on Marco Sturm on a one-year contract and re-signed trade deadline acquisition Chris Higgins for two more seasons.

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Jeff Paterson is an analyst on Team 1040 Radio and is a columnist with the Georgia Straight newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter @patersonjeff

Neither transaction stole the spotlight on the television panel discussions, but both are interesting for their own reasons and both seem to fit the Canucks masterplan of amassing as much versatility as possible in the forward ranks.

Sturm is a risk, there is no question about that. Serious knee issues have limited his production and ability to perform in two of the last three years. But in the years when he’s been healthy, the 32-year-old German has shown remarkable consistency as a 20-25 goal scorer – four times in six seasons since the lockout, Sturm has surpassed the 20-goal mark. In fact, with seven 20-goal seasons on his resume, Sturm joins Daniel Sedin as the only other player on the Canucks roster that can make that claim.

And the belief on both sides is that Sturm can find his way back to being that type of player again next season. But after scoring just once in 18 games after being claimed off waivers by the Washington Capitals from the Los Angeles Kings midway through the 2010-11 campaign, Sturm knows he has plenty to prove and that’s why he felt a one year contract was his best option at this point. There is risk on both sides, but there is also the possibility for sizeable reward.

“I told Mike Gillis I’m doing really good,” Sturm said on a weekend conference call with Vancouver media when asked about his knees. “Obviously, I have had some rough years and even last year when I came back I could tell I just was not ready. And for me now it’s a huge step compared to where I was a year ago. I’m very excited to be healthy again. It’s been a long time.”

Sturm spoke with conviction about his willingness to show the hockey world he can recapture the form that once made him a 29-goal scorer and figures the short-term contract is the best way of motivating himself. When healthy, the former first round draft choice of the San Jose Sharks says speed is his biggest asset which means he could be a fit on the wing with Ryan Kesler.

“I want to be one of the top players like I was before,” Sturm says. “But it doesn’t matter with this team where you fit because it’s a deep team on every line and I’m trying to do my best to get in shape to show everyone that I can still play.”

With Mason Raymond likely to start next season on the shelf with the back injury suffered in the Stanley Cup Final and Mikael Samuelsson working his way back into form after season-ending sports hernia surgery, the Canucks appear to have spots in the top six forward group up for grabs at training camp. Sturm wants a shot at one of those openings and Chris Higgins likely does, too.

Playing with a cracked bone in his foot for the latter parts of the playoffs, Higgins’ work ethic in the post-season was unquestioned. However, in order for the 28-year-old to maintain a spot among the top six forwards, Higgins needs to regain the scoring touch that made him a 27-goal scorer with Montreal as recently as 2007-08.

He demonstrated a willingness to compete in the playoffs and showed an ability to win battles and protect the puck down low in the offensive zone, but needs to find a way to convert those types of shifts into scoring chances. And when the chances present themselves, Higgins needs to find a way to finish.

What’s interesting about Marco Sturm and Chris Higgins is that both players represent the potential to score if put in the right situations. Is it too much to expect the two to combine for 40 goals if both can stay healthy? Staying healthy may be the hard part, but if those two are able to play full seasons, 40 goals may be a lofty target, but it shouldn’t be out of the question.

With Sturm, Higgins and Samuelsson and eventually Raymond, the Canucks appear to have options among their top six forwards. Internal competition and the ability to move players through the line-up based on performance are never bad things. And a player like Higgins could easily wind up on the third line playing more of a grinding game along with Max Lapierre/Manny Malhotra and Jannik Hansen.

Chris Higgins got a taste of winning in Vancouver last season and clearly wants to finish what he started with the Canucks. And Marco Sturm represents an intriguing signing because so much focus is on his knees, but if they don’t give him any further trouble, he’s got hands that can present problems for opposing goalies.

The Vancouver Canucks are taking the approach that both players have a lot more to offer than they showed last season. Training camp and the preseason will undoubtedly be interesting to how the pieces of the puzzle all fit together.

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