Jim Benning’s priority on July 1st was simple: upgrade the blue line.
“Going into free agency, our goal was to improve our defence and I feel real strongly that we were able to do that,” he said, while sitting alongside the biggest player, in both size and name recognition, he brought in that day: Tyler Myers.
Along with Myers, Benning brought in Jordie Benn. He’ll fill the gap on the left side of the Canucks’ defence created when Benning chose not to re-sign Ben Hutton and Derrick Pouliot, but can also comfortably play on the right side, giving the Canucks some versatility in case of injuries or prospects out-performing expectations in training camp.
That’s a pretty solid day’s work for Benning. When you add in Quinn Hughes, that’s three all-new defencemen that should be in the Canucks’ opening night lineup next season, which should provide a significantly different complexion to the defence corps. As of now, the Canucks’ defence looks better, though it remains to be seen how much of an improvement it will be.
Myers and Benn weren’t the only additions on July 1st for Benning and the Canucks, however. They also added three more free agents, all of whom have at least a little NHL experience and could see time with the Canucks this season.
So let’s take a quick look at each of these players and where they slot into the Canucks’ depth chart.
Oscar Fantenberg - Defence
Myers and Benn weren’t the only pieces added to the puzzle on defence. Benning also signed Oscar Fantenberg, a 27-year-old Swedish defenceman, who is 6’0” and 205 lbs.
Fantenberg has played just two seasons in the NHL, coming over to North America after playing in the SHL and KHL for most of his professional career. Last season, he played 46 games with the Los Angeles Kings before the Calgary Flames acquired him at the trade deadline for a 4th-round pick. He finished the season with 4 points in 61 games.
The scouting report on Fantenberg is pretty simple: he’s a puck-moving defenceman that is reliable in his own end of the ice but provides very little offensively. He’s a player that the Canucks coaching staff will likely feel comfortable using, but won’t move the needle much.
Of course, for $850,000 for one year, you don’t necessarily need Fantenberg to move the needle. He just needs to be useful depth. With his left-hand shot, he’s a fit to sit alongside Alex Biega in the press box as the team’s 7th and 8th defencemen, ready to step into the lineup when needed.
You can get a general sense of the impact Fantenberg has on the ice with his heatmap from Hockey Viz. When he’s on the ice, opponents rarely get shots from good scoring areas. Unfortunately, neither does his team.
Overall, Fantenberg makes a lot of sense for the Canucks as a depth signing. He’s proven he can play a regular shift at the NHL level, which will likely be necessary, given the Canucks’ usual injury woes. He’s on an inexpensive contract for just one year; nothing to complain about here.
Tyler Graovac - Centre
The Canucks snagged another former Flame in free agency, even if he never actually played a game for the Flames. Tyler Graovac spent all of last season in the AHL with the Flames’ affiliate, the Stockton Heat.
Graovac provides some much-needed centre depth for both the Canucks and the Utica Comets, replacing Tanner Kero, who signed with the Dallas Stars. Graovac has significant size on his side at 6’5” and some NHL experience, playing 62 games in the NHL, mostly with the Minnesota Wild.
While Graovac wasn’t particularly good with the Wild — he had the team’s worst corsi percentage in 2016-17, his closest to a full season with the club — he is coming off a career year in Stockton. He racked up 24 goals and 50 points in 65 games, leading the team in goals and finishing second in points.
Graovac has a good shot, but his skating and defensive play have kept him from sticking in the NHL. That said, it wasn’t all that long ago that the 26-year-old centre was considered an important part of the Wild’s future, so maybe there’s an outside chance that he shocks everyone and becomes a legitimate NHL option for the Canucks.
It’s far more likely, however, that he’ll provide some offence for the Comets, and be an option as a temporary injury call up for the Canucks, who lack centre depth outside of their NHL roster. If he does get called up, the Canucks could have three Tylers in the lineup at the same time with Myers and Motte. That’s an utterly dominant Tyler quotient.
He’s signed to a comfortable $700,000 contract for one year. It’s a two-way contract with a $400,000 salary in the AHL, which is on the higher end for the minors, but not unreasonable for what will likely be the Comets’ first-line centre.
Zane McIntyre - Goaltender
The NHL needs more players named “Zane,” because it’s a name for cool dudes.
Zane McIntyre has decent size for the position at 6’2” and the work ethic, technique, and athleticism to go with hit. The biggest issue for the 26-year-old goaltender has been consistency.
McIntyre has a pinch of NHL experience, playing eight games for the Boston Bruins in 2016-17, but has spent most of his professional career in the AHL with the Providence Bruins. Last season he had an underwhelming .898 save percentage, which was a step back from two solid AHL seasons.
He was at his best in 2016-17, when he posted a superb .930 save percentage in 31 AHL games and looked like a solid bet as at least a future NHL backup. The fact that his play slipped after that season likely frustrated McIntyre as much as the Bruins. He won the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s best goaltender in 2015 and was the runner up for the Hobey Baker to Jack Eichel, so the Bruins were hoping he’d be a future starter.
McIntyre’s slipping play meant he was easily available to the Canucks at the bargain basement price of $700,000 for one year on a two-way contract. His contract is identical to Graovac’s, paying him $400,000 in the AHL, which speaks to his pedigree at that level.
McIntyre shared the crease in Providence in 2017-18 with another goaltender in his mid-20’s that took a big step forward: Jordan Binnington. In Providence, Binnington worked with the Blues’ development coach Dave Rogalski, who also happened to be McIntyre’s longtime goaltending coach during his high school and USHL days.
Now McIntyre would surely love to follow in Binnington’s footsteps, becoming a Calder candidate at 27 like Binnington did at 25. The odds are stacked against him, of course, as the Canucks suddenly have more goaltending depth than they really need.
That wasn’t true last season, when Michael DiPietro was thrust into NHL action well before he was ready, but you could argue the Canucks have overcompensated.
The Canucks have Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko at the NHL level, and now have four goaltenders behind them in the pecking order. DiPietro will turn pro and play in Utica, where he’ll most likely split starts with McIntyre. That leaves Jake Kielly, a Mike Richter Award finalist who signed with the Canucks in April, without a spot in the AHL. He’ll likely be sent down to the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL. And, oh yeah, there’s also Richard Bachman, the veteran. Where’s he going to play?
It’s not the worst problem to have. Some teams carry three goaltenders in the AHL and one long-term injury could erase the problem entirely and make them happy to have an overabundance of goaltenders.
Adding McIntyre means the Canucks have two Mike Richter Award winners in their system, since Thatcher Demko won it the year after McIntyre. If McIntyre can once again find the form that made him the best goaltender in college hockey and briefly one of the best in the AHL, he could be a pleasant surprise for the Canucks.