The Money - The Big Picture
Any discussion of how the Carolina Hurricanes might build a winning team for next season and beyond must necessarily descend a little bit into the weeds of team payroll, salary cap, and salary floor. Hopefully it isn't too painful, but that's where we're going to start. The first big assumption is that the salary cap is going to be about $74 million. Bill Daly, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Legal Officer of the NHL, came out in March and alluded to this number. The way the salary cap is calculated, if I understand it correctly, is to take all Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) from all 30 teams, split it 50/50 between the players and the team ownership, and divide that number by 30. Using some sort of magic, mumbo-jumbo, and other obtuse calculations, the league determines the mid-point of the salary range of all the teams and then sets the salary cap at 115% of that midpoint. It sets the salary floor at 85% of that same midpoint. As an English major, my math skills ain't the best, but my abacus tells me that the salary floor should come in around $54.7 million assuming the $74 million salary cap.
UPDATE: Today Bill Daly said the salary cap "would stay essentially flat". This means that any increase will be at the hands of the NHLPA exercising their 5% escalation clause. That would get the cap to about the $74 million figure.
As the roster stands today, the Hurricanes have 14 players signed for the 2016-17 season with a projected cap hit of about $39.4 million. That leaves a little over $34.5 million to get to the ceiling. Okay, stop with the hysterical laughter, we all know that we're not spending anywhere close to the salary cap. Personally, I see the high end of the Canes internal budget at about $67 million. However, I think they end up spending in the $62 - $63 million range, or perhaps even a bit less.
The Money - Canes' Roster and Payroll
Ron Francis still has some work to do. The Hurricanes typically run out a 22 man roster, having an extra forward and an extra defender available (probably as much for practice continuity as anything). Sometimes it gets squeezed down to 21 players, given that Charlotte is just down the road a piece. However, for this discussion's purposes, we'll use the 22 man roster figure. As stated previously, 14 players are signed for the upcoming year: Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal, Joakim Nordstrom, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Phil Di Giuseppe, Jay McClement, Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, James Wisniewski, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Eddie Lack. That's 7 forwards, 6 defenders, and 1 goalie. That means they have to sign 6 more forwards, 1 defender, and 1 netminder.
The team has a shade over $14 million they will have to spend to reach the salary floor and about $23.5 million to reach my assumed $63 million internal budget. Why is an internal budget a thing when the Hurricanes seem to have plenty of money to spend? Three reasons: 1) Peter Karmanos - enough said, 2) The team is for sale and no matter who owns and/or operates the franchise they will pay very close attention to the balance between costs and "spending to win", and 3) We don't need to spend much more than this to ice a very competitive team - even if we sign a couple of $4 or $5 million players and/or a $6 or $7 million guy. Consider this last point, especially in the light of 3 of the remaining guys we will need to bring aboard will probably have sub-$1 million salaries. Don't forget that they'll also have an eye toward potential expansion and the lower the overall payroll the lower the dollar value of the players the team has to expose.
As was stated in a couple of previous articles, it feels like two of those remaining 8 players are already "spoken for". Rask, an RFA, will, in one way or another, get signed. Most feel that the team would be best served by offering him a Skinner-esque or Faulk-esque type of contract that buys out his remaining years of RFA status and maybe even a year or two of unrestricted free agency. Keep in mind the more of those UFA years you buy, the more expensive the entire contract will be (and therefore the larger the risk the team takes). Also remember that Skinner's contract will be up for renewal when the 2019-20 season rolls around. Faulk's comes up the next year. Ideally, you get Rask signed to a minimum of a 4 year deal, but more favorably, a 5 year agreement. That staggers his renewal out past Faulk's. I think a realistic deal would be a 5 year, $22 million contract, which represents a $4.4 million a year cap hit. The other slot is almost assuredly taken up by Sebastian Aho. Paying him similarly to Noah Hanifin is probably what we should expect. That's basically a shade under $1 million per season at $925,000 for his three year entry level contract.
Now with about $5.4 million deducted, the team has $18.1 million to play with and 6 more slots to fill. The current roster looks something like this (based on last year's lines):
As you can see I've penciled Aho in the line up and have Lindy taking the third line center role. The defensive pairings seem to be set (again based on last year):
As far as the goalie situation is concerned, the "what we have to do" is pretty simple. Executing on a plan is what gets difficult. But go ahead and bet on Eddie Lack being one of our goalies meaning we'll have to sign one other guy.
Also, just because a player is slotted on a particular line doesn't mean they have to stay there or will be there when the Canes open their season. Phil Di Giuseppe could play on the line with Aho and Lindholm, or even on the 4th line. Nordstrom could move to the 4th line and a scoring forward could be matched with Jordan and Andrej. Regardless, we all will agree that this team needs scoring help and it needs it badly. Secondarily (some might say primarily) this team needs reliability in the net.
How Do You Spend The Rest
During the Rutherford era (is that really a thing?), this team once caught lightning in a bottle. After that, JR chased that same philosophy right down the rabbit hole, leaving the team with only Wonderland-esque dreams of marginal competitiveness. His view through that looking glass was always that the team was merely a tweak or two away from the playoff mix. Once in the post-season, just about anything could happen. That was his line of thinking. Well, the White Rabbit stopped appearing to Rutherford's Alice and the Hurricanes got in a lot of April golf. Despite this tinkering and tweaking, the team sometimes did actually feel like it was just missing a few parts. The problem was those parts were never Jeff Hamilton, Tom Kostopoulos, or Ian White. When the team needed a more stout defense, it got a Marc-Andre Bergeron. When it needed a scoring power forward, it got Anthony Stewart. The moves were always on the cheap, and not just salary-wise, but talent-wise as well. He hit the jackpot with Whitney and Stillman once, why not try the same formula. The good news is that while Ron Francis learned a lot from Jim Rutherford, he's his own man with his own ideas about how to build a long term winner.
Since the Francis/Peters era began the draft, develop, strategically acquire (with an eye toward the future) method of team building has taken hold. Give credit where credit is due, JR drafted the core of our young defense, but one has got to assume that Francis had a lot of input (remember he served as both director of player personnel and head of hockey operations during this period). Regardless, the team is heading in the right direction now, mostly because of the excellent drafting over the last 6 or so drafts. Time and the shedding of legacy high salaries (or buying them out) has further put the team in today's position of truly making a few key acquisitions to cement a playoff contender.
Which brings us to the next step and what that should look like. Within the Hurricanes' fanbase there seems to be a divide between two schools of thought. The first goes something like this. We need a stud goaltender and scoring help, maybe, but not necessarily exclusively on Rask's and Lindholm's (assuming Lindy is centering what we're calling the 3rd line) lines. The other side's argument goes something like this. We need a Top 3 forward and a Top 9 forward, both of whom need to be serious scoring threats. Let's backfill in the net with a league average or slightly better goaltender. And of course the reality probably puts the team somewhere between those two poles.
Get the Goalie, Add Some Scoring
There's a lot of justification for the idea of bringing in a top notch goal tender. Take away some of the stinkers thrown up by Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, or more importantly, start the season with league average goaltending and the Hurricanes surely make the playoffs this past season. Add a bit of scoring to the mix, a year of experience for the young defense, and who knows where such a team could go. Ultimately, then, the question is which goalie to target and/or sign?
Such a strategy speaks to acquiring an elite or near elite goal tender. The obvious question, of course, is what elite or near elite tenders are available or at least reasonably available? Also, how do you acquire one of these guys? There is all of one near elite goaltender available as a UFA this offseason. His name is James Reimer. The list of teams truly needing an upgrade in the net includes Calgary, Toronto, Dallas, and Carolina. There are other "suspects" - Winnipeg and perhaps Vancouver both come to mind. Calgary has plenty of room under the cap and they've been "in" on any rumored goalie availability. Dallas, had they had a reasonably average goalie, might still have found themselves playing this June. But that's the proverbial rub for that team, they've got $10.4 million invested annually in their tandem of Lehtonen and Niemi...for two more years...both with no trade clauses. Given that Toronto traded Reimer rather than meet his alleged $6 million per year for 6 years contract demands (since disputed by both Reimer and his agent), it is difficult to believe they would play in that particular free agent pool. Sure, maybe some other teams are looking for upgrades and/or trades, but realistically it leaves Carolina and Calgary as potential front runners.
The other option is to trade for a goalie, either an RFA or a guy with a few years of term remaining on his contract. The names that come up most often are Tampa's Ben Bishop, Anaheim's Frederik Andersen, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov. All of these guys appear to be in various states of availability. With expansion seemingly poised to be announced this June, that adds to the availability impetus. Teams will only be able to protect a single goaltender. Given Vasilevskiy's play during the playoffs, one of he or Bishop will almost certainly be on the trade market (because of impending expansion). If available, Ben Bishop is the cream of the market, he of the lifetime 2.29 GAA, .920 SV%. Colorado has been rumored to be moving one of Barrie, Duchene, Varlamov, or surprisingly even Landeskog. Colorado is in similar straights with Tampa Bay as one of Varlamov or Pickard will likely be snagged if not protected. Pittsburgh is now in similar circumstances with Fleury and Murray. Andersen is a little bit different as he's an arbitration eligible RFA and a UFA the year after. More about that in a minute.
Any one of Bishop, Varlamov, or Fleury would cost just shy of $6 million for one year (in the case of Bishop) or three more years (in the case of the others). The 29 year old Bishop is a UFA at the end of this upcoming seasons. The other two are UFAs after the 2018-19 season. Fleury is 31 and actually has pretty pedestrian lifetime statistics, even worse in the playoffs. Varlamov, who can be brilliant from time to time, is slightly younger at 28 and is slightly better than league average statistics-wise and, of course, has no playoff experience. Then there's Freddie Andersen....originally drafted by the Hurricanes only to snub them, re-enter the draft, and become an Anaheim Duck. His lifetime stats are also a little better than league average and his playoff stats, while not necessarily impressive in aggregate, show the brilliance that he can rise to (consider this year's GAA of 1.41 and SV% of .947). But he's an arbitration eligible RFA who's in line for a big pay day next year. Anaheim knows this just as they know they will likely lose one of Gibson or Andersen to expansion.
Truth be told, if you're shooting for the best of the available netminders, you've got to target one of Bishop, Reimer, or Andersen. Each one has their risks - Bishop needs a new contract next year, Reimer is historically inconsistent (but keeping in mind the clown-car defenses in Toronto during his tenure), and Andersen, also inconsistent, feels a lot like a mercenary that could also be lost after next year. But if it's an elite tender you must have, then one of these guys is your man. And you will pay him well for the pleasure of having him on your squad. Reimer probably doesn't net a $6 million a year pay day, but he's likely to get something in the $4.5 to $5 million range. Bishop is already nearly at $6 million per year and any subsequent contract is surely to be for at least that much. Andersen, more of a wild card, will likely command a little less, but probably not a whole lot, say something in the neighborhood of $4 to $4.5 million per year. So in the short term, you're looking at what is likely $4.5 million to $6 million (or more longer term) for that elite goalie. That $18 million is salary cap space is now realistically down to about $12 million. That doesn't take into account whatever you might have had to trade for Bishop or Andersen.
Everybody acknowledged that the dearth of scoring sank the Hurricanes as much as less than mediocre goaltending did. That situation needs to be remedied no matter what. Spending the roughly $4 or $5 million left to get to the salary floor shouldn't really be an issue. It's the "how" that's the conundrum. Do you invest heavily in UFAs that will most certainly require a longer term commitment? Or do you get a couple of good by not great guys on more reasonable deals, both in contract value and term?
There's no mystery as to who is out there. The names have been thrown around frequently. The high end UFA guys are Steven Stamkos, Kyle Okposo, Loui Eriksson, Andrew Ladd, Milan Lucic, and to a lesser extent, Frans Nielsen, and Mikkel Boedker. More middling UFAs include Jiri Hudler, Lee Stempniak, David Backes (in terms of pure scoring), Teddy Purcell, Troy Brouwer, P.A. Parenteau, Eric Staal, David Perron, Kris Versteeg, and Jamie McGinn. Let's take Stamkos out of the mix because the Canes aren't going to shell out what it would take to land him. Okposo, Eriksson, Ladd, and Lucic will almost certainly all command at least $6 million or more per year with minimum term of 5 or 6 years. Boedker and Nielsen are probably both in the $5 million per year range (maybe slightly less for Nielsen). Every UFA also goes for as much term as they can on their first (or any) free agent contract, so those two will likely look for a minimum of 4 to 5 years as well. That remaining group of UFAs likely falls into the $3.5 million to $5 million per year range (with a couple of exceptions). Guys like Backes, Hudler, and maybe even Staal will get paid at the higher end of that spectrum.
The RFA market is crowned by the allegedly available Mike Hoffman and also includes Chris Kreider, Marcus Johansson, J.T. Miller, Alex Killorn, Tobias Rieder, Andrew Shaw, and maybe Ryan Strome. While all of these guys may or may not actually be available, rumor has it they could be had for the right deal. There may also be others that we're not aware of at the moment. Guys like Matt Duchene or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are out there but the price is likely way too steep. Mike Hoffman, if available, will easily command top forward money and near prohibitive assets in trade. Kreider, Johansson (about who's availability I'm skeptical), Miller, and Killorn won't be far behind. Figure to get the better scorers out of the RFA group will cost $4.5 million to $5 million per year (plus whatever trade assets are required). Rolling the dice on Strome would cost more in trade assets but wouldn't cost as much in actual salary.
To reasonably pull in a couple of scoring forwards without breaking the bank, perhaps you target one of Nielsen, Boedker, or Hudler (given Backes' playoff performance and his stated desire to stay in St. Louis, there's a good chance he's not truly available) which nets you guys who can score in the high 40 to low 50 point range. If you think that Kreider or Killorn have that type of upside you could target one of them from the RFA list. You could then backfill with a solid 35-45 point scorer like Teddy Purcell, Eric Staal (yes, I went there), David Perron, Kris Versteeg, or Jamie McGinn. This should bring in around 85-100 points worth of scoring at a cost of around $10 to $11 million per year.
Following this strategy you'll probably end up spending about $6 to $6.5 million for your goalie and another $10 million for two scoring forwards. With the remaining money you could sign a cheap veteran defenseman as your 7th defender, get a solid character guy for your 4th line, and the 13th forward slot gets filled by whomever. This likely brings your actual salary cap spend close to the fantasy budget of $63 million (or maybe a shade over). Why would the team consider being this frugal? Discounting the Karmanos factor and the "for sale" sign posted out front on Edwards Mill Road, it helps broadly with pending expansion. If the rumored requirement that teams must expose 25% of their overall salary is accurate, then a million here and a million there could make a pretty significant difference.
UPDATE: The 25% requirement has now been canned by the NHL, so the Canes will not have to worry about that condition.
Think Scoring First, Get an Adequate Goaltender
Assuming that we know what forwards are available based on the above, what would happen if the Hurricanes truly focused on pulling in some of the bigger fish? To make a big difference in scoring output, the team would still really only have to focus on upgrading a couple of the forward positions. Let's say, for example, you're replacing last year's output from Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg, a total of 77 points (28 goals and 49 assists). What output would it take to get to the next level? We're not just talking "over the hump", but to put this team in the position of really making some noise in the playoffs. Would an additional 95 - 110 points do it? Probably.
Landing at least one of the bigger fish would be required if following this strategy of team construction. The pool of players to target doesn't really change; you just set your sights (and offers) higher. Looking at Okposo, Eriksson, Ladd, and Lucic as the top end (again excluding Stamkos), the issue always comes down more to term than the actual dollars, especially for this year's Carolina Hurricanes. A lot of folks have opined about landing Kyle Okposo. For my money the guy from this tier to focus on is Loui Eriksson. Yes, he's a bit older but if he continues to play like last season where he recommitted to board battles and playing the body, his numbers are just better. He's got better possession numbers than Okposo. In fact were he on Carolina's team last season, he would have been one of the top 6 or 7 forwards in terms of possession. He also is quite highly rated in another important statistic called Thru% which measures the percentage of shots attempted that are actually on net. His 68.7% rating would have easily led all Hurricanes regulars. Okposo and Ladd would be my back up plans with a very slight preference given to Andrew Ladd because of his better overall possession figures.
Loui Eriksson was allegedly offered a 4 year deal somewhere around $20 to $24 million. Eriksson realizes this is his last big payday, so he wants to milk it for all it is worth. For the Hurricanes to land him, they could put a 4 year, $26 million offer on the table or even bite the bullet and offer a 5 year $28.75 to $30 million deal. You could also offer him a NMC for the 1st two years of the deal to protect him from expansion and then a modified NTC for his remaining years. An offer for Andrew Ladd would be similar or slightly less, but Okposo's would probably be a bit higher given he's younger and has comparable scoring figures to Eriksson this past season. If the decision was to pursue Okposo, you're probably looking at a 5 to 6 year deal paying him $32 to $40 million. While Lucic is an option as well, he doesn't produce as many points for the dollars that are going to be required to sign him. His lack of speed could also haunt the team as he ages. Let's face it folks, these bigger salary numbers are what it is going to take to snag one of these guys. And it still might not be enough...
Any secondary scoring option should then focus on the younger players with one notable exception. From a UFA perspective, in my mind, you are almost limited to Mikkel Boedker, David Perron, or maybe Jamie McGinn. If you're biting the proverbial bullet on a longer term deal with a player who could potentially age out of his skill set, then signing a guy a few years younger could help buffer that potential drop in talent. The wildcard in this discussion is Frans Nielsen. At 32, he's not a spring chicken but he's incredibly agile, still a very fast skater, and puts up respectable possession numbers. You're likely paying similar salaries for Boedker and Nielsen (althought Boedker was rumored to be seeking the infamous 6X6 type of deal). Perron could probably be had for a little less and McGinn is a pure back up plan. For Mikkel Boedker and David Perron, you're likely going out to 5 years on contract term paying $26 to $28 million for the former and $18 to $19 million for the latter. Nielsen might settle for a 4 year deal, but that deal would likely have to be no less than $20 to $22 million.
As previously stated, fishing outside of the UFA market likely yields one of the RFA options. My preference for Chris Kreider or Alex Killorn is well documented. The other intriguing name that could potentially be out there is Ryan Strome. It is probably safe to say that Kreider and Killorn will deliver 40-45 points with some potential upside. Strome's upside is significantly higher than that. The Canes almost certainly would have to give up pick #21 for Kreider plus something else of notable value. Prior to Killorn's playoff run, he may have been had for a 2nd rounder and a 3rd rounder (or comparable asset). His value has likely climbed. Ryan Strome will definitely cost one of the 1st round picks and probably one of the 2nd rounders too. It isn't clear that Carolina has any viable prospects that they could substitute for one of those picks that would interest the Islanders. Regardless, Kreider and Killorn, as arbitration eligible RFAs will get contracts in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million per year. Term is negotiable, but the team would probably want at least 4 years. Strome would almost assuredly get a "prove it" two year bridge deal, maybe as high as $2 million.
This strategy has the team spending around $12 million or so for higher end scoring. They would be taking a bit of a chance on more term with a player who could decline. Targeting a second scoring option with some upside helps take the sting out of this potential. Even so, the points added with a couple of guys like this will go a long way to putting the Hurricanes squarely in the playoff picture.
We know who the elite or near elite options are at goaltender. The other guys who are "adequate" or "good enough" are a mixed bag of names. According to hockey-reference.com, the Carolina Hurricanes ranked 29th in SV% at .902. League average was .910. There's a lot to be said about just getting a little better than league average. Playoff teams such as the Sharks, the Predators, and the Stars were all below league average in SV% but better than the Hurricanes were. One of those teams is playing for the Cup.
Three UFAs, one RFA, and one particular trade target could be of interest. All were above "league average" in SV% (a better measure than GAA in my opinion). The UFAs not named James Reimer include Chad Johnson, Jhonas Enroth, and Carter Hutton. You might add Al Montoya to that group of UFAs too. The RFA is Darcy Kuemper. The other interesting option is Thomas Greiss. All of these guys are risks, especially Enroth, Hutton, Montoya, and Kuemper as their histories as starters are either non-existent or checkered to say the least. All posted nice numbers in comparison to Cam Ward and Eddie Lack however. Chad Johnson in particular is an interesting option, posting the best numbers of his career while starting in the most NHL games of that same career. It wouldn't be surprising to see his salary boosted, maybe as high as $2.5 to $3 million per season given his SV% of .920 and GAA of 2.36. He'll certainly be a target for netminder hungry teams.
However, the truly interesting guy in this mix is Thomas Greiss. He's in a goaltender log jam in Brooklyn. Jaroslav Halak has played fairly well the last few seasons (speaking of slightly better than average goaltenders) and has two more years on his contract. Jean-Francois Berube is clearly the heir apparent at 24 years of age. That leaves the 30 year old Greiss kind of twisting in the wind. With his incredible playoff performance and his admirable job as the fill in when Halak went down with an injury, Garth Snow's phone is going to be ringing come draft day, especially considering the Islanders only have 4 picks overall (only 1 in the 1st three rounds). He'd easily be my choice as a goaltender target. Put the Canes defense in front of him and his numbers likely remain comparable or even improve. The rub is his salary is only $1.5 million this season and he's a UFA next season. I'd be willing to accept the re-signing risk, but adding his salary to the proposed $12 million for forwards only nets you $13.5 million. You'd be right at the salary floor with plenty of money left to sign your 4th liner and the other two roster slots.
Or, the Hurricanes could take on some dead salary for a low level asset. Our friends in Chicago come to mind. While they don't really have draft picks to offer, taking Bryan Bickell off of their hands could yield a solid prospect like Ryan Hartman. Before you laugh, think about Bickell's big body slotting in next to J-Mac on the 4th line. He brings both size and grit to the table. Also keep in mind he's been a clutch playoff performer. Hartman projects to be a similar player to Andrew Shaw. Maybe the Canes give up a 5th or 6th round pick. It is certainly something to consider as it nets Carolina a solid asset. If they do this type of deal they easily get to the salary floor and likely still don't spend much over $67 million (which might be a stretch for the Canes).
Which Option Do the Hurricanes Select
Getting an ace goalie and some solid scoring cures a lot of the ills of last season. Focusing on a scoring upgrade first and getting a goalie that is good enough also has its merits. One can easily argue that mediocre goaltenders would look even better in front of the #5 shot suppression team in the league. One could also argue that a great goaltender would look elite in front of that same defense. Adding high end players who excel in both scoring and possession is the type of double-whammy that this team needs to get to serious playoff contention. There's also a lot to be said about a net 20 point improvement from your forwards. Remember none of this discussion considers that the Carolina blueliners' production could improve significantly.
How about this? Why not do both? Adding a Freddie Andersen at even $4.5 to $5 million, Loui Eriksson at $6.5 million, and maybe a Chris Kreider at $4.5 million is only about $16 million (can't believe I'm referring to this as "only"), getting the team easily over the salary floor with 3 more guys to sign. Even if you went big and got Ben Bishop instead of Andersen and landed Okposo instead of Kreider, the team could still realistically manage to a slightly higher $64 - $65 million budget. One thing is for sure, for the first time in a long time the Carolina Hurricanes truly have attractive options and they don't have to mortgage the future to realize them.