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Canucks sign Erik Gudbranson to three-year extension

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The wondering can now stop as the Vancouver Canucks have extended defenseman Erik Gudbranson for three more years.

The extension is worth $12 million and Gudbranson’s deal will carry a $4 million cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 NHL season.

“Erik is an important part of our team and provides a physical element to our blueline,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement. “His leadership qualities help us as we continue to integrate younger players in our lineup. He is a quality person, a great teammate, outstanding in the community and we are excited to have him as part of our team moving forward.”

It was two years ago that Benning, who inked an extension with the Canucks last week, traded Jared McCann and a pair of 2016 draft picks to the Florida Panthers for the defenseman. With the direction that the team is currently moving, and with the Boston Bruins coughing up a third-round pick for Nick Holden of the New York Rangers on Tuesday, couldn’t Benning have flipped Gudbranson for something similar before moving on to a Thomas Vanek trade before Monday’s trade deadline?

The Canucks are currently a weird mix of youth and veterans with big contracts, especially at forward — contracts that last beyond next season. They have all but one of their picks in the next three drafts at the moment, and should at least recoup one with a Vanek trade.

This extension is Benning digging his feet in and standing by a bad deal from two years ago. As Dimitri Filipovic of Sportsnet pointed out last week, flipping Gudbranson, whose minutes and possession numbers have dipped in Year 2 in Vancouver, would be the GM waiving the white towel and saying he lost the trade. Now he gets to stand by it and throw platitudes at the defenseman to convince himself that this was the correct way to go.

The one beneficial part of the Gudbranson deal for the Canucks? The lack of a no-trade clause, as per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. NHL GMs love themselves big defensemen and at 6-foot-6, 220 lbs., the 26-year-old checks that box. So there is a chance to pass this contract onto another team looking to add size to their blue line. But for now, that’s clearly not the plan for the Canucks.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks confident in GM Jim Benning’s ‘team-building mindset’

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You know, it wasn’t that long ago that the Vancouver Canucks were sitting nicely in a Pacific Division playoff spot. A month ago they were seven points behind the Los Angeles Kings after a three-game winning streak. Then it all began to fall apart.

The Canucks ended December losing nine of 11 games, gaining just five points over that stretch to leave them currently tied with the Edmonton Oilers for 13th in the Western Conference. This puts general manager Jim Benning and Trevor Linden, the team’s president of hockey operations, in an interesting situation with 52 days until the NHL trade deadline.

Benning is one a few GMs around the league who does not have a contract beyond this season.  Injuries and poor goaltending have brought their pursuit of a playoff spot off the rails and put a spotlight on the pending unrestricted free agents on the roster that could net future assets for the continued youth movement.

Forward Thomas Vanek and defenseman Erik Gudbranson likely won’t be with the Canucks beyond Feb. 26. Linden said on Wednesday there haven’t been discussions about extending Gudbranson, instead waiting to see how the next 6-8 weeks shape up.

All this means that Linden is fine with Benning handling the trade deadline despite an uncertain future with the franchise.

“He came into a challenging situation and I think we’re trending in the right direction,” said Linden. “I like the job Jim’s done, but beyond that I think we’re focused on the next couple months and the deadline.”

It all sounds encouraging for Benning, whose teams have made the playoffs once in four seasons as GM, a 101-point year in 2015-16. Since then, it’s been a downhill slide as more youth has been injected into the roster. The futures of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and Jonathan Dahlen are exciting as the Sedin twins enter their final years in the NHL.

The Gudbranson acquisition in 2016 was one of Benning’s biggest moves as GM. He gave up Jared McCann and a second- and fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft. It hasn’t worked out as injuries and poor play have seen him bumped down the depth chart to the third pairing. With the direction of the team right now, it’d be wise to move him and let the kids play rather than re-sign him and cement a roster spot with an anchor.

If Linden is confident in Benning handling the trade deadline and continuing to shape the future of the franchise, there should be no concern about who the GM will be next season, right?

“Jim has always been of the mind that, at heart, he’s a guy that has a team-building mindset,” Linden added. “He’s going to continue to have his eye on the future, and that’ll be no different as we head into deadline.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers’ salary cap outlook after Matheson’s eight-year contract

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On Saturday night the Florida Panthers locked up defenseman Michael Matheson to an eight-year, $39 million contract.

If you’re not too familiar with the Panthers it might seem like a pretty significant investment (and to be fair, even if you are familiar with the Panthers it is a significant investment) but since the start of the 2016-17 season no player on the team has played more even-strength minutes than the 23-year-old Matheson.

He is clearly a player that the organization trusts and one that it sees as a long-term building block.

Now that he is locked in through the end of the 2025-26 season, let’s take a look at the long-term salary cap outlook for the Panthers.

Another young player signed long-term

With Matheson signed the Panthers now have eight players signed for at least the next four seasons: Matheson, Roberto Luongo, James Reimer, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad.

Six of those players are age 25 or under. The only three that are not are Yandle, Reimer, and Luongo.

Together that group of nine players accounts for $47.3 million in salary cap space.

Most of them look like solid investments

While the Panthers have a significant chunk of their roster locked in for at least the next three or four years they don’t really have many deals that look like they will be a problem in the future.

The only two players on the team that carry a salary cap hit of more than $6 million per season are Ekblad ($7.5 million) and Yandle ($6.3 million).

They are also the only two players on the roster that crack the top-75 salary cap hits in the NHL.

Assuming Ekblad bounces back from what seemed to be a bit of a regression a season ago his contract could look like a steal. In the future. A young, top-pairing, all-situations defender that can play at the level Ekblad showed in his first two years in the league not only doesn’t come cheap, they usually end up costing more than what his $7.5 million cap hit is.

Yandle’s deal carries a bit of a risk simply because of his age. He is already 31 years old and signed for five more years after this one.

Up front Nick Bjugstad ($4.1 million per year through 2020-21) needs to stay healthy to get his career back on track, but Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck will only cost the Panthers $16.7 million per season for the next four years. All of them are legitimate 25-goal, 50-60 point players when healthy.

No more core players are in line for a new deal anytime soon

Because the Panthers were so aggressive in getting their young players signed, and because they have so many young players on their roster, they have a ton of cost certainty over the next few years. The only players that will be unrestricted free agents after this season are Radim Vrbata and Colton Sceviour, while the only restricted free agents are Jared McCann, Connor Brickley, Alex Petrovic and MacKenzie Weegar.

Only Jamie McGinn, Derek MacKenzie and Michael Haley are unrestricted free agents after the 2018-19 season while only Ian McCoshen is eligible for restricted free agency.

All of they pieces of the team are locked in place for the foreseeable future with what should be a decent amount of salary cap space.

The important questions now are how good is that core, and what can do with that salary cap space to fill in around them?

(Salary data via CapFriendly.com)

Getting healthier, Panthers send McIlrath and McCann to AHL

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Panthers defenseman Dylan McIlrath has cleared waivers and been assigned to Florida’s AHL affiliate in Springfield.

Forward Paul Thompson also cleared waivers, but he remains on the NHL roster for now. Instead, 20-year-old forward Jared McCann has been sent down.

The Panthers beat the Senators, 6-5, last night to move to within two points of a wild-card spot. It was the second game back for d-man Alex Petrovic, whose return knocked McIlrath even further down the depth chart.

Florida is still without key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, though both have been skating and the latter’s return sounds imminent.

“I feel better every day,” Barkov said Monday, per the Sun-Sentinel. “I’m skating with the team and feel happy for that. It’s a lot more fun than skating by my own. I hope I could play soon.”

Florida’s next game is Friday at home to Anaheim.

Another injury blow for Florida — Petrovic (ankle) out two months

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The Panthers can’t catch a break.

On the same day they finally received some good news in the health department — Nick Bjugstad is ready to make his season debut, after missing 19 games with a hand injury — the Panthers announced that d-man Alex Petrovic would miss the next eight weeks with an ankle injury, and has been placed on IR.

Petrovic, 24, scored one goal and five points in 16 games this year, averaging just under 18 minutes per night. He was hurt blocking a shot during Florida’s overtime win in Montreal last Tuesday, and hasn’t played since.

With Petrovic out, the Panthers rolled a six-man defensive unit of Aaron Ekblad, Jason Demers, Mike Matheson, Keith Yandle, Mark Pysyk and Jakub Kindl in Sunday’s shootout victory over the Rangers.

It’s possible that Dylan McIlrath, acquired in a trade with the Blueshirts earlier this month, could draw back into the lineup at some point — he hasn’t played since a 6-1 drubbing in Toronto last week.

As for Bjugstad, he’s on target to play in tomorrow’s home date against the Flyers. His season debut is almost certain, given the Panthers sent Jared McCann down to AHL Springfield.

The Panthers are still without the services of former Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, who’s out 3-4 months with a lacerated Achilles. Jussi Jokinen also missed extended time earlier this season with a lower-body ailment.