Well we came out of the draft with a satchel full of untapped talent that begins to put this team's farm system back to where it needs to be - able to compete year in and year out, not just for the post-season, but to win the ultimate prize. It is a system that already has a good number of excellent prospects, many of whom are progressing nicely. It has been quite a while since any Canes' fan has been able to get excited about the future, not just long term but near term as well.
It is the near term that we're focusing on in this article, near term as in next season. The near term, as in the team we'll be icing in October. First we'll focus on what we have. Then we'll follow that up with what we think we'll have. Finally we'll move on to what we hope might happen.
In my previous article, a "draft board" was built and I went out on a limb projecting who I would draft based on how I thought things would shake out and who might be available. A couple of moves were also suggested, not the least of which predicted a potential player pick up at the draft. This article will build on that and paint what hopefully is a realistic picture of options and opportunities.
Where the Canes Stand Today
There are probably a lot of very valid arguments pertaining to line order and line construction. My rationale for what follows is based partly on how last year unfolded, on how last year ended, and on some clues, whether correctly or incorrectly interpreted, that surfaced as the season came to a close. Based on all of this, here is where I think the team and various lines and pairings shake out:
The bolded positions are the unknowns going into the draft, free agency, and the rest of the off season.
It's hard not to spend a lot of detail on the "money" and suffice it to say that with a little over $38 million cap expenditure committed to 13 players and a projected salary cap of $74 million, General Manager Ron Francis has a lot of financial flexibility going forward. Last year the team's cap hit hovered around $63.1 million for much of the season. Even if the team chose to spend a million or two less than that, and assuming last year's youngsters perform at or near the same level, we will still be able to ice an even more competitive team. In the end, projecting next Fall's team will have to include a fair amount of discussion of projected contracts and salaries.
Who Gets a Contract?
Let's get down to the first order of business. Note that neither Victor Rask or Joakim Nordstrom are listed above. Even though we all expect them to be back for 2016-17, they are unsigned restricted free agents. (Note: while writing this article Nordstrom was signed to a 2-year deal). For argument's sake let's address this issue. To make things work it likely makes sense to try and do a little more than sign Rask to a bridge deal. Plus he has exceeded expectations and is at the high end of his development curve. So what does Victor's next contract look like? If you use Jeff Skinner's contract as a structural model you get a nice roadmap. When Skinner was re-signed, Rutherford bought out two years of potential unrestricted free agency which contributed a bit to higher overall compensation. In the long run this is probably a smart way to go, but doesn't always looks that way on a year to year basis (especially if performance is up and down). Given how some other contracts are structured, the term I like for Rask's contract would be 5 years. A competitive and fair offer would be a 5 year $20 million to $22 million deal. That buys out a year of free agency and puts his next renewal out beyond Justin Faulk's.
As previously stated, Nordstrom was just extended. He had a nice little season and showed flashes of offense that some in Chicago crowed about. Even though he didn't prove a ton, he did enough to warrant a 2 year bridge deal for $2.55 million. It is not in Ron Francis's interest to excessively overpay either of these young players, but pay them he must. This now adds a Top 6 center and a winger that can play on just about any line (albeit his effectiveness on certain ones can be debated).
We all also know that Sebastian Aho is more than likely coming to North America this summer. As I've said before I'd be shocked if he wasn't on the Canes roster in October and that's what I'm going with here. He'll sign an ELC that probably pays him in the neighborhood of $925,000 per year (we'll overlook performance bonuses for the purposes of this article). Another guy who I believe both Francis and Peters like is Riley Nash. He's a very solid 4th liner who can jump up onto the 3rd line in a pinch. He can both kill penalties and play effectively on the power play. Frankly there are quite a few guys who can and do serve this type of "jack of all trades, master of none" role in the NHL, but why not just keep the one we've got. I believe that Ronnie can re-up him for 3 years at $4.2 million (again keeping an eye on other contracts and when they are up for the next round of negotiations). The only caveat here is if Peters wants to reserve a spot to allow for competition from the prospects. But knowing what I know now, I'd sign Nash.
With these players inked to new deals, here's how I see the forward lines shaking out:
I like keeping Skins, Rask, and PDG together until they prove to be ineffective. When the Nesty, Jordy, Nordy line wasn't leading the charge, that group of youngsters stepped into the void. While many might question the breaking up of what was our best line last year, frankly it needs to perform at a higher level offensively, especially given that we are likely going to roll what is the equivalent of three 2nd lines. And if Nordstrom hits the weight room and the training table and can add some muscle, that 4th line projects to be one of the better ones around.
Stopping the Puck
Jumping now to "in the net", it makes sense for the brain trust to monitor Eddie Lack's offseason regimen. If he's training hard and working with whatever coach can build his confidence while allowing him to take advantage of his size and quickness, then the team might be inclined to roll the dice a bit and consider him an equal and valuable part of a tandem in the net. However, whether or not they'll roll the dice with Cam Ward is another question entirely. Both goalies played well from mid-December until the last few games. Had they been lights out in those last tilts I would have been more generous in my thoughts about them. Simply put, there was a mental let up that should have been no where near their way of thinking. Similar to the Checkers' call-ups who were playing for next year, these guys should have had the focus of goalies who were IN the playoffs. In my opinion, then needed to prove something to management and the team. Neither did. I was sorely disappointed with the last 4 or 5 games from our goalies. I think Ron Francis was as well. There was no commitment to Cam and he basically called Eddie out as not being as good as advertised. What this means, I believe, is that the front office is actively looking at net minding alternatives. After a lot of thought, that's what I'd do as well.
The UFA market for goalies is pretty slim with really only 2 or 3 guys worth a second look. There's James Reimer who put together a pretty nice year. Surprisingly, Chad Johnson has had a solid campaign. You've also got the two back-ups Antti Raanta and Al Montoya who put up respectable numbers but with small sample sizes of games played. Of these guys, really only Reimer and Raanta have any interest for me. While there are a number of interesting RFAs, Andersen and Mrazek particularly come to mind, both would likely cost more than the team should be willing to give especially when there is more immediate need to shore up the forward corps. The only asset you have to use on a UFA is cash, something the team has a little surplus of in this cycle. You could also structure the term of a deal to coincide with the expected development of Nedeljkovic and Altshuller. My first choice would be to go hard after Reimer. Rumor had it that he was looking for more than $5 million per year were he to stay in Toronto. I don't think he'll get that on the open market. He's likely closer to a $4 million guy and I'd be willing to pay a bit of a premium on that - say something like 4 years at $4.4 million per year. I really wouldn't go much over that as there are "out years" where the Canes budget won't be quite so "friendly". If Reimer didn't work out then I'd try and get Raanta on a "show me" contract of $1.5 million for 1 year. Montoya would be my alternative if neither of these worked. Only then would I consider going back and signing Cam and even then I'd sign him to only a 1 year agreement to see if he could rediscover something he lost 6 or 8 years ago.
A Couple of Missing Pieces
Skill. It is something that our team has a bit of, but not nearly enough, especially when it comes to our forwards. In my latest article about the draft, I tried to address one piece of this puzzle by adding Chris Kreider in a draft day trade. You could substitute any number of other guys here. J. T. Miller, Alex Killorn, or Joe Colborne could have just as easily been targets. For a bit more, perhaps you make a run at Mike Hoffman or Marcus Johansson. I won't get into some of the other more "expensive" rumors (Duchene, Nugent-Hopkins, etc.). If your targeting something closer to a 3rd liner, then Kevin Hayes, Tobias Rieder, or Brandon Pirri come to mind. But for right now, I'm making the assumption that I could do a deal for Kreider at the draft and that I'm signing him to a 5 year, $23 million deal ($4.6 million per year). Further, I'm going to try him on Jordan Staal's wing. I think with his size and speed he would fit very, very well on that line which becomes something of a "2a" line.
There are a couple of higher end UFAs I could explore. Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Okposo, and Andrew Ladd would all be on my radar. I could even see going out to 6 years on Boedker, but for a bit less than the $6 million per year he's reportedly looking for. Both Okposo and Ladd represent the type of player where I'd pay more per year to not have to give too much term. In both cases, I wouldn't want to go beyond 4 years. In the end I don't think we'll be a serious player on any of those guys.
That still leaves a middle six slot that needs to be filled by a guy who has solid scoring skills too. This is where a debate over a guy like Backes makes sense to me. He might not come to play in our middle 6, but he's the kind of guy I'd like to get. He can play center or wing (right shot) and can move up in a pinch. He had a bit of an off year and he'll be 32 in May. I probably would be willing to go to 3 years and, again, pay a little premium over last year, maybe as high as $4.75 to $5 million per year. If that doesn't get it done then I look at Teddy Purcell, Frans Nielsen, or David Perron (maybe a little more for Nielsen). I would think you could get any of these guys for $4 million to $4.5 million. A back up plan of Jamie McGinn, Troy Brouwer, or Lee Stempniak rounds out this option. In the end, I think I could get Backes, Purcell, or Nielsen. For the purposes of this article, I'll pencil in Backes.
Our primary forward corps is complete and looks like this:
My backend is as we started:
And in the net we have:
The Spare Parts
If we don't leave a positional battle for a Checker to fill, then most likely the 13th forward and maybe the 7th defender will be youngsters in the understudy role. I think that Gerbe, Terry, and Malone are all gone. I also think that Murphy likely gets moved at or around the draft.
The 13th forward slot is likely manned by one of Brodie Sutter, Brendan Woods, or Patrick Brown. All would do fine to spell Nash or Nordstrom if needed. My assumption is that Nordstrom and Nash are also the guys that play up a line or two in the case of injury. The wildcards in the mix are likely Alexi Saarela and Valentin Zykov. One never knows if either of those two talents break out this up coming year.
On the back end, to me, the decision is much simpler. I merely sign Michal Jordan to another 1 year deal and call it a day. He was very effective in his role last season and I'd be inclined to reward that performance. There is a chance that Danny Biega could fill that role but as injury prone as he was this past year, I'd be scared to depend on him at the outset of the season. I like Keegan Lowe as the physical presence down in Charlotte and want Trevor Carrick again getting big minutes, not sitting in the press box.
The Final Analysis
The team I ice next year has only one or two "homegrown" stars, a legacy "brand" star, and a team of players that hopefully add up to more than the sum of their parts. Yes we will essentially roll three 2nd lines, but each will have a unique identity and should all be hard to play against.
The top line of Nestrasil/Staal/Kreider should once again be a possession dynamo, giving other team fits. If Chris Kreider can play a solid defensive role, this line will not only likely score a lot of points off of the cycle, it will provide crazy defensive match up problems for their opponents.
We know what the second line can do. The line of Skinner/Rask/PDG has already shown that it can produce points in bunches. Victor and Jeff have developed a good deal of chemistry together and Di Giuseppe, the glue guy of sorts, provides the grit, speed, and space-making that opens things up.
The 2c line with a blend of youth and veteran responsibility could very well play as many minutes as any line. Aho/Lindholm/Backes should be a very dynamic offensively given Sebastian's creativity, Lindholm's shot, and Backes' history of hard working offensive production. They will also be a very responsible defensive group.
Finally a fourth line that blends speed and tenacity should also provide match up problems for opponents. Nordstrom/McClement/Nash will leverage Jay's savviness, Nash's skill, and Nordstrom's wheels to ratchet up things on most other 4th lines.
The defense is a well known quantity. However as the season progresses, I anticipate Hanifin graduating to the 2nd pairing beside Brett Pesce. Hainsey and Wisniewski will be as formidable of a 3rd pairing as there is in the league. I also expect a significant uptick in scoring from the back end.
Finally, with a truly responsible goaltender in James Reimer, I expect the guys in front of him to play even more effectively. I also think that Lack picks up his game a notch, probably benefitting significantly from seeing how another big-bodied net minder uses that size effectively.
Yup, I'm an optimist, but I think this lineup gives us good reason to drink the Kool-Aid from a glass that's even more than half-full. Refreshing, isn't it?