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Challenge for Canucks now is building around Pettersson, Hughes

Vancouver Canucks Elias Pettersson Quinn Hughes

VANCOUVER, BC - MARCH 8: Elias Pettersson #40 skates up ice as Quinn Hughes #43 of the Vancouver Canucks looks to pass the puck during their NHL game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rogers Arena March 8, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)"n

NHLI via Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks front office was facing a couple of challenges this offseason.

They not only had to navigate a difficult salary cap situation (of their own creation) to build a playoff team, but also had to figure out a way to re-sign their two most significant cornerstone players in restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

After a pair of lengthy contract negotiations that carried over to the start of training camp and the preseason, the Canucks finally did the latter on Friday, reportedly agreeing to deals with both players. Pettersson’s deal is a three-year bridge deal that will pay him $7.3 per season, while Hughes agreed to a longer-term six-year deal at $7.8 million per season. It definitely eliminates a headache for the Canucks to get these two signed and in camp in time for the start of the regular season, but there was always little doubt that was going to happen. Offer sheets are incredibly rare, and trades were never on the table so it was always a matter of when, and not if, they were going to get signed.

Now that they have agreed to terms the challenge for the Canucks now is building something around these two to make the team a serious contender in the Western Conference. And that will be somewhat of a challenge. The biggest obstacle for the Canucks is going to be building competent depth around them while navigating a razor thin salary cap situation. With Pettersson and Hughes signed the Canucks are slightly over the cap for this season (they still have Micheal Ferland to put on LTIR) while they have another significant RFA situation to deal with next offseason when Brock Boeser’s current deal is up.

It is still stunning to see a team with a salary cap situation this tight and still seemingly be so far away from a championship. The Canucks have made the playoffs just one time in the past six years (during the 24-team bubble postseason) and a lack of depth has been at the center of the struggles. They have been a top-heavy team that has been dependent on their top five or six players to carry them. That sort of roster construction can only take a team so far, as the Canucks have found out.

A few random observations on where the Canucks go from here.

• The forward depth does look improved this season with the emergence of Nils Hoglander, the additions of Conor Garland and Jason Dickinson, and the arrival of prized prospect Vasily Podkolzin. With Pettersson, Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson at the top of the lineup that is should be a formidable forward group.

• The bridge deal for Pettersson is a little concerning long-term. If he continues on his current trajectory (and there is no reason to believe he will not) he is going to be a restricted free agent again at age 25 and probably in line for an absolutely massive payday. And if the Canucks do not show any progress as a team over the next three years, there is no guarantee that Pettersson is going to want to commit to the team again. He has already gone on record as saying winning is his top priority.

• Getting Hughes signed long-term is a potential win for the Canucks, but not without some risk. He has played two full seasons in the NHL with very different results. His rookie season was sensational. His second season was good, but a little bit of a step backwards, especially defensively. If he plays closer to the rookie season version this contract is going to be a steal for the Canucks given his talent, potential production, and the type of player he is capable of being.

It also gives the Canucks an incredibly expensive blue line with questionable results.

There is nothing wrong with paying Hughes. But with his contract in place the Canucks have just under $30 million in salary cap space committed to Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tyler Myers, Travis Hamonic, and Tucker Poolman for at least the next couple of years. The Ekman-Larsson and Myers contracts are especially problematic as they account for nearly $14 million for two players whose best hockey is probably in the rear view mirror. Those are the types of contracts that gets teams in trouble.

So for now the Canucks did what they needed to do get their two most important players in the lineup for the start of this season. But the work now is only just beginning.