We all know the stories filled with hope and disappointment. Did you hear the one about Zach Parise coming to the Triangle? Didn't Brad Richards say one time that Carolina was one of the destinations he'd consider? Yeah, well, one can always hope. Those days, according to one Jim Rutherford, we were just that one special piece away. Add to that a reclamation project or two, and the Hurricanes are winners again. How'd that work out for us.
There's a new sheriff in town and he's got a plan. He's executing that plan. The young team he's building might actually be a piece or three from being a playoff team. During this offseason it now makes sense to chase those few missing pieces. There are three basic ways to fill in these holes: draft and develop prospects, trade for players, or sign the right guys on the open market. It is this last option that we're going to explore in this article.
The list of options is a bit thinner than in some years, but arguably that fits in well with the perceived team strategy. The Hurricanes really only need one or two of the higher end guys...and technically they don't even need to be that high end. Many believe that Peters and Francis may be perfectly comfortable running out what is essentially three 2nd lines and a 4th line. Strategically that can mean replacing a player on one of the top two scoring lines from last year or it can mean constructing an entirely new scoring line or it can mean building a very solid 2c line that also packs some scoring punch. The key word there is scoring.
It is also fair to look at the other key area of need: goaltending. Don't be surprised to see #30 back in net on a much more affordable contract. However, that is likely a fall back position for Ron Francis. It just seemed that he wasn't satisfied with the duo, maybe even less so with Eddie Lack. Who knows if one or both of these guys progress over the summer or what steps they may take to improve. However, they're veterans and more than likely, what you see is what you get. What don't you see? A consistent #1 goalie is missing from the picture.
What follows is a top ten list of sorts of the unrestricted free agents that could or should most appeal to the club when considering an anticipated spot in the playoffs. They are loosely presented as a prioritized list of options.
The Top Ten
1. James Reimer - G - 17W-14L-3OT - SV% .922 GAA 2.31
Yup, that's right, as much as we need scoring, my first target is in net. There's a method to this madness. A solid, dependable tender adds confidence throughout the team, especially on the blueline. Even as good as the youngsters were, they still have growing to do, mistakes to make, and break-downs leading to high danger shots. More importantly, that confidence likely breeds a few more aggressive plays offensively from the back end. Those chances should logically lead to more scoring.
Reimer is solid and he's big. He's played for some pretty rocky Leafs teams and has had consistency problems earlier in his career. Let's face it though, he often played in front of defenses that rivaled some of the dumpster fires the Canes iced. Playing in front of a defense that is an improving shot suppression team should do wonders for Reimer's confidence as well. Perhaps even more importantly, maybe he can model some tactics that another big goalie named Eddie Lack can adopt.
While the money shouldn't be a problem, this organization doesn't want to get itself back in a position of overpaying an inconsistent net-minder. As previously stated Reimer allegedly wanted upwards of $5 million a year on a longer term deal. It is difficult imagining that his history of uneven results will yield that kind of payday. Ideally you try and get him inked to a three year deal, but if 4 years get's you better annual salary, that extra year isn't going to kill the budget. A 3 year deal for $14 million would be fine. A 4 year, $17 million to $17.2 million deal would be okay too, just less favorable given that both Altshuller and Nedeljkovic should be scaling the NHL gates by then. If you cannot get him for that money, then just walk away and invest extra dollars in scoring forwards.
2. Andrew Ladd - LW - 78 Games - 25g/21a/46p
He is made for the Bill Peters game. While not speedy he can get around the rink nicely. At 30 he's got some miles on him, but doesn't really show dramatic signs of slowing down (after his trade to the Hawks he was on a .63 ppg pace, well above his career average). Best of all he's got good size and knows how to use it. He protects the puck well and has very nice hands for a big guy.
Potentially slotted on the left side of Staal's line, that immediately upgrades the scoring and the physicality of an already physical line. Ladd also adds playoff experience and leadership of a one-time captain. If the team decides it wants to keep the Nestrasil/Staal/Nordstrom line intact, Ladd can slide down to Skinner's and Rask's line (although it is unknown if he can play on the right side). Finally he could easily find a home on a newly constructed line that might be centered by Lindholm and have the rookie Sebastian Aho on the right side. Aho could just as easily set up Ladd and Lindholm as he did his Finnish compatriots in this year's WJCs.
It was thought that Andrew Ladd was looking for an infamous 6 X 6 contract....or even higher dollar. It would be interesting to see if he would accept less term for more annual salary. Ideally, a 4 year $26 million contract would be great for the team. A four year $28 million deal wouldn't be the worst thing either. Sure the last year or so of a deal like that is a calculated risk and maybe Ladd isn't the guy to gamble on. However, if he posts 50-55 point totals for at least 3 of those years, the Canes win many of the close games that were lost because of a point here and a point there.
3. Kyle Okposo - RW - 79 Games - 22g/42a/64p
After Stamkos, Kyle Okposo is likely the most sought after free agent in this year's crop. He's got size and isn't afraid to use it. He's a solid goal scorer with three 20+ goal seasons but pairs his scoring with some solid assist numbers. He's also got some pretty solid possession numbers which would play well in the Peters system. He, too, would look very good on the right side of Jordan Staal. Kyle works well down low and would become the #1 scoring option when he breaks the cycle and posts up below the dots. Still, one has to wonder how a Skinner/Rask/Okposo line would shake out. There's some serious scoring potential there with Okposo clearing out space for Skinner to operate.
Yet this type of move does not come without concerns. There are those that question the mental aspects of Okposo's games. It's not that he lacks hockey sense or that he doesn't think the game well; he seems to do this quite well most of the time. The big issue between the ears is that he seems to lose focus from time to time, forgetting the occasional assignment or proper offensive positioning. Assuming that coaching can address this, then this acquisition has the potential to add the most serious missing piece.
It is truly, then, all about the money. Kyle Okposo is coming off of a five year $14 million contract. The man is going to get paid. As a 55 to 60 point scorer he will easily garner $6 million per year and may see even more. He'll also be seeking and will likely receive a 6 year deal. Therein lies the rub. In his NHL career he's missed about 17% of all the games he's been scheduled to play. His only complete season was the strike shortened one where, statistically, he had one of his poorest efforts. While only missing 3 games this season, last season he was out for 22 games, 11 the season before that. In 2010-11 he missed 44 games. His very first full season in the league he was off the ice for 17 games. Does he just play a rough and tumble game that causes him to miss his share of contests? Or is he fragile? That will be a question Ron Francis will need to answer.
4. Loui Eriksson - RW/LW - 82 Games - 30g/33a/63p
Until this year, Loui Eriksson felt like one of the most "under the radar" scoring threats in the NHL. His years in Dallas were especially productive. Yet many probably thought he was past his best given his '13-'14 and '14-'15 seasons in Boston underwhelmed pretty significantly (37 and 47 points respectively). However, Loui wasn't done and he bounced back nicely with a 30 goal, 63 point effort. This shouldn't come as a surprise as Eriksson's scored at least 20 goals in 6 of his 10 years in the NHL. He's posted three 60+ point seasons and three 70+ point seasons. Let's face it, he'd look very good as part of a Hurricanes Top 6.
As a soon to be 31 year old, there is the question of how many more years will he have in him. During the 2013-14 season he suffered 2 concussions in a 5 week span. He did appear to shake those off but with his history of "softness", is he a "Peters guy"? Interestingly enough several reports out of Boston indicated that he played a markedly more physical game this year, getting into the dirty areas, playing the body, and using his relatively good size effectively. However, make no mistake, he's more sniper than power forward.
The latest out of Boston had the stalled contract negotiations having more to do with term than money (shocker!). The Bruins supposedly wanted a 4 year deal in the $20-$24 million range and the Eriksson camp wanted a 5 or 6 year deal. Apparently contract talks are ongoing. If the Hurricanes were to push for Loui, it should be on a shorter term, higher dollar deal. Could the Canes snag him if they overpay a bit on a 4 year deal (something like 4 years, $27 million)? Again, playing style, fit, and ability to predict the future would come into play. The first two should be easily determined by the coaching staff. Too bad that nobody can read what the future brings.
5. David Backes - C/RW - 79 Games - 21g/24a/45p
Okay, so maybe you're buying something of an Eric Staal clone with a bit more grit and defensive responsibility. He scores at a bit of a lower rate and had something of an off year this past season. However, Backes is a 50 to 55 point guy who brings outstanding leadership and good playmaking skills. Having scored 20 or more goals in 6 of his 10 NHL seasons, he's no slouch at putting the puck in the net. While he can and has played center, in St. Louis he probably was used more on the wing.
Anybody who read my previous article knows that I see David Backes as a perfect fit next to Aho and Lindholm. He could certainly fill in for Joakim Nordstrom on the 2a line or Phil Di Giuseppe on the 2b line as well. However, if the coaching staff does roll the equivalent of 3 second lines, then ice time will certainly be a bit more balanced between those lines as well. That means there shouldn't be any issues about which line a particular guy is playing on. Still, that would make the putative 3rd line both defensively responsible AND a true scoring threat.
Backes turns 32 on May 1 so he's got some miles on him. It would really be risky to go much beyond 3 years. To do that the Canes would, once again, have to pay a premium. Maybe you go as high as $5 million per year, but I think you could get the deal done for slightly less; something like 3 years at $14.25 million. If St. Louis values their captain as highly as they should, then he's likely not available. But if he does come on the market, he's a player Ron Francis might want to aggressively court.
6. Frans Nielsen - C - 81 Games - 20g/32a/52p
What's not to like about this guy? Hard working, speedy, and a good nose for the game, Nielsen has posted 59 goals in his last 3 seasons. He's coming off of a solid 52 point effort as the captain of a very good Islanders team. While not flashy in the traditional sense, he's more likely characterized as "slick". He is not afraid of the dirty areas and is considered a good defensive player. His leadership is unquestioned as he leads by example. Add in the fact that he's the 3rd leading scorer on the Islanders squad, his understated value increases.
Nielsen has missed a grand total of 7 games over the last 5 seasons, so durability should not be an issue. Even though he just turned 32, he feels like he plays a younger man's game. Nielsen fits into that category of the perfect 2nd and 3rd line tweener. He'd be an interesting addition, perhaps slotting in between Aho and Lindholm, providing mentorship for the former and a calming, confidence building influence on the latter. If he chipped in as a 45 - 50 point producer on the Canes, the organization should be very pleased.
Frans easily deserves a nice pay raise and this is likely to be his last opportunity to get it. What do defensively responsible 45 - 50 point producers get in this market? Well if you're Jordan Staal, you get $6 million a year for 10 years. While Nielsen's defense is good, he's not in Jordan's league in that respect. Perhaps you pay a guy like Nielsen a little bit more money on a shorter term deal (see a pattern here?). Although, his style of game feels like he might not regress as much as other mid 30 year old guys. In the end, 4 years at $4.25 million per year or 3 years at $4.5 million per year feels about right. Another consideration is the upcoming expansion draft. He could represent a nice chunk of salary that gets left exposed. Regardless, Frans Nielsen feels like the kind of free agent pick up Francis and Peters would chase. Now if only the Islanders cooperate.
7. Teddy Purcell - RW/LW - 76 Games - 14g/29a/43p, Troy Brouwer - RW - 82 Games 18g/21a/39p
Almost interchangeable, Teddy Purcell and Troy Brouwer are really almost the same guy. You get a little more skill and offensive production with Purcell and you get a spot more grit and defensive responsibility with Brouwer. In the end, you could plug either of these guys onto a 3rd line (or a very good 4th line) and get solid production. Brouwer scored more goals and Purcell sets his teammates up a bit better. Essentially, you're talking about a couple of 40-45 point guys with bigger bodies. Both are defensively responsible. Neither are particularly remarkable at anything except their workmanlike effort.
If the Canes purse either of these guys, it would seemingly be after they had found a higher end Top 6 scoring option. Teddy or Troy would add some physicality to a third line (or in the Hurricanes case, a 2c line). In my estimation you chase these guys to stabilize and finish out a balanced 3rd line/2c line. They can play the cycle game. They can plant themselves in front of the net. And, in general, they can clear space for more skilled line mates. In the end they could serve a role similar to the one Tuomo Ruutu grasped during the 2008-09 ECF run (albeit not on the top line). A lot of his goals came from below the dots while wreaking a bit of havoc in front of opposing goaltenders.
Purcell is overpaid slightly based on his current production as he reaped the benefits of a pretty magical 3 year run from 2010 through 2013. Brouwer is currently paid what he is worth. Again, because we're the Hurricanes and free agents generally don't know how good life is here at Edwards Mill Country Club, paying these guys a slight premium for their production wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Maybe you offer them $4 million per year but for nothing longer that 3 years. They too would become "expansion draft fodder" if it came to it. Regardless they'd fill a much needed role on the roster.
8. David Perron - LW/RW - 71 Games - 12g/24a/36p
It is unclear whether he just didn't like playing in Pittsburgh, the coaching staff misused him, or if he was just snake bit. The soon to be 28 year old should be a consistent 45 to 50 point man. If there ever was a guy who needs stability, a defined role, and a fresh start where he knew he would be appreciated, David Perron is that guy. It also seems like this organization is tailor-made for him. A little less media scrutiny and a mentality where teammates pick each other up should do wonders.
Simply put, this guy's game is predicated on skill. His stick-handling is superior. He's a good skater, not super fast, but mobile in a shifty sort of way. Could he slot in on a top line? Sure, he'd definitely add a skill factor to Jordan's line. Would he work on the Skinner/Rask line? Absolutely, but even though he's got competitive size, he probably doesn't clear enough space to be the needed 3rd cog in that wheel. No, David Perron's destiny on the Canes team would be as a serious scoring option on the proposed Aho/Lindholm line. Also expect that he would most likely see time on the power play. Playing against what amounts to 3rd line competition with some man advantage time should put him right back in the aforementioned 45-50 point range.
Perron is coming off of a 4 year deal that paid him about $3.8 million per year (cap hit). While this past year wasn't his most productive and the guy might not appear to deserve a raise, he picked his game up substantially over his last 20 tilts with the Ducks. That is the David Perron that this team would need to see. Ideally, you sign him to something like a 3 year deal, maybe for as much as $13 million. A 4 year, $17 million deal wouldn't be bad either. Given his age, the team might still reluctantly go out to 5 years on a $20 million deal. He'd be a shade under 33 at the end of that term and if one looks at a contract chart, a 3 year or 5 year deal makes the most sense as it staggers things nicely. In the end, given the options, Ron Francis doesn't have to overpay a guy like Perron, but his scoring upside, if used correctly, is undeniable.
9. Jamie McGinn - LW/RW - 84 Games - 22g/17a/39p
McGinn is sort of a poor man's Okposo. He shouldn't be a top line guy (although he did see occasional top line minutes in Anaheim), but he has a nice shot and works hard. Like his younger brother he's got a motor that runs pretty constantly too. Interestingly enough he's a bit of a late bloomer with his actual goal scoring not really picking up until the 2011-12 season. This past season he exceeded his career number in goals scored, potting 8 of them in the last 21 games once he moved over to Anaheim.
Jamie is another guy who could easily be plugged in on a 2b or a 2c line. He plays physically which would help clear space for any of the players on his line. He's excellent down low and cycles quite well, so he could help in that regard on either of those lines. If, for whatever reason, PDG didn't continue to work well with Skinner and Rask, you could easily replace him with McGinn. If he could continue his goal scoring, he'd be the type of asset that we're looking for. However, he does have a history of back problems which limited him to 19 games in the '14-'15 season.
Assuming that he passes a physical and the back isn't a problem, the front office could look to sign the 27 year old to a 3 year deal. He's never really made big money, but he's coming off of his best goal-scoring season, so a modest increase is likely called for. A $10 million, 3 year contract feels about right. He would be another player that likely gets exposed to the expansion draft. He also helps with the overall payroll push to crest the salary floor.
10. Eric Staal - C/LW - 83 Games - 13g/26a/39p
My how the great have fallen. Even as a fall back type of UFA to chase, there's likely to be some assurances necessary that locker room issues won't surface. Eric would need to make clear to the youth on the team, assuming he's not wearing a letter, that he's in this with them, one of the gang. Realistically, Eric Staal, if he had a different last name, is the type of guy that the Hurricanes would look at this off season, especially on an appropriately termed deal. He'd have to commit to some off season work to insure he can still dominate in a possession system. He'd have to prove that he's repaired his wrist shot which seemed to have lost both accuracy and zip. He'd have to leave the moping and lolly-gagging behind. Finally, he'd have to commit to playing the "net front presence" role that will be needed on any line of which he's a part.
Knowing all of this and assuming that Eric can at least get back to being a 45 to 55 point guy, he too would be a perfect fit next to Lindy and Sea Bass. Frankly, he played well at times with Lindholm, but other times not so much. Eric could also play next to his brother, which from time to time has worked well. A lot of this ultimately depends on who centers the 2c line. If Lindy takes that over, then it might make sense to put a rejuvenated Eric next to Jordan or maybe he settles in next to Lindy. That one needs to be left up to the coaches, but if I'm having this much difficulty envisioning a home for Eric....well, there's a reason that he's #10 on this list.
The money part of bringing Eric back has to be cold and calculated. He's not going to sign a 1 year "show me" deal. Earlier in the year I was on record stating that I'd sign him to a 5 year deal paying him $6 million, even $7 million per season (perhaps more than that, what was I thinking!). Okay, that was when I assumed he was going to put up between 60 and 65 points. Everything that I saw this year tells me that version of Eric is gone. So assuming once again that he puts in the work and the coaches think he can recapture a bit of the skill that abandoned him this season, a 3 year $15 million deal wouldn't be out of the question. Conversations can be had and gentlemen's agreements could be reached that would allow Eric to retire here in Carolina, maybe even doing the Glen Wesley thing, stringing together a few 1 year deals as he rode into the sunset. But all of this would be contingent on everybody's understanding that last year's version of Eric Staal doesn't even get a second look.
Steven Stamkos - With all the uncertainty about his recovery from blood clot surgery (I believe there's something about removing a rib), the investment in this scoring machine is just too risky. Who knows what happens is a question this team can choose to avoid.
Mikkel Boedker - He would be a very nice add to this team. It just appears that somebody is going to overpay severely for a guy who has never scored 20 goals in an NHL season, for a guy who has one 50 point season under his belt, and for a guy who might not fit in a Peters-style game.
Milan Lucic - Perhaps this is more personal preference and the "eye test", but he doesn't appear to be a fit for a Peters coached team. Yes, he's a bit of a possession beast, but he's relatively slow, both on his skates and in his decision-making. To date he's been able to get away with that because of his strength and size, yet as the game continues to get faster, a long term deal with Lucic doesn't seem logical.
Kris Versteeg - We know what we get with Versteeg and it's not bad; 35 - 40 points, skilled distributor of the puck, and surprisingly solid possession numbers (at least when he was with LA). The only issue: Where does he fit?
Jiri Hudler - Most likely seeking too long a contract for too much money, he's a historically soft player who spends most of his time on the perimeter. Hudler is a good finisher, though. He's another guy that just has "fit" issues.
Antti Raanta - This is strictly the "back up plan" in case a Reimer can't be had or Ward/Lack combo doesn't prove to be what they were the last half of the season. He's put up solid numbers in a "relief" position. Can he be "the man" is the key question to ask.
I Know a Guy
The stark reality is that this organization needs at least one of these types of free agents. It needs a guy who has won and knows how to win. It needs a guy who knows what the reality of a playoff run actually looks and feels like. Currently the team only has 3 players with any type of playoff experience: Jordan Staal, James Wisniewski, and Joakim Nordstrom. The importance of that type of experience cannot be overstated.
Veterans who know how to win, who can provide leadership in both good times and bad, and who can model winning behavior are critical. Therefore, picking up at least one veteran free agent should be a must add to the roster for next season. In the final analysis, adding a couple of players like Ladd and/or Backes would be a big boost to this team's chances. Even one of those type of guys would be notable. Or, with your UFA pick up, throw in a young rising RFA, stir the kettle, and you never know what type of brew you'll get. Personally, I think the vintage would be excellent.