In a memory bank full of satisfying and sour images for the Vancouver Canucks, the picture of Jason Garrison speeding away on a shorthanded breakaway and forcing Roberto Luongo to make a tough save is not easily forgotten. His calling card is a heavy shot but his trump card is a vastly-improved overall game and the White Rock native could be on the radar of the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
The Florida Panthers defenceman not only had a breakout season with a franchise-record 16 goals — third among NHL blueliners behind Shea Weber and Erik Karlsson who had 19 apiece — he’s also an unrestricted free agent poised to pocket a huge payday July 1 if he gets to the open market after earning $675,000 US this season. And while the Panthers are saying all the right things about wanting to re-sign the 27-year-old, their priority list is to bolster a 27th-ranked offence in the offseason and re-sign restricted free agent Kris Versteeg with the $23.6 million they have in available salary cap space under the current $64.3 million ceiling.
“It’s always nice to be wanted and if that’s the case and you have a quality that they like, obviously it’s my hometown team and I grew up watching them play,” said Garrison, who played with Canucks winger Mason Raymond at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “My friends and family are big Canuck fans and would love to see me play at home but you’ve got to be the right fit for a team. You want to be able to contribute.”
Nine of Garrison’s 16 goals came on the power play and some credit goes to savvy setups from Brian Campbell and that makes you wonder if 11 more goals than last season might be the stuff of a one-year wonder for the left-shot defenceman. Especially when Weber led the league with 10 power-play goals from the back end. Then again, getting pucks through in today’s game is often like threading a needle and Garrison ranked 20th in shots and 17th in shooting accuracy. But when they get to the net, those slapshots were hard and hard to handle and caused rebounds and scoring chances.
“Teams are so good at shot blocking and getting into the lanes,” said Garrison. “It’s about moving around and trying to lose your coverage a bit. It’s being aware of the situation and most of the time it’s faking shots and moving laterally and getting shots to the net and past that first guy. Campbell is a very good passer and he’s always able to find anybody. We developed real good chemistry and it’s easy to play with him because he’s an elite player.
“It has definitely built my confidence up and get to where I’m at. I always thought I could produce and this has made me realize there are no limits to where you can take your game and I don’t want it to end here. I want to be a better player.”
After playing minor hockey in Burnaby, Aldergrove and Semiahmoo and switching from forward to defence, Garrison didn’t make the leap to junior until age 19 when he joined the Nanaimo Clippers. That was followed by three seasons of college and another in the AHL before making the NHL leap last season. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Garrison also brings size to the game yet one of the few knocks is he could be more physical more often.
“I like playing physically, but over the past couple of years it’s been learning to play positionally and that’s the biggest thing,” added Garrison. “You don’t want to be running around and get caught out of position and I’ve developed that aspect and you can be more physical if you’re aware of what they’re going to do and how you can play them.”
If the Canucks believe their playoff stumble was a mulligan and they’re poised to return to Stanley Cup contention, then kicking the tires on Garrison makes sense because Weber would be sticker shock and collegian Justin Schultz will attract several suitors if the West Kelowna native doesn’t sign with the Anaheim Ducks and becomes a UFA on June 1. Of course, roster flexibility depends on how the Roberto Luongo trade scenario plays out and how much wiggle room the club will have to chase free agents with Cory Schneider’s contract extension a priority and the need for a top-six forward a third-line centre and a top-four defenceman. Sami Salo and Aaron Rome are unrestricted free agents and Marc-Andre Gragnani restricted. The top three are Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler but it gets fuzzy after that. Keith Ballard was playing his best hockey before a February concussion and Chris Tanev just keeps getting better. But are they top-four guys?