Jason Brough

Vancouver Canucks' Jake Virtanen, left, checks Ottawa Senators' Dion Phaneuf during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Canucks would like to add a winger with ‘grit and size’

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The Vancouver Canucks nabbed one of the NHL’s top free agents when they signed Loui Eriksson to a $36 million deal on Friday, but GM Jim Benning still wants more.

“If I had a crystal ball, I would say we’d try to add a winger who had some grit and size to him, who can score,” Benning said, per The Province newspaper.

At the moment, the Canucks only have one big, tough winger with goal-scoring ability, and that’s 19-year-old Jake Virtanen. Considering Virtanen’s not even a sure thing to start next season in the NHL, it’s understandable that Benning wants what he wants.

The challenge now is to find it.

It probably can’t be found in free agency anymore. Milan Lucic, Andrew Ladd and David Backes have all been locked up, and for big money. Perhaps if Shane Doan can’t get something done in Arizona? But that’s a long shot.

It won’t be easy to find in a trade either, mostly because Vancouver doesn’t have all that much to offer in return. Rumor has it that the Canucks have been shopping defenseman Luca Sbisa. Not surprisingly, they’ve yet to find a taker. Sbisa, 26, has a $3.6 million cap hit through 2017-18, and that’s not going to interest many, if any, teams.

 

Five remaining free agents who could be good bargains

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 25:  Radim Vrbata #17 of the Vancouver Canucks and Team Foligno scores a first period goal past Roberto Luongo #1 of the Florida Panthers and Team Toews during the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Nationwide Arena on January 25, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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Radim Vrbata — He had a forgettable 2015-16, scoring just 13 goals in 63 games for the Canucks. This after a great 2014-15, when he had 31 goals and an All-Star Game appearance. The big difference was linemates. Vrbata played most of his first season in Vancouver with Henrik Sedin or Nick Bonino as his center, and it went well. His second one was mostly with Bo Horvat or Jared McCann, and there just wasn’t chemistry with the youngsters. In the “right situation,” he could put up 20 goals again and nobody would be too surprised.

Jiri Hudler — Like Vrbata, he had a great 2014-15 (31 goals) and a less great 2015-16 (16 goals). But Hudler still put up 46 points in 72 games last season, and that’s not too shabby. Granted, he didn’t have a very productive postseason for the Panthers, finishing with just one assist in six games, and that probably didn’t help him on July 1. But Hudler is still only 32, three years younger than Vrbata. He’s got some hockey left in him.

Brandon Pirri — He’s only 25 and he has 49 goals in 166 NHL games. That’s the good part. The major red flag is the fact he’s already been traded twice, first in 2014 from Chicago to Florida, then in February from Florida to Anaheim. Pirri may never be great defensively. In fact, he may never be good defensively. But perhaps on a deeper team where he could be sheltered a bit, he’d be a worthwhile gamble (for a cap hit that could be buried in the minors if it doesn’t work out.)

James Wisniewski — With Jason Demers off the market, Wisniewski might be the best available right-shot defenseman. (Other options include Justin Schultz, Luke Schenn, and Eric Gryba.) The risk is that Wisniewski barely played last season (and we mean barely), but don’t forget that he put up 51 points for Columbus in 2013-14. If he’s healthy — and that’s obviously the big if in his case — he could be a nice comeback story.

Jhonas Enroth — It’s hard to blame the 28-year-old for being upset with how little he played last season for the Kings, considering he finished with a solid .922 save percentage in 16 appearances. But he wasn’t one of the many goalies who found new teams on July 1, and now his options are limited. On the bright side, the two other California teams, Anaheim and San Jose, still need a backup, so maybe he won’t have to move far.

Vesey will get the Sabres’ best pitch next week, but he still intends to go to free agency on Aug. 15

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 23:  Jimmy Vesey #19 of the Harvard Crimson skates against the Boston College Eagles during the second period of the 2015 Beanpot Tournament consolation game at TD Garden on February 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Jimmy Vesey hasn’t been sold on Buffalo.

Not yet anyway.

“I’m still going to go to free agency and explore all my options,” Vesey told Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe late last week.

But the 23-year-old forward can’t explore all his options until Aug. 15. Until then, he’s exclusively Sabres property. Because of that, he’ll get GM Tim Murray’s sales pitch before anyone else’s.

“The next step is next week go and meet with him and extol the virtues of the organization and the city of Buffalo and tell him how much we like him and we need him,” Murray told reporters yesterday.

Perhaps Murray can convince him to forego his options. The Sabres are an up-and-coming team, and the opportunity to play with Jack Eichel could be tempting.

On the other hand, Vesey didn’t bow to the considerable pressure to sign in Nashville. It’s tough to see him changing his mind now that he’s so close to free agency. He could still sign with the Sabres in the end, but why not hear what the Bruins, Maple Leafs and others have to say first?

Update: Click here for the full Boston Globe story.

Related: ‘The Bruins will definitely be on my list’

Florida’s blueline makeover continues with reported signing of Jason Demers

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 03:  Jason Demers #4 of the Dallas Stars skates against the Boston Bruins during the first period at TD Garden on November 3, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers added yet another new body to their blueline today. They’ve signed Jason Demers to a five-year, $22.5 million deal, as first reported by Sportsnet.

Demers, 28, comes to Florida from Dallas. He had seven goals and 16 assists in 62 games last season for the Stars. While he’s never put up a ton of points, the statistics show he’s a solid possession player, and we all know the Panthers’ new management group is big on analytics.

A right shot, Demers essentially replaces Erik Gudbranson, who was traded to Vancouver in May. Left-shooting puck-mover Keith Yandle, meanwhile, replaces Brian Campbell, who signed yesterday back in Chicago.

Suffice to say, it is not often that one area of a team’s roster is so dramatically altered in a single offseason. The Panthers also traded Dmitry Kulikov to Buffalo for Mark Pysyk, then yesterday officially announced the signing of 20-year-old Ian McCoshen.

“Ian is a big, physical defenseman who plays a solid two-way game,” said GM Tom Rowe. “After an impressive college career at Boston College we are excited for him to further his development as an important part of our team’s future on the blueline.”

Next year’s top four in Florida could be Aaron Ekblad, Yandle, Demers, and possibly youngster Michael Matheson.

The Wild need Eric Staal to be ‘the Eric Staal that he was in the past’

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29:  Eric Staal #12 of the New York Rangers skates against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2016 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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On a day when hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to unrestricted free agents, the Eric Staal signing barely made a ripple in NHL waters.

The Minnesota Wild committed just $10.5 million over three years to Staal — an entirely reasonable sum considering it was July 1, a day when reason often goes flying out the window.

Just don’t take that to mean the Staal signing isn’t an important one for the Wild. Because, in fact, it’s a vitally important signing. The 31-year-old’s contract may not reflect it, but he was brought on to play a top-six role next season, possibly one that will see him centering Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle.

“He wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past,” head coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters. “And I told him he would definitely get that chance here.”

And he’ll get that chance because the Wild are thin at the center position. (Remember what Thomas Vanek said last year? “We don’t have maybe the strongest depth in the middle.”)

Signing Staal was a calculated risk by GM Chuck Fletcher. He could’ve gone harder after free agents Frans Nielsen or David Backes, but that would’ve been considerably more expensive, and those two are even older than Staal.

Another option would’ve been to trade for a center — perhaps somebody like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — but that would’ve cost the Wild a good, young defenseman like Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba.

And so he rolled the dice on Staal, hoping that the once-elite center can be elite, or at least in that neighborhood, again.

Certainly, Staal has to be better than he was for the Rangers, after New York got him at the trade deadline. He had just six points in 20 games, then no points in five playoff games.

“I still feel I can be a contributor in a very good team’s top six,” said Staal. “I’m going to get an opportunity on a team that’s hungry to win and hungry to be a top team. I’ve got to prove it.”

Related: With an aging core, the Wild could be Boudreau’s biggest challenge yet