In the first part of this series, a number of the decisions that Ron Francis faces were noted. Another critical choice he will have to make is whether or not to acquire a proven scoring threat to augment his young, up-and-coming Carolina Hurricanes squad. His choices are significantly limited, as trades for high end scorers are rare and expensive. Otherwise, adding scoring comes from the free agent market. Historically, Carolina has been unwilling to spend to rope in big UFAs and those targets don’t view Raleigh the best landing spot.
This team is in the lower third of the NHL in goal scoring and goal differential. Currently 20th in the league in goals with 194, and tied for 20th in goal differential (-16), surprisingly, the offense is markedly improved over last season. Still, those metrics are not good enough to get the job done. Some have said the Canes need a 1st line center, others postulate that we need a top-six right wing, and others still said more consistent secondary scoring would help. However, everybody agrees that the Canes need additional firepower.
Gotta Give to Get
First it was the five-game losing streak in late January. Then February rolled around and Carolina found itself on a 3-5-2 run. Suffering two shutouts and only potting 17 goals brought things into focus. Outside help, almost assuredly, meant executing some sort of trade. All the rumors about Carolina, Colorado, and potentially making a move for Matt Duchene took on new life. The lack of goal scoring loomed large.
At what price should the franchise be willing to acquire that proven weapon? Joe Sakic wants a laughably high price for Duchene (and Gabriel Landeskog too). Ron Francis wasn’t willing to pay that tariff - yet. Still, to get that proven scoring threat, a steep price will eventually be paid.
Not only do you have to identify your target, the other team needs to be willing to come to the dance. That, again, gets to the price to be paid. In nearly all the proposed trades some combination of high end players, prospects, and picks were the expected return. The Avalanche’s desire to shore up their pitiful back end seemed to mesh well with what is perceived to be a Carolina strength - a deep blueline prospect pool.
We can argue the validity of this depth argument, but for our purposes, let’s assume it to be true. Here’s the painful part: one of Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce or Noah Hanifin is likely a part of any deal for a top line scorer. That deal likely also would include an attractive prospect and a top pick. The Avalanche, for example, would probably want something like Hanifin and a 1st round pick, plus perhaps a lower level prospect like Trevor Carrick. If Landeskog is the target the cost might be a little less, given that he is in his fourth straight year of declining offensive production.
However, there are other options. The Tampa Bay Lightning are still going to struggle to sign all of their young stars. If any sort of deal for Jonathan Drouin could be crafted, he fits the mold of a rising star that Francis should be chasing. Could a first-round pick and Jake Bean get that deal done?
The Washington Capitals have similar issues, including signing Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. If they fall short again this year, do they look to shake things up a bit by moving a key piece? Marcus Johansson would look great in the Canes’ top nine. While not an elite scorer, he brings solid offense (he’ll easily put up 50 points) and can play any forward position. Maybe the Canes’ 2017 1st and somebody like Phil Di Giuseppe could get that done.
The Minnesota Wild are an interesting case as well. They also could help with two Hurricanes needs: adding scoring and a stabilizing blueliner. Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund are both arbitration-eligible RFAs come June. They’re going to cost a lot to re-sign. Jason Zucker and Erik Haula are both destined to be exposed at the expansion draft. They also have five solid defenders and can only protect three, presumably Ryan Suter and two others.
Minnesota needs to do something. What could you extract from the Wild if the Canes sent over one of their expansion protected blueliners and a first-rounder? Could the return be one of Niederreiter, Granlund, or Charlie Coyle plus Jonas Brodin? What if that Hurricanes blueliner was named Noah Hanifin?
Playing the Hand We’ve Never Won
The Canes have had small free-agent successes recently; Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg are two examples. However, the big free-agent pickups are typically out of the Canes’ reach, and when they do make a splash the deals tend to eventually become albatrosses. The Canes could consider making a run at T.J. Oshie, but rumor has it he’s the key re-signing target for the Capitals this offseason. It’s easily going to take a 5-year/$30 million deal, and maybe even more term. However, the Hurricanes should at least make the effort.
A potentially savvy move could be a short term deal with old friend Justin Williams. It’s doubtful Washington can afford him again next season. The other options only qualify as secondary scorers and include the likes of Nick Bonino, the familiar Kris Versteeg, or the mercurial Sam Gagner. Any of those guys could reliably add 30-40 points, maybe a bit more.
What if the team gets really creative, making a big push for somebody like Kevin Shattenkirk? That certainly frees up an asset or two for an additional move. We do know right-handed defensemen bring out the best in GMs. If Ron Francis was a real poker player, he might make a run at Shattenkirk and then flip, for example, Justin Faulk for the top-six forward the team desperately needs.
Those are the types of choices facing the front office. If a trade is to be made and a high end forward is returned, whatever asset moved is going to be painful. If a similarly capable free agent is acquired, look for a longer term deal at high dollar value. Neither choice is something that seems to be in our GM’s wheelhouse. But that is what it will almost certainly take. To address the Canes’ scoring woes, Ron Francis cannot continue to be the GM we’ve become used to.
Coming Friday: What future contributions can the Canes count on from their young players in Charlotte and elsewhere in the system?