Ok, let’s not lie, it’s not exactly like the bar has been set high by past free agent signings in Vancouver. Still, it’s only been one season in Vancouver, and already there is talk about where Vrbata ranks in the all-time category of off-season acquisitions. Is he really the best UFA the Canucks have ever signed?
A couple of notes:
1) Only notable competition is listed. This prevents us from hitting 5,000 words, and wondering why we’re reading up on the career impact of Lonny Bohonos.
2) Only players signed as older free agents were looked at, as this matched the spirit of the exercise, ie. traditional free agents. This excludes Alex Burrows and Chris Tanev, both of whom signed young as undrafted players, as they feel more like draft pick style players than anything.
You might disagree with this, and if you do, Alex Burrows is probably your landslide winner as best free agent signing ever (currently 17th in all-time Canucks scoring).
With that being said, let’s look at the competition.
Artus Irbe (1997)
Look, don’t get me wrong, I loved that little guy’s Michelin Man goalie pads as much as the next guy, but his stay in Vancouver was short lived and didn’t amount to a lot. He was the Canucks’ best goalie that year, but it was during the dark years of Messier where happiness died and Bear Grylls was just learning to drink to his own urine.
Irbe was a part of that weird world where Garth Snow was still being touted as a starting goalie, just before the NHL decided putting a sofa couch under your jersey was probably cheating a little TOO much for goalies.
None of that amounts to him usurping Vrbata’s potential crown.
Murray Baron (1998)
Murray Baron loved two things: Leather jackets, and blocking shots. He had a long stay in Vancouver, as he spent five years here patrolling the blue line, watching Brent Sopel pick up crackers, back when he used to be able to do that.
Part of me assumes advanced stats would rip him apart were he put under their magnifying glass, but I always enjoyed Baron. Strong, stay-at-home d-man, who had a consistent career in Vancouver, if nothing else.
Still, not exactly the champion you want carrying your “Best UFA ever!” banner.
Andrew Cassels (1999)
He’s like the Pete Best of the West Coast Express era. He played initially with Naslund and Bertuzzi until the team went another direction with Brendan Morrison. Maybe Morrison played drums better, maybe Cassels kept getting injured, we might never know.
He honestly had a great three years in Vancouver. He was one of the better passers I have seen play hockey (I rated him above Morrison as a passer) and I was legitimately disappointed when he left the team in 2002.
He has a strong case as being one of the top UFA signings, especially during a time when the team was still trying to rid the stench of Messier.
I just hope he’s living somewhere, still passing things to Geoff Sanderson.
Dan Hamhuis (2010)
Ah, back when Keith Ballard was plan “B”. Thank god for Dan Hamhuis.
Hamhuis is easily one of the better Canucks signings ever. He is Mr. Reliable, the man with the saddest face on the planet. His run in 2011 was remarkable in that it made Kevin Bieksa play like he was a Norris candidate at times. It truly was magical.
Hamhuis, of course, isn’t that flashy. He is perhaps the least intimidating point man on the power play (Tanev and Hamhuis on the power play are particularly non-threatening to watch, they are the rated PG tandem), but his game is all about positioning and smart plays.
While he might no longer be playing at the level he did in 2011, he is still a vital part of the Canucks defensive corps, and his legacy in Vancouver should be secure.
Willie Mitchell (2006)
Mitchell was one of those d-men you would love to go to war with. If he wasn’t swiping pucks off of the line behind Luongo, he was screaming at people that he was going to knock them the eff out.
I could pretty much watch that for five straight hours. The man was just fun to watch.
His career in Vancouver dribbled to a stop when Dr. Vigneault’s bedside manner became too much for Willie to handle, but he pretty much played a top-four role his entire time in Vancouver, making him a contender for the top UFA.
Pavol Demitra (2008)
Pavol Demitra (RIP) was brought in to replace the lost offense of Markus Naslund, much in the way Vrbata was brought in to replace the offense of Kesler.
For whatever reason, Demitra never really clicked in Vancouver. It wasn’t that he wasn’t skilled, because he was. He was one of the best players at the 2010 Olympics, and almost crushed Canada’s golden dreams that year. Luongo’s “Glove from above” was the only reason that game didn’t get tied up.
Still, Demitra never found his groove in Vancouver, and left after two seasons, highlighted by a 53 point season in 2008.
Mats Sundin (2008)
I mean, I guess he beat Toronto in a shootout, so that was cool? Plus it probably drove people nuts that Sundin wore a Canucks jersey? How much is that worth?
He was one of the most high profile signings in Canucks history, but his on ice play was short lived and average. His lasting legacy in Vancouver is the infamous “Sundin shift” which consisted of 10 seconds of skating before racing to the bench for a line change.
Mikael Samuelsson (2009)
When Mikael wasn’t telling people to go eff themselves, he was a pretty solid player. He put up a couple of 50+ point seasons in Vancouver, and much like Vrbata, his best trait was probably his versatility. They could play him anywhere in the lineup.
Also, much like Vrbata, he liked to shoot. He would shoot any chance he got. It was like he was playing NHL 15 24/7. This was always a desirable asset due to the pass happy nature of the Twins.
His injury in 2011 isn’t talked about a lot, but that was also another huge blow to the Canucks Stanley Cup run. He was strong on his skates, would mix it up if he had to, and he could score goals. That was something needed badly in the 2011 Finals.
Samuelsson has a pretty solid case for being a top Canuck UFA signing.
Anson Carter (2005)
Anson Carter was great because he was the first skilled guy the Sedins really got to roll with. Up until that point, it had been a whole lot of Trent Klatt shooting the puck wide on empty nets and bouncing pucks in off of Jason King’s skates.
With Carter, the Sedins found the formula that would soon be applied to Alex Burrows: If you have a half decent shot, and a nose for the net, the Twins can make you a 30 goal scorer.
Also, because it made us all giggle, Carterr ended his one year in Vancouver with 33 goals, and 22 assists. THOSE ARE THE TWINS NUMBERS. It was also the start of the rise of the Twins putting up first line numbers, showing they were ready to take the torch from the West Coast Express (which sadly punched its exit to eventual oblivion the season before).
Alas, Carter felt he was the reason for the Sedins’ success, and not the other way around, and before you knew it, he ran for the sunny hills of Columbus, before ending his career a couple of years later.
A highlight of UFA signing in Vancouver’s history, for sure, but certainly not the king.
Mark Messier (1997)
So where does that leave Radim Vrbata? It has, after all, only been one year. Is it impossible to label him the best UFA signing in Canucks history? Well, yeah, but it gave us a fun excuse to go down memory lane.
Realistically Willie Mitchell, Andrew Cassels, Dan Hamhuis and Mikael Samuelsson are the four other guys in the discussion. Vrbata needs more time (and a couple of 50+ point seasons and throw in a Cup or two) before we can try and anoint him the best signing of all-time. It might be impossible due to time constraints to surpass Hamhuis, to be honest.
Also, don’t forget, Cassels basically played the role of a number one center in Vancouver, and put up 62, 56, and 50 point seasons. Willie Mitchell ate minutes like they were Frosted Flakes in Vancouver. Dan Hamhuis is Dan Hamhuis and Samuelsson was a solid top-six winger during his stay in Vancouver.
If Vrbata extends his contract, and puts up several more seasons close to this one, it will most likely be a two horse race between Hamhuis and Vrbata as best UFA signing ever.
Regardless, it’s just hard not to get wrapped up in the Vrbata hype. It’s his ability to excel at all parts of the game that makes him so damn exciting.
You want shootout goals? Don’t worry, he’s historically one of the best of all-time.
You want snipe goals? He’s got you covered.
What about dirty dangles?
But can he pass?
Last minute game tying goals?
What about hustle on defense?
You want him looking like a bad ass assassin who might kill you at any moment?
What about looking like your best friend who is excited you got accepted into the University you wanted?
Radim Vrbata is doing what the Canucks probably had hoped Naslund would end his career doing. Sliding up and down through the lineup, making players around him better, and sniping goals whenever he got a chance. He’s like a less sad version of Markus.
The most impressive part about Vrbata is that he truly is one of the most versatile players on the team. He is currently racking up points in March playing with Chris Higgins and Nick Bonino (and didn’t complain about it), something many felt was a death sentence earlier in the season. If Vrbata is able to give the Canucks an actual second line, that is team MVP territory he is entering.
So, while it might be impossible to claim Vrbata is the best signing in Canucks history, it’s easy to see why so many people are championing his cause this season.