Jason Garrison had never looked so good. Or so needed.
The coveted free agent defenceman signed a six-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday that has an annual salary cap hit of $4.6 million US.
Garrison made $700,00 last year.
Amid the aftershocks of losing the Justin Schultz Derby to the Edmonton Oilers, who signed the free-agent blueliner on Saturday, and then watching Sami Salo bolt to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday for a two-year deal worth $3.75 million US annually, and Aaron Rome to the Dallas Stars for three years at $1.5 million per year, the Canucks had more than cracks in their defensive armour. They had holes.
But Canucks general manager Mike Gillis categorized it as winning with a veteran presence in Garrison rather than losing a budding blueliner in Schultz.
“It wasn’t after we lost out on Justin Schultz,” Gillis said of interest in the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Garrison. “He was a high priority on our list and we were going to try and sign him after July 1 and it had nothing to do with Schultz. We have a mobile defence and we wanted size and another guy who could shoot the puck on the power play and we wanted character. He fit the criteria and he had a real desire to play here, which he articulated that to us this morning and it fit with what we were trying to do.”
Garrison fits nicely into a second pairing with Alex Edler. He also fits financially and left money on the table to come here and be part of a team that believes it’s a contender. Signing for a salary cap hit of $4.6 million — the same as Kevin Bieksa — was more than coincidence. It was crucial.
“It was key for us for a lot of reasons,” added Gillis. “We’re trying to have a team that competes for the Stanley Cup and in a cap system, everybody has to work with you to allow that to happen. Jason was adamant that he wanted to play on a team that was competing for a Stanley Cup and was prepared with us to work to do it.”
With nine of his 16 goals coming on the power play — thanks to being paried with Brian Campbell — after just five goals the previous season, there was some worry around the league that Garrison might be a one-year wonder. Then again, he had 33 points.
“We felt strongly that he is a player that is evolving,” said Gillis. “We certainly have a place on the power play for a shot like that and I’m confident he has a further upside and in our environment and style of play that he’ll continue to evolve. It’s hard to find big, strong defencemen in their prime that you can sign and he’s one of them.”
Ryan Suter, 27, and Garrison, 27, were the big dominoes waiting to fall Sunday. The story of Garrison’s breakout season, his ties to the Lower Mainland after playing minor hockey in Burnaby, Aldergrove and Semiahmoo and Junior A in Nanaimo — plus his desire to play for the Canucks that he grew up idolizing — have been well documented. The clout of that 16-goal season with the Panthers carried a lot into the open market and it might have been a tough get. After all, former Canuck blueliner Bryan Allen, 31, got three years at $3.75 million annually from the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday after one goal last season with the Carolina Hurricanes. Dennis Wideman, 29, turned 11 goals and 46 points with the Washington Capitals into a five-year, $26.25 million deal with the Calgary Flames on Wednesday to avoid being a UFA.
“You definitely want it to be a good fit,” Garrison recently told The Province. “You don’t want to go somewhere just for financial purposes. You want the fit, you want the minutes and play a role that you know you can play and obviously have a chance of winning.”
When the Panthers signed free agent Filip Kuba, 35, to $8 million over two years Sunday and general manager Dale Tallon basically cut his ties with Garrison, it could have become a bidding war. The only good thing about the rapid salary escalation is that Keith Ballard’s $4.2 million cap hit for three more seasons looks more palatable. That’s because a lot changed in the market and with the Garrison signing.
Two days ago, the view from the back end was favourable for the President’s Trophy winners. They rightly reasoned that adding Schultz to a mix that already boasts Dan Hamhuis, Bieksa, Edler, Chris Tanev, Ballard and Andrew Alberts added a power-play presence, depth and youthful exuberance. And with the free agent Salo expected to re-sign for another year with the Canucks, the projected eight would be envious. It made sense that they didn’t qualify restricted free agent Marc-Andre Gragnani and the scenario would also present Kevin Connauton with another year to develop with the Chicago Wolves at the AHL level. But the goal posts shifted and Gillis maintained the Schultz decision was not a snub of Vancouver and that he didn’t demand to be given a certain amount of guaranteed playing time.
“He didn’t dictate any terms to us,” stressed Gillis. “His decision was based primarily on Edmonton was a much younger group and he’d go in there as a No. 1 guy. He was pleased with what we presented but he made a gut decision.”
With Salo’s departure, the Canucks were also down to Bieksa and Tanev as right-shot defencemen. Even though he’s a left shot, there might have been a second thought about letting Rome go to free agency and get him on speed dial? Dallas did. The Stars gave Rome three years averaging $1.5 million annually and the term was something the Canucks wouldn’t agree to.
“We talked a few times but what we talked about would have been a tough situation for me to go back to, being I was the extra guy,” said Rome, who played 43 games last season and earned $800,000. “I didn’t know there was a ton of interest and I was just kind of playing it by ear all day. I’m really excited to get something done.
“It’s big for me because I’m going to be 29 and have a family. The biggest deal I had was two years in Vancouver and that’s the most security I’ve ever had. It’s huge. Vancouver was the opportunity that got me to the point of where I am today. For whatever reason, I was the extra guy and probably easier to sit me out than other guys.”
The Canucks decided before all the movement that they were going to take a deep breath and pitch for Garrison with $10 million in cap space and double that if they want to go over the allotted 10 per cent in $70.2 million ceiling in the offseason. They still have needs in their top-nine mix and moving Roberto Luongo with Cory Schneider signed to a three-year extension. Gillis said he’s comfortable with waiting for that trade scenario to unfold.
“That was not our priority today,” he said. “We’re going to stay patient and make the best decision for the organization. It may come next week, it may come in three weeks or it may come at the end of August. I’m not sure. We have talked to a number of teams and there is a lot of interest. And I also wanted to get past today and see what our needs are and how we might have an opportunity to address them when we do something.”
Gillis also refuted a report that he has interest in free agent winger Jiri Hudler.