The free agent period is upon us and there are hopes that the Canes will actually be players this offseason. While the Jordan Staal trade was a huge improvement to the Canes top 6, the team still has plenty of holes that need to be filled. Depending on how JR & Captain Kirk decide to set the lines, I see the Canes with 4 big holes in their lineup. What would seem to be the most pressing need is a top 4 and/or defensive defeneman. The organization appears to have plenty of players/prospects that can contribute some offense from the blueline, but they are lacking in personnel to stop the puck from getting to Cam Ward. The Canes could also still be in the market for another top 6 player, most likely a winger. Muller said he will experiment with the two Staals together, but if they end up as a 1-2 punch down the middle, then Eric Staal still probably needs a winger. Another big hole would be the one that was left vacate by Brandon Sutter. The team has some inexperienced options for a 3rd line center, but that position is a question mark right now. And the last big hole that I see the Canes having is a quality backup goaltender. Boucher is expected to be out 4 to 6 months and you always have to worry about Cam's workload and his back. Finding a quality backup that can play in times of need is a must if the Canes want to see the 2013 Playoffs.
So what position of need will be addressed first by Jim Rutherford? Will he sign or trade for another top 6 player to potentially play with Eric? Will he try to tackle the team's biggest weakness and get a top 4/defensive defenseman? Will he try to fill the void created by the departure of Sutter? Will he try to find a suitable backup for Cam that can be counted on to spell him at times or able to fill in if an injury occurs? Or will JR make his typical move and sign one of his reclamation projects? I guess time will tell, but what do you think will be his first move?
Please feel free to comment on any of my thoughts, express your own, or just comment on the potential frenzy that is Free Agent Day.
1st Line Winger
This is the position that JR has seemed to focus on through much of the offseason already. And depending on how the lines are worked, it still could be a very big position of need. I believe that the best course of action would be to split the Staals up 5-on-5. Have Eric center one line and Jordan the other. But if this is the case, then Eric still needs a right winger to play with. Jussi Jokinen could do, but there are some other options out there that could make the Canes a much more dangerous team. Zach Parise is obviously the first choice of pretty much every team in the NHL. But his chances of coming to Carolina are very slim. So the next options could be signing PA Parenteau, trading for Bobby Ryan, taking a shot on Alex Semin, signing the big Dustin Penner, or maybe even trading for Ales Hemsky. There are even more options, but is JR going after any of them? I just have a feeling that JR is still searching for another top 6 player and him getting one might be the surprise of the day.
Top 4/Defensive Defenseman
Like I said above, this IMO is the Canes biggest weakness. The team has plenty of knives on the table and in the cupboard, but without a fork, it is difficult to eat. In other words, the Canes are stocked with offensive or puck-moving defenseman, but they need someone to help balance out the backend. Cam sees more shots than almost everybody in the league, so finding someone to reduce that number and be physical is key. The top choice would be Ryan Suter, but his chances of joining the Canes are less than Parise. The next options might be signing Jason Garrison, resigning Bryan Allen, or working a trade for a big, tough blueliner. But it could be very difficult as there are only a few real options and almost every team in the league is searching for the same thing. One curveball in this whole process though is Joe Corvo. If the Canes have difficulty finding a quality defenseman, do they turn to the potentially cheap Corvo? While he is an offensive defenseman, he played the shutdown role with Tim Gleason and does have some history with the franchise.
3rd Line Center
It is almost impossible to replace Sutter, so what are the Canes going to do with the 3rd line center or 3rd line itself? Do they try to recreate another shutdown line by acquiring a defensive center? Or do they completely redo the 3rd line into a different role? If they try to create another shutdown line, then Paul Gaustad has to be at the top of the list. He is big, defensive, and is great in the faceoff circle. But they could also look at Dominic Moore or Sammy Pahlsson. If they go a different route with the 3rd line, they could move to more of a two-way line. They could insert Welsh and LaRose, to hopefully provide some offensive while still be decent defensively. Or they could move to a young scoring line with Rask and Dalpe out there providing some secondary scoring. There are a lot of options for the Canes here. And while replacing Sutter is not happening, finding a good 3rd line center is a lot easier than acquiring a top 6 forward.
This has been an issue for years with the Hurricanes and the issue has only been compounded by the all of the coaching staffs reluctance to use the backup goalie. It has pretty much meant that Cam will play 70 games and the backup will be thrown in cold every once in a while. The players need to have faith in their backup goalie and Cam needs to rest more often, so he is fresher at times of need. The only way that is going to happen is if the coaching staff gets and feels comfortable with the "backup plan". Boucher was expected to be that, but luck has been against him since arriving in Raleigh. Now he will be out of action for the first couple of months. What if Cam gets hurt, what would the Canes do then? They need to find a veteran backup that doesn't need a lot of reps to be on his game and someone that can play good enough for stretches, just in case. One guy I like is Johan Hedberg. He is solid in net, has plenty of experience, and usually does well against the Canes. There really are a lot of backup goaltender options out there, but JR needs to get the coaching staff to buy in before signing one of them.
This is JR's favorite free agent signing or acquisition. There was Sergei Samsonov in the middle of the 07/08 season, it worked out ok at the start for the Canes. There was Jokinen in 08/09, it has worked out well. There was sort of Aaron Ward in 09/10, that didn't work. There was Patrick O'Sullivan in 10/11 and we see where that went. And last year was Alexei Ponikarovsky who wasn't good for us, but was quite good for New Jersey. So who will this year's project be? Brad Boyes comes to mind and he does have skill. These projects have the potential to work our great for us, like Jokinen, but most of the time you would be better off skipping on these players. But you never know with JR and I am sure that we see at least one project acquisition.