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Vancouver Canucks Kyle Wellwood celebrates his first goal of the season against the Los Angeles Kings during third period NHL hockey action in Vancouver, British Columbia November 26, 2009. REUTERS/Lyle Stafford


The Vancouver Canucks will bid adieu to veterans Willie Mitchell, Kyle Wellwood and Ryan Johnson Thursday as the trio hits the NHL's open market as unrestricted free agents.

Losing centremen Wellwood and Johnson leaves holes down the middle, but Canucks general manager Mike Gillis is in no rush to fill them with Canada Day signings. Instead, the Canucks hope to fortify their blueline and corner the market on defencemen before tinkering with their roster this summer.

"We think there will be three or four marketplaces over the course of the summer," Gillis said. "We'll keep our options open and see how it evolves."

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Gillis said Thursday's opening of free agency will be followed by a flurry of trade activity this month and into August. He also expects a period before training camps in September when left-out veterans scramble to find homes.

The Canucks have 17 players under contract for about $50-million (all currency U.S.). That does not include four restricted free agents: top-six forward Mason Raymond, defenceman Shane O'Brien, and wingers Jannik Hansen and Tanner Glass.

O'Brien is expected to accept the Canucks' qualifying offer of $1.6-million, while Raymond, whose camp is speaking with the Canucks to avoid the messiness of arbitration, will cost at least $2-million, if not closer to $3-million.

Barring another trade, that leaves Vancouver with little space under the league's $59.4-million cap, and with few available roster spots.

The Canucks seem intent on accumulating back-end help and not repeating their 2009-10 error. Vancouver was simply run out of NHL-worthy defencemen in its second-round playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring.

"We're going to try to be active," Gillis said.

Management believes that a deeper defence corps and more size are the keys to finally conquering the Blackhawks, who ended Vancouver's season two years running. After a draft-day deal with the Florida Panthers for Keith Ballard, the Canucks have seven defencemen under contract, not including O'Brien, and will check in with some free agents on Thursday.

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But someone like Dan Hamhuis, the product of Smithers, B.C., who reportedly wants to play for his home-province club, would have to come at a discount unless the Canucks plan on clearing cap room for another high-priced addition.

Up front, the Canucks are hoping that top prospects Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Sergei Shirokov can crack the roster. The team plans on giving them full opportunities at camp.

Hodgson is a natural centre, while Schroeder has played in the middle. Their development this summer may determine whether the Canucks pursue more help at forward.

Vancouver had previously expressed a desire to add bigger bodies and defensive-minded forwards, to their third and fourth lines, which was why burly winger Victor Oreskovich was requested in the Florida trade.

In Darcy Hordichuk, Rick Rypien and Glass, the team has several wingers who can fight, but none would be considered classic third-liners capable of logging significant minutes on a shut-down unit. Oreskovich's addition could make one of the holdovers redundant.

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