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Free Agent Frenzy: Four Potential Targets for Carolina

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General Manager Ron Francis has historically been very gun shy when it comes to July 1st, but here are a few players he could be targeting if he decides to go a different direction this year.

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Joe Thornton takes a face-off against Hurricanes forward Elias Lindholm
Jamie Kellner

In his tenure so far as general manager, Ron Francis has made his strategy for team building clear. He very obviously prefers a draft-and-develop model for finding his core players with low-risk, medium-reward trades to find role players.

There’s good reason he’s avoided the practice of attempting to find core players in free agency. By the time a player is eligible to become a UFA, pretty much the youngest they can be is about 27 years old. By that age, they’re far enough past their prime that it doesn’t make sense to pay them into their mid-to-late thirties for years that in most cases wouldn’t be their best ones.

But this year, the ‘Canes are in a unique situation. They didn’t make a trade to fill a hole in their top six forward group, nor did anything they did really move them significantly toward meeting the salary cap floor requirement that they’ll need to hit before the season rolls around.

So they’re going to have to spend about about $5 million to reach the floor, with only Brock McGinn and Phil di Giuseppe being guys currently in the organization who still need deals.

Last year, Francis went for quantity over quality, bringing in Lee Stempniak, Viktor Stalberg, Klas Dahlbeck, and Matt Tennyson to hit the floor. He could take a similar path this offseason as well, but perhaps this is the year he takes his chances with a higher-ticket type of player.

If that’s the way he decides to go this weekend, here are a few places he could look when the market opens.

Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton takes a face-off against Elias Lindholm in a meeting between Carolina and San Jose this past season
Jamie Kellner

Thornton represents the biggest name on the free agent market, and for good reason. He surpassed the 1,000 career assist mark this season, and his 384 career goals are nothing to sneeze at for a player whose goalscoring abilities are often completely forgotten. He’s a surefire future Hall-of-Fame inductee.

But he’s also 37 years old, which impacts his free agent status in a couple ways. First, he’s not going to get a ridiculous term. What’s being reported is that he’s seeking a three year deal, which is fairly reasonable given that he’s still productive and driving play despite his age.

The other issue is that for Thornton, this stage of his career is prime Cup-chasing time. Chicago and Los Angeles have been floated as potential destinations for him for this reason. For a guy who has been so publicly shamed for never claiming the game’s top prize, I could see a scenario in which he takes less money to play a middle-six center role on a contending team.

But if his salary demands are pretty low (think 3.5 range), I don’t think it would be the worst idea for Francis to go toward the $5 million neighborhood to outbid teams who may be pressed up against the cap. He’d fill a huge hole as a short term solution to the first-line center problem. In that vein, he’d also buy Francis more time to find the right defenseman-for-center deal that large portions of the fan base have been clamoring for.

Or he could just go back to San Jose, rendering all of this moot.

Nick Bonino

Here’s the guy who would be the surefire number one target if finances weren’t an issue for the Hurricanes. Bonino has won two championships with the Penguins, so pretty much any team can sign him provided that they can afford him and can convince him that he’d put them over the top.

The Hurricanes fit both of those qualifications, at least nominally. But Bonino is just 29 years of age, and a team with a similar cap situation to Carolina but more financial flexibility in terms of actual dollars might be willing to hand him a blank check.

The Hurricanes do have to spend a not-insignificant amount of money to reach the salary cap floor, and I feel comfortable saying that in terms of long-term fit, Bonino may represent the best option to fill that hole. He’d slot in wonderfully on the third line, and in doing so he’d take one of Carolina’s biggest weaknesses and turn it into a strength.

He probably will end up being too rich for Carolina’s blood, but he’s certainly worth watching.

Nail Yakupov

The former #1 overall pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft was not tendered a qualifying offer by the St. Louis Blues, and he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent at the

This is a very rare and unique opportunity. Former top picks never hit UFA at this sort of age (Yakupov’s 23), and though he’s certainly been a disappointment so far, a lot of that has been out of his control.

He was thrown into the fire on some awful teams in Edmonton, and his most common forward linemates there were Derek Roy and Teddy Purcell. With Patrik Berglund, who is a fine player but by no means a top-tier playmaker, Yakupov put up a 56.2% corsi share with the Blues this year.

His production was low, but he’s a very young player with tremendous upside who would come cheap. Reports are currently that he’s interested in joining the Vancouver Canucks, but you never know with these things until ink is drying on paper.

Justin Williams

Justin Williams battles with Nathan Gerbe in a pre-season contest against Carolina in 2015
Jamie Kellner

With the acquisition of Trevor van Riemsdyk and the prevailing notion that Haydn Fleury will make the team in October, there’s really no reason to put a defenseman on this list. I’m sure Francis will bring in a depth guy or two, but there’s no reason to expect the Hurricanes to be in on Kevin Shattenkirk or Trevor Daley or anyone like that.

Rather, if the ‘Canes plan to move either Elias Lindholm or Sebastian Aho to center this year, there will be another spot on the wing open, even with Lee Stempniak returning to the team.

If they don’t go with the young, high-upside route that Yakupov represents, then they’d likely go with a known quantity like Williams. For Williams, he could return to the city where he won his first championship and serve in a leadership role for their next up-and-coming wave of players.

The 35-year-old put up 48 points with Washington and 2016-2017, so you can be pretty close to sure that you’d be getting a guy capable of producing at a top-six level, which is still something that this team is in need of finding before the season starts.