Okay, let’s not get all crazy. The boys have looked good as of late. With a handful of games to go and a very long shot at making the playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes aren’t technically out the race for the last post-season slot. But let’s be real...the fat lady is more than just tuning up, she’s started her aria.
So where does that leave the franchise? What are the key things that need to happen for this team to make the leap to playoff consistency?
Ron Francis, he of the bank vault-like security when it comes to rumors, will be examining a wide variety of options going into the off-season. There’s this thing called a goalie that the team has been missing...for quite some time. What about adding an additional scoring threat? The up-and-coming youth in the system possess more talent than ever, but are they ready? What would it take to stabilize the bottom pairing on the blueline? Are there any other tweaks that could or should be made?
These are all good questions that really need to be answered, hopefully this summer. This is the first in a series of articles that examine several needs as well as potential options. Then, of course, there’s that whole expansion draft, ready to throw a kink in the works. Does it actually provide opportunity? More on this will come in subsequent articles.
If ever a team was primed for a big and/or active offseason, the Hurricanes fit that bill. Expect trades, free agent acquisitions, and the ascension of youth to the roster. Next season’s team will have new faces. By many accounts a new face in the crease is the most critical.
We Know the Why
Cam Ward has not been as bad as some would claim, but he’s also not been steady, reliable, or consistent over the course of the season. Despite his recent run, Eddie Lack probably isn’t the future backstop for this team, and may not even be in Raleigh come next October. How does a responsible GM address this conundrum?
As of today, the Canes are five points out of a playoff spot, but realistically they need at least six points to claim the last Wild Card slot (their ROW trails every team above them in the standings, most notably with a six-win deficit to Boston, losing the key tie-breaker). That translates to three more wins than the current holder of the last wild card slot.
While all the losses can’t - and shouldn't - be pinned on goaltending, it’s hard to ignore a critical weak link in the chain. It is easy to play the “what if” game, but quite clearly a small improvement would have this team in a much different position. If the back-ups could have mustered one more regulation win, if Ward could have done the same, and if a couple of overtime tilts could have each been converted to wins, that’s six more points, just over the current playoff bar. But I digress...
Regardless, something has to be done this offseason. As mentioned, is Lack in the team’s — or more appropriately, in Bill Peters’ — future plans? Choosing Ward over Lack seems irrational as he is in his third year of steadily declining metrics, both SV% and GAA. He last posted stats that were close to league average in 2011-12. During that span Ward has had streaks of being both adequate and pretty good. Those streaks are co-mingled with other stretches of rather poor play. Regardless, over this same period, his season-long statistics have consistently trended toward the bleak.
What Are the Options?
One choice is to view Lack as the team’s #1 in goal. Lack has entered a period of some of the best hockey of his career. Over his last five games, he’s given up seven goals and has a SV% of .946, compiling a 4-1 record. The key difference: he’s been given a consistent stretch of games. A similar thing happened last season when he filled in for an injured Ward from mid- to late January. During that stretch, Lack played six games in 12 days, posting a 4-2 record with a SV% of .925.
Even with one of the two exposed for expansion, the goalie environment for Vegas to select from provides other, better options. If a trade is made and a netminder goes back the other way, then the Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury seems to be one of the better options, given his no-movement clause, the presence of Matt Murray, and Pittsburgh’s lack of other choices. We also know that Washington is in a quandary with the arbitration-eligible Philipp Grubauer. Is Jimmy Howard too expensive or even capable?
A trade of this type would likely require a relatively high draft pick and/or maybe another prospect. In the case of Fleury, one of Ward or Lack would most certainly go back the other way. For a guy like Grubauer, given Washington’s likely cap issues, probably a pick and a prospect would suffice. In both cases the price would likely be a 2nd-round pick and something of a middling prospect (Jeremy Helvig, Luke Stevens, Noah Carroll, etc.).
There are still other options. If a trade around the expansion draft doesn’t materialize, the free agent market comes into play, assuming a buyout of Lack or Ward. The oft-mentioned Ben Bishop, a resurgent Brian Elliott (if not re-signed by Calgary), or even a 1 year deal with Ryan Miller could be options. Another dip into the back up market might make sense as well. Could Scott Darling be an option? Antti Raanta? This will come down to the size of the contract, and there are a number of players in this pool, theoretically driving prices down a bit.
Despite being burned in the past by bringing in a backup and hoping for a stud starter, my choice would be to chase a reasonable deal for Grubauer. He’s been a “steady Eddie” for the Caps, has great numbers, and, with either Ward or Lack as his tandem partner, this seems like the best move as the Canes cultivate their own prospects. At 25 years old, there’s still a lot of rubber left on that German tire. Crazy as it sounds, a reasonable fallback might be a short-term deal with Ryan Miller.
Fixing the netminder problem with the likes of Grubauer would take a huge weight off the Canes’ collective shoulders. The defenders could be more aggressive, the forwards could crash the opposition’s net more regularly, both without worrying as much about the odd man rush. One would also hope that just having a league average or better goalie would help grow a winner’s attitude. One can certainly dream.
Coming Tuesday: Preventing goals is only half the battle. How can the Canes ramp up their offensive attack next year?