Ron Francis has been a busy man and, rumor has it, he's off on a well-deserved vacation. His "to do" list has been dutifully checked off. Maybe, if you turn that tattered list over, there might be a couple of hard to read items remaining. Yet, that's why they're on the flip side...they are "optional". Let's take a quick look at where the team currently stands, review a couple of the "why's" behind some of the moves, understand what the true question marks are, and think about the small handful of options that might yet get addressed.
Francis really got the ball rolling in April. He signed Nic Roy to his entry level deal on April 9. Inked Joakim Nordstrom to his 2 year extension on April 22, the same day that Jake Chelios was given his two-way deal (a good, if unspectacular depth signing). June opened with Josh Wesley's not unexpected, but perhaps questionable entry level deal. This was followed by the June 13 ELCs to Aleksi Saarela and new Carolina Hurricane "hype train" engineer, Sebastian Aho. A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout Canes Country that day. Two days later Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell were
stolen acquired from Chicago for a couple of draft picks. The next day Cam Ward was resigned to a two-year deal and the universal gnashing of teeth could be heard throughout the land. Depth signings of Derek Ryan and Patrick Brown followed while the month closed out with another somewhat controversial move, the James Wisniewski buyout. Oh, and did I mention that Ulf Samuelsson was brought on board to coach the Checkers?
On July 1 fifteen Hurricanes and/or Checkers became unrestricted free agents. The changing of the guard was moving apace. For fans of the Canes, the first day of free agency is usually a yawner. It has become something of a tradition for the team's largest signing to be a marginal 4th liner or some other depth player. This year started out similarly when the Viktor Stalberg signing flashed across our screens. And who could forget the collective "who" when Andrew Miller picked up his two-way deal. But then came something of a stunner....Lee Stempniak was brought in on a two year deal. Sure he's no Kyle Okposo or David Backes, but he did put up 51 points last season and is a solid mid-40 point guy. Stempniak is a proven secondary scoring option. What's going on here? That's a guy who can play on any of the Canes' top 3 lines. But more on that later.
A couple of days later, Francis got the Canes some Ryan Murphy insurance when he inked Matt Tennyson to a two-way deal. The two "feel good" ELC signing's of our two 1st rounders, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier helped to bring a successful Prospect Camp to a close. On July 12 GMRF again slipped out of character by signing Victor Rask to a 6-year $24 million deal, one of the most important pieces of business left on his plate. Then, probably as he was packing for the beach (making an assumption here), Francis signed Ryan Murphy to a very affordable 2 year contract thereby providing the Hurricanes with the final piece of the puzzle should the season start tomorrow.
- Future high-end scoring threats brought into the fold - Check!
- Add size and speed - Check!
- Add real and potential secondary scoring - Check!
- Jettison underperforming dead weight - Check!
- Protect Hurricanes young core from expansion - Check!
- Give the boys in Charlotte a legend to latch on to - Check!
There are a few very important premises at play here. One is that the youthful core of this team will continue on its development path, both the forwards and the blueliners. The second is that the guys who stepped up last year can be counted on to step up again this year, maybe even give a bit more. Another is that talented guys will live up to their billing; their talent will come through. Lastly, the one or two (or three or four) missing pieces have been added and that will be enough to get the team over the hump and back into playoff contention.
Oh, and one elephant in the room needs to be allowed to stomp around. That goaltending thing remains such an iffy proposition. For whatever reason Ron Francis felt that the Cam Ward and the Eddie Lack that he saw in January, February, and some of March represented a "good enough" option. There is no doubt that nearly all the other options in net have proven to be extremely costly. In essence the logical goalie upgrades would have costed access to one of Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier, or at the very least, Janne Kuokkanen. Clearly that wasn't a price the Canes' front office was willing to pay.
As good as Mark Morris was last season, there was no way that the organization was going to keep him from returning to his beloved NCAA hockey roots. Enter Ulf Samuelsson, perhaps Ron Francis's most important long-term move for the good of the organization. There is no doubt that the Checkers will be playing hockey "the right way". The excitement down there is palpable.
Speaking of the Charlotte Checkers, they are going to be an interesting and exciting team to watch. The Zach Boychuk era has ended. The level of skill scheduled to suit up for that club has been upgraded. Highly anticipated rookies, Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown along with an improving Trevor Carrick on the back end will be joining newcomers Valentin Zykov, Clark Bishop, Lucas Wallmark, and Andrew Poturalski (okay, he did have a brief audition last season). Adding this level of skill to Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn, Patrick Brown, and Sergey Tolchinsky on the front end will do wonders for the team. Rugged players like Skeeter Woods and Brody Sutter and the bigger body defenders, Keegan Lowe, Josh Wesley, and Tyler Ganly round out a group that should make serious noise in the AHL. If a concern could be aired it might be the youthful goaltending duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Daniel Altshuller, but their pedigree portends solid results. Basically Francis has gotten rid of the cast of characters that just wasn't good enough to provide depth for the NHL club or skilled enough to get to the next level of the AHL.
A total of 5 key additions should all see time on the NHL roster this upcoming season. The two young Finns, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are being counted on to provide some scoring punch. Maybe that's a tall order, but one is a recent 1st rounder known for his high end scoring acumen and the other is simply an 18-year old phenom who led his Liiga team in scoring while tearing up international competition as well. Bryan Bickell, considered by many to be the millstone around the Blackhawk's salary cap neck, should actually have an important role on the Hurricanes, bringing both size and veteran leadership. Similarly, Viktor Stalberg brings much of the same, but he couples that with some serious wheels. Both of these guys are penciled in by many to serve 4th line roles. However, both could find themselves playing up a line or two if necessary. They both can also be net-front presences in a variety of situations. These two depth guys are an instant upgrade over Terry, Gerbe, or Malone. The addition of Lee Stempniak, as previously stated, brings a real secondary scoring threat. He could slip in on the right side of Skinner and Rask's line or he could be a more veteran presence along side two of Aho, Lindholm, or Teravainen.
There's still something peculiar about the ditching of James Wisniewski, but that is one of those deals where you just assume a chess piece is being sacrificed in the service of the greater team strategy. It nearly guaranteed that Ryan Murphy would get at least a 2-year deal as a right-handed shot expected to be a bottom pairing guy as well as a contributor to the power play. Matt Tennyson, who may ultimately end up in Charlotte, an interesting acquisition, is likely to spend a number of games in the press box as the designated #7 defender....at least until Ryan Murphy gets his 35 games in to qualify as expansion fodder. The smart money is on a competition between these two players for the #6 or #7 spot....unless another deal is in the offing. More on that potential a little later.
Let us not forget the long shot possibility, but real nonetheless, that an upstart forces his way onto the roster. Many saw the rocket-like snipe from Julien Gauthier during the prospects camp Saturday scrimmage. Nicolas Roy played this past season like the proverbial man among boys in the Q. Lucas Wallmark has quietly impressed in both the SEL and in international competition. Even Haydn Fleury is likely to look comfortably at home in an NHL sweater. Still contract status and personnel log jams are going to be a significant hurdle to overcome. Training camp will be very interesting and exciting as position battles are sure to ensue.
Everybody is concerned about the Hurricanes' goaltending. Numerous media outlets commented about the inconsistent and sometimes ineffective Ward/Lack tandem. Fans of the team lamented the organization's adherence to the status quo. With the team, yet again, standing by Cam Ward and remaining hopeful that Eddie Lack can find his game, keeping the puck out of the net is the single largest question mark facing the team. Ron Francis' explanation of Ward's contract renewal was both predictable and, frankly, logical. As previously stated the cost of acquiring a Freddie Andersen or a Brian Elliott proved to be very expensive indeed. Who knows if James Reimer was even an option or whether he would consider coming to Carolina? One has to imagine that the ongoing Ben Bishop sweepstakes will prove to be pricey in both transaction costs (picks, players, or prospects) and subsequent salary. If the Hurricanes' netminding tandem doesn't revive last season's 2nd half performance, the team will be in a proverbial pickle.
That nagging feeling at the back of most Carolina fan's minds is a simple fear, a scary scenario that plays out all to typically for many a sophomore player in the NHL. Regression. What happens if the brilliant youngsters who burst onto the blueline last year as mature, smart, and skilled defenders fall back to earth? It is scary because the rarity of three, 1st-time NHL defensemen coming out of the shoot, being this good, well, it is unheard of. As the youngest of the bunch, nobody would argue that Noah Hanifin, while also the most talented, struggled the most adapting to the pro game. By and large his decision-making was pretty good with the occasional brain cramp which was often of the "trying to do too much" variety. Still, one can see how the league won't be taken by surprise by his incredible skating and quick thinking this season. Things are just going to be harder on young Noah. Brett Pesce is an interesting case as he's the least naturally talented of the bunch, but also plays slightly more physically. There's a lot of shielding and "leaning" that goes into his game. Will he add more physical aggressiveness? His game would be the one that would support it the most. The only real downside to that path is more physical play has the potential to take him out of his positionally sound approach. Finally, Jaccob Slavin seems to be the least likely of the trio to take a step back. While he certainly could see a pull-back in his play, so much of his game is predicated on positioning, stick-work, and cerebral play, it is hard to imagine that just disappearing. He could use a few pounds added to his frame which always runs the risk of affecting his speed and agility. Let's not even consider the possibility that Justin Faulk doesn't return 100% healthy.
The Carolina Hurricanes finished the 2015-16 season tied for 28th in goals scored with 198. Despite how good their defense was, the team only finished in the middle of the pack in terms of goals against with 226. That 28 goal differential is something that is critical to overcome as last season only the Flyers and the Red Wings of the 16 playoff teams had negative goals for/goals against differentials. Keeping in mind that with the new construction of the current roster, the team lost a total of 50 goals from last season. So no matter what happens, at a bare minimum, the Stempniaks, Teravainens, Ahos, Bickells, and Stabergs of the world have to do more than just make up that deficit. Of course that assumes that everybody else scores at the same clip as last season. Combined that's a tall order. Depending on rookies and other youngsters to carry this load is asking a lot. What about Elias Lindholm living up to his potential? How about a repeat year from Victor Rask? Has Jeff Skinner ever strung back-to-back successful scoring seasons together? Is Jordan Staal a 40 point guy or a 50 point guy? What about the next step for Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom? Will the back end provide more offense? There needs to be a lot of "yes" answers to these questions for the team to increase its goals output.
In answer to all three of these questions the fanbase is being asked to take something of a leap of faith. Once again we are Charlie Brown and the Carolina Hurricanes are the football-holding Lucy. Goaltending has gone through various stages of stinking, but has mostly been consistently below average. We've had a number of young players who have looked pretty darn good only to be exposed as average or below (cough, cough, Jamie McBain, cough, cough). For the last 3 or 4 years the team has mostly been in the bottom 1/4 of the league in scoring. Yet for all of these things including this deja vu from the front office, things do feel somewhat different. Perhaps it is the hopefulness that "having a plan" generates (draft and develop). Maybe, it's the clear indications that the quality of our prospect pool is, in fact, better. Or is it that we knew we needed to get bigger and faster, so, low and behold, we got bigger and faster. Let's just see if this willing suspension of disbelief survives into November.
Maybe better characterized as random thoughts...or justifications....or hard answers, the point here is that there still might be a different way to look at things, a few moves yet to be made, or an option or two left to be explored. Much of the hand dealt to Ron Francis appears to have been played and played pretty well. One can still question if there still might be something left to do around Ryan Murphy, but that seems unclear. There's certainly still an option or two out there around goaltenders, but the price doesn't seem any less expensive. Are any of the remaining UFA forwards upgrades over what we currently have? Does a real hockey trade exist that fills a need for another significant scorer?
There's a lot riding on Ryan Murphy's "taking the next step" evolution. The team needs him to play a very solid 3rd pairing type of hockey. He needs to be an explosive option on the power play. A burst of offense from the 3rd pairing would be a huge bonus. Perhaps, most of all, he needs to stay healthy for a minimum of 35 games. The boat has likely sailed on trading Murphy for another right-handed option in the same position. What about getting some Murphy insurance? Matt Tennyson is that in the purest sense. Who is going to back up the back up? One option is to sign one of the free agents with 70+ games played last season and throw him into the mix. That comes down to Luke Schenn, Barrett Jackman, and Matt Bartkowski. Do you want to give one of those guys a two year deal "just in case"? Put in that light, the team needs to really concentrate on getting Ryan Murphy his 35 games or Matt Tennyson his 41 games. This feels a lot like a case of "dance with the one that brung ya".
To hear Francis speak, the goaltending issue is a lot more about keeping the path clear for a supposedly rising star than making sure we are able to win this season. At least that's an easy to accept perception. But maybe not...isn't it entirely possible that the second wave of potential deals at the goalie position just haven't hit yet? The Colorado Avalanche are in just as interesting a pickle as the Penguins are. Calvin Pickard is clearly their goaltender of the future. If Semyon Varlymov is not exposed during the expansion draft, a trade is certainly likely. Would Eddie Lack packaged with picks, prospects, and/or players make sense? We all are aware of the challenging situation Pittsburgh is in. Even though Fleury has a hefty salary, wouldn't Pittsburgh's salary cap position as well as the "lose him for nothing" situation make Rutherford as ripe as Stan Bowman for a fleecing? Then there's a personal favorite, the New York Islanders. The Isles have 3 goalies under contract and a 4th RFA. With the play of Thomas Greiss and Jean-Fracois Berube last year while Jaroslav Halak was out with injury, there's been a lot of speculation as to who might be on the move. Berube is the clear heir apparent. Halak could be left unprotected, but, again, why not try and receive something for an asset. Plus, there's no guarantee that Greiss or Berube can step into the full-time starter's role tomorrow. However, if Halak is an option, the Hurricanes would be getting back a consistent, but only a little better than league average goaltender. As much as Greiss' numbers were impressive last season and during the playoffs, he's never been a full-season starting goaltender. It is unclear what assets the Canes would have to give up to make a deal like this.
In each of these cases (Varlymov, Fleury, Halak) you'd be getting goaltenders that are signed for two or three years max. That time span doesn't really "block" Nedeljkovic (if that's a real concern) for an unreasonable amount of time. Plus, the team gets at least one body in the net that is better than league average, something that could make a world of difference to the team's playoff chances. As is always the case the cost of acquisition has to be weighed against the potential return. Thomas Greiss, for instance, might sound great but is he going to turn out any different than Lack did last season? It is a risk and why Halak is likely a better option if a deal with the Islanders comes to the table.
Acquiring scoring help sounds fine and dandy, but the two options, signing a free agent or making a trade, are also fraught with risk. On the free agent market very few scoring options remain. There's a declining Jiri Hudler and "the devil you know" Kris Versteeg as truly viable, secondary scoring options. If one stretches a little maybe an aging Radim Vrbata or Alex Tanguay could fit the bill, but that's a significant gamble. If you go the Hudler or Versteeg route, where do they slot in? Versteeg is a 35 to 40 point guy and a good teammate, but do you sit Aho or Teravainen to make room? Hudler has had three 50 point seasons and a 70+ point season, but was something of a disappointment last year. He's not young, not big, not physical...and doesn't excel at defense. But other than that...
The trade market might still be a wide open option, but the costs and values are going to be higher as teams creep closer to their final rosters. Besides, what assets are the Hurricanes willing to put into play? There are those that squawk about the team's riches on the blueline, but is that really the case? If higher end scoring is the target, wouldn't any forwards given up, by definition, have to either be skilled or have serious potential? To be brutally honest, the only Carolina roster players that could make sense as trade options are Elias Lindholm and Joakim Nordstrom. In Charlotte there's basically Brock McGinn, Haydn Fleury, and Trevor Carrick. Other prospects (that the Canes would consider giving up) of serious value would almost certainly be limited to Nicolas Roy and Warren Foegele. Could you put a package together around Lindholm, Roy, and the 2017 1st for one of the Colorado forwards, Duchene or Landeskog, both rumored to have been available earlier this summer? Do the Rangers bite on something around Haydn Fleury and a pick for Kreider or Miller? Is 2 years of Val Filppula worth making a move for (and would he waive his NTC)? What beyond a 1st round pick would it take to pull James Van Riemdyk into the fold....and could the team keep him? These are the types of higher end scoring options needed and they are going to cost core players, high draft picks, and/or very good prospects. But is it worth it and does the team gain enough to justify that cost?
Ryan Murphy is probably going to be given every opportunity to be both the #6 defenseman and expansion draft protection. The alternatives aren't that attractive. The goalie situation is a different story. Should the team play well, remain either barely in contention or just out of contention for a playoff spot through November, it would be easy to see a move to go after Varlymov. With Lack signed through 2017-18 a deal that included picks and/or prospects could make sense for both teams. One more proven scoring threat would go a long way to securing a post-season berth for the Hurricanes. None of the remaining UFAs are all that attractive, nor do they provide significant scoring upgrades. While Duchene or Landeskog would be exactly what the doctor ordered, it is hard to believe that they are actually available. Further, it is equally hard to believe that either would be moved for what the Hurricanes would be willing to offer. It is just as hard to see Filppula waiving his NTC to come to Carolina when Tampa Bay is almost certainly a playoff team again.
Realistically, a play could still be make for Chris Kreider or J.T. Miller (no matter the outcome of Kreider's arbitration case) and that represents something of a calculated Ron Francis-type move. Both still have upside, both provide scoring, and both have the size and skills that would work well in the Peters system. Even though he only has two years remaining on his current deal, 27 year old James Van Riemsdyk is an interesting case. A prototypical skilled power forward, he would be a great get for the Canes. Given where Toronto is in their rebuild, it makes great sense that he's a movable asset for them at this point in time.
In the final analysis, Ron Francis would have to be wowed by any potential deal yet to get done. He seems cautiously satisfied with the goaltending situation, but that may be "putting a good face on it". As much as he wants the youngsters to have their day, adding a proven scorer like Van Riemsdyk would be not only a strong statement, it solves a distinct need. It is hard to believe that the front office doesn't see the critical nature of making the playoffs THIS season. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps there is yet another trick up The Ronald's sleeve.