Canucks make progress in talks with Hughes, Pettersson but closure still not imminent

VANCOUVER — Already without air and water, the Vancouver Canucks lost their shelter on Thursday when Brock Boeser missed practice with an unexplained injury. That’s how it felt.

Boeser’s status piled on top of the ongoing absences of essential free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. Top-four defenceman Travis Hamonic was home in Manitoba trying to decide if he’ll play this season, the National Hockey League’s opt-out deadline looming on Friday. Fourth-line veterans and key penalty killers Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter remain out indefinitely, which left the Canucks to practise with what looked in print like a glorified expansion roster: a few excellent players surrounded by some journeyman and promising prospects. And it was raining. Again.

But the darkening gloominess surrounding a team desperate for a winning start was mercifully pierced Thursday afternoon by the sunny news of progress in the Pettersson-Hughes contract talks.

Sportsnet can confirm these reports, although one source cautioned that closure was still not imminent, but nearer than it had been.

Goodness knows, the Canucks could use some positive news.

General manager Jim Benning and agent Pat Brisson, whose Creative Artists Agency represents both Canucks, have been in daily contact for weeks but talks had lacked traction due to a basic disagreement on annual salaries.

The sides have discussed numerous scenarios, from short bridge deals to mid-length contracts to long-term deals of six years or more. But they couldn’t get close to agreeing on annual values for the players.

The Canucks have disagreed, for instance, that the five-year, $45-million-US contract that Kirill Kaprizov received from the Minnesota Wild, which purchased with this whopping AVV only two seasons of unrestricted free agency from a winger with 55 games in the NHL, accurately set the market for the 22-year-old Pettersson.

And CAA didn’t believe past bridge “comparables” in the $5-million range for the Boston Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski or the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Mikhail Sergachev had anything to do with Hughes’ value as a 21-year-old defenceman.

But on Thursday, it appeared the sides moved closer on annual value.

This is excellent news for the Canucks and their still-evolving young stars.

The more coach Travis Green has tried to focus his hockey team and steer it towards opening night on Oct. 13 in Edmonton — reducing the de-facto NHL roster to 23 or 24 active players this week — the greater the lineup void feels with the Canucks operating without their best forward and top defenceman.

The Hamonic saga hasn’t helped.

The defenceman, re-signed in the summer to a two-year, $6-million contract to partner and mentor Hughes, did not report for training camp as Benning expected and remains home in Manitoba deciding whether to opt out of the NHL’s third season with COVID-19 restrictions. Hamonic opted out of the Calgary Flames’ playoff bubble the previous summer, but played last season for the Canucks on a show-me contract.

The possibility of the Canucks getting a $3-million refund to their salary cap if Hamonic opts out, leaving a bigger stash for Brisson to try to access for Hughes and Pettersson, did not lubricate negotiations. The Canucks made it clear that the Hamonic situation, however it plays out, would not change what management believes Brisson’s clients are worth.

It could, however, make it possible for the Canucks to go long-term on both players, something that has been impossible with Benning having only $15- to 16-million available to spend. Brisson’s challenge has always been trying to figure out how to divide this sum between Pettersson and Hughes without upsetting one or both of his clients.

The players have been training together at Hughes’ off-season home in Michigan.

“I’m pretty off the grid social-media wise, so you guys will probably know before me,” Canucks veteran J.T. Miller said of his teammates. “We’re getting closer and closer (to the season) and I’m sure that the anticipation and pressure for them is… through the roof. I’m staying out it; they don’t need my help. I think they all know that we want them here and need them. But this is a big part of their future, a big part of their lives, and big decisions are being made.”

Former Winnipeg Jet Nic Petan has been filling in for Pettersson on a line with Boeser and Nils Hoglander. With Boeser missing practice Thursday — Green offered no details on what is believed to be a minor injury — Hoglander and Petan skated with Justin Dowling.

Minus Hughes and Hamonic, Brad Hunt and Luke Schenn practised on defence in the top six.

The Canucks play a pre-season game Friday in Calgary.

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