Down to the Wire: What’s Next for the Carolina Hurricanes

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Now that the Stanley Cup playoffs have ended, teams like the Carolina Hurricanes are busily plotting their moves as they gear up for the next season. For GM Ron Francis, this Summer portends significant action. The acquisition and subsequent signing of Scott Darling has already gotten the ball rolling. Knowledgeable media types have sat up and taken notice of the team in Raleigh. Frankly, this team is becoming very well positioned for the 2017-18 season.

While we don’t have an Austin Matthews, a Connor McDavid, or a Zach Werenski, we do have a plethora of up and coming potential stars. Sure, folks know Jeff Skinner, his contagious smile, and his deadly scoring instincts. They know the gritty and talented Jordan Staal. Some may even know the offensively gifted defender, Justin Faulk. But very few took notice of the young Finn, Sebastian Aho or the evolution of his fellow countryman, Teuvo Teravainen. Those in the know have perked up around the 3 young defenders, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce. They also know there are a few other good, young blueliners in the system.

What even fewer understand is what appears to have been a successful 3 or 4 year run at the entry draft. The cupboard has been restocked, mostly with big-bodied, skilled skaters. Critical trades have brought in even more skill – Aleksi Saarela and Valentin Zykov, in particular. Even the goalie ranks now show promise.

So what is the next step? Simply put, it is to do almost whatever it takes to get into the playoffs…this upcoming season. It is critical for the fan base and it is only slightly overstating the case to say it is critical for the future of the team in Raleigh. As the rebuild enters its fourth year, incremental results can no longer be the goal. The post-season is the only goal. To get there, the next step in the transactional plan needs to be hatched. It’s time to give some to get some.

There’s no way to predict what actually will happen as Francis crafts next season’s roster, but one of the primary “to do’s” from last season has hopefully been addressed. Scott Darling is going to be the #1 guy in net. Still, there’s more work to do. The team needs to shed itself of one of the other goalies. A true Top 6 scoring threat needs to come on board. If Victor Rask can get back to last season’s early form, then a 3rd line pivot probably needs to be found (unless Teravainen has spent all summer honing his faceoff skills). The fourth line needs to be solidified and the bottom pairing on the blueline needs to get sorted out.

The opportunities for the front office to work the transaction machine are many with 3 specific dates or events targeted for execution. Sure, trades can happen at almost any time and our own free agents can be extended. All of that can, for all intents and purposes, happen now. Yet, the looming expansion draft, the 2017 entry draft, and the opening of free agency further calendarize things. The Hurricanes are usually quiet on the opening day of free agency, yet last season’s significant free agent pick-ups were both savvy and met organizational needs. Lee Stempniak brought fairly dependable secondary scoring. Viktor Stalberg brought size, speed, and snarl to what became a pretty effective 4th line (and a very effective penalty kill). The vulture trade of a couple of picks for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell filled a couple of important holes as well. One wonders how different things might have been without Bickell’s tragic MS diagnosis; certainly, the power play might have benefitted from his net front presence.

This year, Ron Francis is going to have to do even better.

Prior To The Expansion Draft

First of all, let’s recognize and assume that deals can be made with Las Vegas not to select (or to be encouraged to select) specific players from a team’s roster. During the last expansion there were a few of these types of deals made. To make this work, however, assets have to be available to trade and the assets have to be valuable enough to encourage the Golden Knights to overlook a targeted player. Short of offering up Sidney Crosby, is there really a deal that the Penguins could offer Vegas so they wouldn’t select Matt Murray should he have to be exposed? Probably not. Luckily, Carolina is on the opposite side of this problem.

Outside of any ongoing trade opportunities, the upcoming expansion draft is going to put some pressure on certain teams to move some pieces or risk losing an asset for nothing. No team seems to be in more trouble of this happening than the Minnesota Wild. They have an embarrassment of riches on the back end. They will most certainly lose one of Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, or Matt Dumba (Ryan Suter has to be protected because of his NMC). On the front end, things are a little less dire, but it is hard to see how one, or all, of Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, and Jordan Schroeder are not left exposed.

If you’re George McPhee and one of those four defensemen is out there, you almost have to grab him. Even if you’re inclined to go for the speedy Jason Zucker (who now has family ties to the Golden Knights organization), you really can do no wrong. Added to the Wild’s dilemma is the likely challenging salary cap exercise when they have to re-sign arbitration eligible RFAs, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. Those two guys will almost certainly take up 3/4 of the Wild’s available salary cap space. It is difficult to see how they are not going to have to move somebody, even assuming a fairly large salary comes off of the books via the expansion draft.

From Carolina’s perspective, Minnesota is a very interesting trading partner. Because of the potential salary cap issues alone, one would think that one of the RFA forwards would be available. Perhaps, even Charlie Coyle (who’s availability has been whispered about) might be had for the right deal. In the Canes search for scoring does a Jason Zucker or Charlie Coyle bring enough to the table? Of course, that depends on whether Zucker is really the 22 goal, 47 point guy or if Coyle is now reaching his potential. Should that be the case, then they should or could be realistic targets. Moving Zucker free’s up $2,000,000 and Coyle accounts for $3,200,000 in salary cap space. With Joel Eriksson Ek’s, Alex Tuch’s and even Luke Kunin’s emergence, one of those pieces might be an option.

Zucker is probably the cheaper option to acquire (and could represent a fall back position), but Coyle really brings an element of “big man hockey” that the Hurricanes sorely miss. To get Charlie Coyle could this year’s 1st rounder, next year’s 3rd rounder do the trick? Would adding a prospect to the mix be an overpayment? Minnesota clearly wants to compete now, so maybe those picks and a veteran scorer like Lee Stempniak might work. That would add in some secondary scoring and fill a Top 6 right wing slot. While it probably is a pipe dream to think that Coyle could be pried away, this is the kind of deal that Ronnie has to consider. Carolina needs an impact forward that can bring dependable scoring. If Zucker ends up being the target then something like a 2nd round pick and a mid-level prospect should do the trick.

In this discussion, substitute Nino Niederreiter’s name for Charlie Coyle’s, up the compensation going back to Minnesota, and you’ve got another interesting possibility. Minnesota’s financial situation just might dictate party ways with one of these guys. If they are willing to listen, an even bigger deal might be crafted, one that helps solve their defenseman problem as well. Could you package a 1st and 2nd round pick with two very good prospects (two of Haydn Fleury, Julien Gauthier, Aleksi Saarela, or Roland McKeown, for example) and get the Wild to consider adding Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba to the discussion? To really get the conversation going, substitute Noah Hanifin and adjust the other assets accordingly (from the Canes maybe that means a 1st rounder, a 3rd rounder, Hanifin, and perhaps Foegele, for example). It is a high price to pay, but the return is what a “ready to compete” organization needs to help push it to the next level. The Wild get a couple of expansion exempt assets and solid picks).

There are other guys who likely will be available. Michael Grabner is coming off of a resurgent season. He will probably be available from the Rangers’ roster. Would San Jose want to get out from under the Boedker contract? One would certainly think so if they decide it’s time for a retooling. And what about the Islanders? Some combination that includes three of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Nikolai Kulemin, Brock Nelson, and Ryan Strome will be protected. That leaves two of the other guys available. The key question that Francis will have to answer is whether any of these names satisfies the need for Top 6 level scoring.

What about teams who need a goaltender to expose? The Hurricanes just happen to have a spare Eddie Lack or the odd Cam Ward. A team like Calgary needs a solid starter, but both Elliot and Johnson are UFAs and likely to hit the open market. They’ll need a goalie under contract for the 2017-18 season. Maybe the hero of the Charlotte Checkers, Tom McCollum fits the bill, maybe not. If Philadelphia is protecting Neuvirth, they’re in the same boat. Unless the Canucks ink Ryan Miller they have the same need. Even Tampa Bay’s going to have to pick up a back up to Vasilevskiy.

Despite all the bad press (much of it deserved), Cam Ward is likely to remain a Hurricane and serve as either a 1b or, more likely, a true back up. Frankly, Eddie Lack probably has some value, especially if the team retains a significant chunk of his salary. A 4th round pick is probably fair with some salary retention. Maybe there’s a deal to be had that would send a veteran bottom pairing guy back. Regardless, expect a smallish return on an Eddie Lack trade which will likely to happen just before the expansion draft.

The third and final puzzle for certain teams to solve pertains to defensemen and the Hurricanes’ expansion exempt players and prospects. The previously mentioned Minnesota will likely lose a defender. Anaheim could lose a very good blueliner too. Colorado probably has to make a choice between Barrie and Zadorov. At one time, Ryan Ellis was probably the odd man out in Nashville. Given his play this playoff season, that’s probably getting reevaluated. Similar to Colorado, the Jets will probably choose the youth of Trouba over the beaten up Myers, but then last summer’s contract negotiation looms large. Boston probably exposes Adam McQuaid or one of the two Millers. One of Demers, Pysyk, or Petrovik is going to be available on the Florida roster. Tampa Bay will be choosing one out of 3 guys as well: Garrison, Coburn, and Sustr. Ronnie can likely

The play for the Canes here might be packaging up one of their exempt assets and take on a defenseman that they can. However, this would seem to be a case where the team would really want to press their advantage. Could you get Ryan Ellis for a mix of 2nd and 3rd round picks? This is not the type of deal where a prospect like Fleury, McKeown, or Bean should be offered up, but more on that later. If picks don’t do it, then this is a deal to put in the rearview mirror.

As expansion races towards the team, getting a guy like Charlie Coyle would be ideal. Eddie Lack should be moved for whatever return can be had, maybe even back to his old stomping grounds in Vancouver. The team should be willing to retain up to 1/2 his salary to sweeten that return. If Ellis or Barrie could be had for some of our 2nd and/or 3rd round picks, that might not be a bad option. However, one would have to ask if they become 3rd pairing guys with power play time, would that be a bit of overkill? Not overpaying is critical.

At The Entry Draft

To be a bit more specific, let’s consider trades leading up to the draft that are not forced by any expansion driven or other outside circumstances. This is more of an exercise looking at fair market value transactions that might make sense for both teams. Who are the prime candidates? Of course, one has to look at teams like Colorado, Vancouver, maybe St. Louis, the Islanders, Montreal, probably Buffalo and Florida. These are all teams that in one way or another are likely looking at various stages of overhaul. In the case of St. Louis and Montreal, it might mean one or two moves, likely viewed as significant, but in most of the others, there are a lot of things broken that need to be fixed. Some of these teams also have new front office leadership and/or coaching staff, all of which point to change.

There is, of course, the rumored Carolina/Colorado deal involving Matt Duchene and Noah Hanifin. The two key sticking points as to why this deal didn’t and probably won’t go down are around Joe Sakic’s asking price (unrealistically high), that lack of significant term on Duchene’s deal, and years of remaining team control on Noah’s contract (5 more cost-controlled years). Simply put, Carolina isn’t going to give up significant assets with the potential that the return could walk in a year or two.

Also rumored to be available from Colorado is Gabriel Landeskog. He’s a talented scorer who has seen a recent decline in his output. But he plays a physical game and could potentially benefit from a change of scenery. Clearly a Top 6 talent, how good would he look slotted in next to Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal (or next to fellow countrymen, Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm as he was recently in international competition)? Again, Sakic’s asking price may be a sticking point, but as a left wing his perceived value is likely less than Duchene. This is the type of deal where Carolina tries to leverage a draft pick (2017 1st?) and a good prospect (Haydn Fleury, for example) to start the deal. Maybe another prospect or pick becomes part of the offer…whatever it takes to get to fair value for both teams. This feels like a deal that has a better chance of getting done.

Another trade that has been bandied about on internet message boards involves Carolina and Buffalo. Proposals involving Sam Reinhart and Noah Hanifin, positioned as a good, old-fashioned hockey trade have been put forth. This type of transaction is both painful and fair according to the two fan bases. In the end, it is burgeoning potential for burgeoning potential. It is dealing from a position of strength for both organizations. It is also gambling that both players reach their potential while not creating new holes in their respective lineups. From the Hurricanes perspective, it would still be more favorable to put forth their 1st rounder and Haydn Fleury as the option. For Buffalo to even sniff at this they would have to be equally convinced that Fleury is NHL ready and has a Top 4 pairing future. If Reinhart is indeed the target and if Carolina can in some way keep Hanifin’s name out of this transaction, then this is the type of deal where a bit of an overpayment in additional assets is okay.

The New York Rangers need help on their blueline. Their defense needs to get younger and, frankly, they need to get better. While they do have the recently signed Neal Pionk as an option, he likely needs time in the AHL. Sean Day has shown some promise in juniors, but he too is likely to spend some time in Hartford. Being equally as frank, outside of the aforementioned Grabner, they’ve got 5 or 6 relatively young forwards that they might be able to use as “bait” to get an NHL-ready defenseman now. Now that Dan Girardi has been bought out, is an NHL ready player like Haydn Fleury of interest (maybe along with a pick)? Pavel Buchnevich, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, or even Mika Zibanejad could be targets in this type of deal. With Girardi’s contract no longer as big of an issue, this deal feels less likely.

There are sure to be other “hockey trades” to be considered. The right mix of assets returns the need-filling players necessary for the Canes to compete at a playoff level. Most would involve pain on both sides, but there may be opportunities for some of the more creative options.

Free Agency

Last season, Ron Francis in his typical, under-stated way, made a significant splash in free agency without making a whole lot of noise. As mentioned previously, the Stempniak and Stalberg acquisitions showed a clear understanding of team need while also appreciating where the team was in its progression. They also flew somewhat under the radar. This year, expect more of the same during this period. The bigger splash will likely come on the trade front.

Still, there are needs that could be filled come July 1. In truth, the team will almost certainly need to add dependable secondary scoring (to replace what is anticipated to be the loss of Lee Stempniak’s output). Rebuilding the 4th line might also necessitate a dip into the waters of free agency. Getting a veteran blueline presence, probably a bottom pairing guy, is also a priority and may be best addressed in this context.

However, one never knows in advance how free agent acquisitions will turn out. Francis will surely chat with T.J. Oshie’s agent. It is equally likely that he walks away from what promises to be an overpayment in both dollars and term. A couple of other higher end scoring options may be out there. Thomas Vanek comes to mind. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him on a line with Skinner and Rask. The same would hold true for Alexander Radulov, but he is rumored to prefer staying put in Montreal. Would “old reliable” Justin Williams consider a return to the City of Oaks? How about something crazy like Joe Thornton (although his knee injury is a big and valid concern)?

If, for example, Vanek or Williams could be coerced to come to Raleigh, it would likely take a multi-year deal. Would a 3 year, $11.25 million deal get it done with Vanek? The team shouldn’t consider more term or more salary. In Justin Williams’ case would he agree to a 2-year deal, something in the $4 million per year range? Given his responsible defense and clutch scoring, a bit of a perceived overpayment shouldn’t be an issue. In both of these cases you’re almost assuredly picking up 45-50 points, veteran presence, and playoff experience.

A couple of second level guys seem more in line with the overall plan. Snagging a guy like Nick Bonino to center the 3rd line adds a bit of size and some veteran savvy. He could likely be had for less than $3 million, perhaps a 3 year deal for $8.5 million. Another name to consider is Sam Gagner. His scoring prowess is undeniable, especially coming off of a career season. He’s probably seeking a high dollar contract and the Hurricanes should not be the team to wade into a bidding war. However, should the offers come in more “muted”, then two or three year deal in the $3.5 million per year range wouldn’t be hateful. While Bonino would slide into the 3rd line pivot role pretty easily, Gagner is another story. He can play center, but stinks at the dot. He’s better suited at right wing, again most likely on the 3rd line. This would force Teravainen to the middle for better or for worse.

Somebody will probably overpay big time for Patrick Eaves and/or Martin Hanzal. The Hurricanes don’t want to be that somebody. If, however, Hanzal looks to be a more financially reasonable option, then he’s certainly a name Francis should strongly consider. Fully realizing that he’ll likely only play about 65-70 games, his size and physicality would be a plus. He’s more skilled than one would believe too. If the salary is less that $4 million per year and closer to $3.5 million, he’s definitely an option to consider.

Finding the bottom pairing vet in free agency could potentially be one of the easier tasks facing Carolina. Assuming that Fleury takes the #5 slot, then a right shot #6 guy should be targeted. There are some very interesting names out their. Guys like Cody Franson and Michael Stone immediately become part of this conversation. Both are coming off of pretty pedestrian seasons and both might well benefit serving in the mentor role. They also have playoff experience.

Another name that isn’t often considered is Dennis Wideman. At 34, he is getting a little long in the tooth, but should he stay healthy, there’s a good bet that he’ll chip in 35 points from the back end. His 5 trips to the playoffs would definitely be of value in the locker room. Other guys like Matt Hunwick or Kyle Quincey are left shots that play the right side. Both would also bring some valuable leadership qualities.

What Does It All Mean and What’s Likely to Happen

There are a lot of combinations and permutations of what could happen with the Hurricanes’ roster over the next week or so. Based on history, there’s the most likely to happen and based on necessity, there’s what should happen. The fan base is hoping for a break from history. The reality is that somewhere in the middle is almost always the result.

In the first scenario, look for a solid free agent signing on the back end. Any of the first two or three guys mentioned above should be well received. That puts Ron Francis with two items crossed off of his to do list. If Lee Stempniak is not lost to expansion, then the team may acquire another 35-45 point scorer (think Bonino, Gagner, or perhaps even Zucker), and roll the dice that one of the rising rookies will pick up the slack. Bearing in mind that an additional 20 goals likely would have gotten this team into the playoffs last season, there’s merit to this line of thinking. But it is a significant gamble.

To be more aggressive in the quest for the post-season, Carolina will have to give up significant assets, perhaps even roster players. The previously mentioned deal for Niederreiter and Brodin fits this mold. It adds scoring and physicality to the forward corps and doesn’t down-grade the defense much, if at all. A deal for Gabriel Landeskog fits this mold too. Adding size and skill like Martin Hanzal would be a bonus to either of these moves and, again, would signal that the team is serious in its push for the playoffs.

After years of playing safe, followed by years of a methodical rebuild, the Carolina Hurricanes fans deserve the more aggressive option.

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