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Which free agent defencemen could the Canucks sign?

The Canucks have just three NHL defencemen under contract for next season.
Brenden Dillon could be an option for the Vancouver Canucks in free agency.

Eight defencemen ended the season on the Vancouver Canucks’ roster. Just three of those defencemen have a contract for next season: Quinn Hughes, Carson Soucy, and Noah Juulsen.

Canucks general manager Patrick Allvin has some work to do.

Filip Hronek is a restricted free agent in line for a significant raise, who the Canucks could re-sign themselves or trade to another team for help in another area of need on their roster. Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov, Ian Cole, and Mark Friedman are all unrestricted free agents and could hit the open market if the Canucks can’t — or won’t — offer them what they believe they’re worth.

Allvin overhauled the Canucks’ blue line for the 2023-24 season. It could look very different again in the 2024-25 season.

What happens if the Canucks trade Hronek? Who replaces the likes of Myers, Zadorov, and Cole if they leave in free agency? What options do the Canucks have?

What defencemen are available in free agency?

63 defencemen who played at least ten games in the NHL last season will be unrestricted free agents this summer. That provides a wide range of blueliners who could potentially fit the Canucks needs, whether short-term or long-term. 

Free agency is not the only option, of course. The Canucks could look to prospects to push for depth role and Hronek, Zadorov, and Friedman all came to the Canucks via trades last year. But free agency is an option the Canucks need to keep in mind as they explore their plans for next season. This past season’s success may have made the Canucks a more desirable location for free agents than in previous years.

Here are all 63 of those unrestricted free agent defencemen in a searchable, sortable table.

Hint: search by LHD or RHD to get just the left-shot defencemen and right-shot defencemen.

The table includes the player’s previous cap hit and projected contract, as well as some key statistics: basic boxscore stats, average time on ice, and goals above replacement (GAR) via Evolving-Hockey to give a general sense of how well they performed last season.

With this list in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios.

If the Canucks trade Filip Hronek, then…

Let’s say the Canucks decide to move Hronek for a top-six forward to play with Elias Pettersson, with some already speculating that Martin Necas of the Carolina Hurricanes could be a target. 

If Hronek is moved, however, the Canucks will have a massive hole in their lineup on the right side of their top pairing. Hronek meshed well with Quinn Hughes and the two liked playing together — replacing him would be a tough task.

What right-shot defencemen could potentially fit with Hughes on a top pairing?

Brandon Montour is a legitimate top-pairing defenceman, eating up big minutes for a Cup contender in the Florida Panthers but he’s likely to re-sign with the Panthers. Even if he hit free agency, he’d likely price himself out of Vancouver’s reach, as many teams would bid for him. 

Many Canucks fans want to bring back Chris Tanev, who fit so well with Hughes when the Canucks captain was a rookie, but Tanev’s excellent performance for the Cup-contending Dallas Stars could see him fetch a hefty price on the open market. The Canucks should be wary about committing too much term and cap space to a 34-year-old defenceman who blocks a lot of shots and takes a lot of hits.

(But yes, of course bring back Tanev if you can. We at PITB love him dearly.)

One option worth exploring is Dylan DeMelo, who ate up a lot of minutes for the Winnipeg Jets and has the type of puckhandling skills and passing that ought to mesh well with Hughes, even if he’s not as offensively gifted as Hronek. He played alongside Josh Morrisey in Winnipeg — sliding onto Hughes’ right side shouldn’t be a problem.

Matt Roy is another right-side defenceman who might prove a bit too pricey but he’s a smart, puck-moving defensive defenceman with great underlying numbers. He could play with Hughes and also be a primary penalty killer.

If the Hurricanes can’t re-sign him, Brett Pesce becomes an intriguing option. He’s big, rangy, and could be a good complement to an offensive defenceman like Hughes. The question is how much of Pesce’s game is a result of the Hurricanes’ system and whether he would look as good on another team.

Finally, there’s Sean Walker, who is on the smaller side but moves the puck well and has excellent underlying numbers. Walker settled into a lesser role after a trade to the Colorado Avalanche but he played top-four minutes with the Philadelphia Flyers and was arguably their best defenceman against tough competition. If the Canucks aren’t afraid to run a sub-6’ top pairing, Walker might be worth a look. At the very least, it would be fun.

If Tyler Myers leaves in free agency, then…

After several seasons as a scapegoat, Tyler Myers won his way back into the hearts of Canucks fans this past year, playing second-pairing minutes against tough competition. He settled his game down in Rick Tocchet’s system and wasn’t prone to the big mistakes he made in previous seasons.

If Myers goes, that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

Pesce, Walker, and Tanev could be options here, though they might be too costly. Would it be possible for the Canucks to re-sign Hronek and also add someone like Walker or Tanev? Maybe.

Jani Hakanpää could be a cheaper option. He’s big and physical at 6’6”, providing some of the snarl that Allvin and Rick Tocchet seem to like. He provides little to nothing offensively, but he defends the guts of the ice effectively and hits like a Mack truck. 

I would love to see the Canucks pry Jalen Chatfield away from the Hurricanes and bring him back to Vancouver but let’s be real: he’s surely re-signing in Carolina. His underlying numbers are exceptional, though, and it would be neat to see him come full circle with the Canucks.

Speaking of full circle, what about Troy Stecher? That’s leaning more toward third-pairing or seventh-defenceman territory rather than a legitimate second-pairing defenceman, but bringing back Troy from Richmond would be neat. 

If Kevin Shattenkirk is looking for one more shot at a Stanley Cup, a one-year contract in Vancouver could be an option. He’d fit the Cup-winning veteran role of an Ian Cole. He was a third-pairing defenceman this past season but played a top-four role the season before that with the Anaheim Ducks.

Honestly, the pickings are slim for a mid-range, inexpensive right-shot defenceman. 

If Nikita Zadorov doesn’t re-sign, then…

A lot of fans want the Canucks to re-sign Nikita Zadorov, who won his way into their hearts when he elevated his game in the playoffs and provided juicy quotes in media scrums. But Zadorov might prove too expensive for a defenceman who would still be third on the left-side depth chart behind Quinn Hughes and Carson Soucy.

Are there defencemen in free agency who might fit that role at a more reasonable price? 

One option is Brenden Dillon, who has already expressed that he’s open to signing with the Canucks simply because he grew up in Surrey as a Canucks fan. 

“I think I can speak for every guy that plays in the NHL and is from B.C.,” said Dillon to Don Taylor and Rick Dhaliwal. “How cool would it be to play for your hometown team?”

Dillon has size on his side at 6’4” and is an effective defensive defenceman who can step up higher in the lineup when the situation calls for it. At the right price, this seems like a solid fit for the Canucks.

Erik Gustafsson would be nice but there's every chance he'll (justifiably) cost as much or more than Zadorov coming off a strong season and playoff run for the New York Rangers. His underlying numbers are excellent, though. 

Mike Reilly found his groove with the New York Islanders this past season and put up some very solid underlying numbers. His track record — he was in the AHL just last season — ought to keep his contract demands pretty reasonable, so he could be a good, inexpensive bet for the Canucks.

If Ian Cole moves on, then...

If the Canucks are looking for a veteran on a one-year deal to fill the Ian Cole role, there are a couple of options available.

At 36, Alec Martinez might not have it anymore as a top-four defenceman but as a third-pairing guy, he could be a better fit. His experience playing a larger role could come in handy if injuries strike to force him higher up the lineup. 

35-year-old Brendan Smith brings versatility to the backend as he can play either side and provides value on the penalty kill. He's even got experience chipping in as a forward on the wing. 

32-year-old Derek Forbort is one-dimensional as a defensive defenceman but it's a dimension the Canucks would need if Cole heads to free agency. He did have a couple of significant injuries last season, one of which required surgery, so healthy is a concern, but he also shouldn't break the bank. 

Honestly, the Canucks might be better off just bringing Cole back. He was a key penalty killer, a steadying influence defensively at even strength, and a veteran voice of wisdom in the room. In addition, he played both sides of the ice. The options to fill his role in free agency are not particularly compelling, so re-signing him to a one-year deal might be their best option.