There’s still one game left in the 2018-19 NHL season, with the Bruins and Blues set to square off in a winner-take-all game seven Wednesday night, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to take a look at what the 2019-20 edition of the Carolina Hurricanes may look like.
Over the next two days, I’m going to run a two-part series looking at what holes the Canes will be looking to fill when NHL free agency opens on July 1, and what options they’ll have for filling them in terms of both external free agents and internal promotions from the Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers.
Given its abundance of draft picks and prospects, Carolina will likely make at least one trade, but for the sake of this exercise, we’re only looking at free agent signing and promotion candidates.
For the first part of this, we need to figure out what holes the team is looking to fill. A quick glance at CapFriendly shows the Hurricanes have seven forwards (Jordan Staal, Jordan Martinook, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Nino Niederreiter, Warren Foegele and Lucas Wallmark), six defensemen (Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Calvin de Haan and Brett Pesce) and a goalie under contract at the NHL level for next season.
The goalie part is misleading, however; as it’s Scott Darling, who seems likely to be bought out. So, the team appears to need five or six forwards, a defenseman and two goalies. However, those numbers shrink when considering who is likely to be brought back.
Sebastian Aho is a restricted free agent, but is a virtual lock to be back in as the team’s top center on opening night, coming off a massive pay day. Brock McGinn is also an RFA, and the team should have no reason not to bring him back after another solid regular season and one of the biggest goals in Hurricanes history.
The big question up front is whether captain Justin Williams comes back on another one-year deal or retires. For our purpose here, we’re going to say he comes back after a regular and postseason in which he showed he had plenty left in the tank.
The two unrestricted free agents the Canes appear likely to say goodbye to are Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Unless Ferland is willing to lower his asking price (he’ll probably have to at least some) significantly after following up a hot start with an injury-plagued second half, he’s probably gone.
McKegg is a more interesting case. If he’s willing to come back for cheap as the 13th forward, the Canes would likely re-sign him. He may want a shot at being a regular at center, however; and the Canes should be looking to upgrade at that position from the group of Aho, Staal, Wallmark and McKegg, so we’ll say he goes too.
Defense is the position that, barring a trade, the Canes don’t need to make a move. Last year’s top six is all under contract for at least another year, and if the Canes bring back Haydn Fleury (RFA), there’s your seven.
Beyond Williams’ future, goaltending is the other big question mark. Assuming Darling is bought out, the Canes don’t have a goalie under contract at the NHL level. The (very successful) tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are unrestricted free agents, and even Alex Nedeljkovic, coming off an extremely successful season for Charlotte, is an RFA.
Don Waddell is on record as wanting to bring back both Mrazek and McElhinney, but will he be able to, and is it time to give Ned a shot? We’re going to re-up with Mrazek and let Mac walk here.
If all those players are re-upped, the Canes’ needs go down to two or three forwards and a goalie. Of course, they don’t need just any players, as there are specific roles to be filled. Looking at who’s already here, these are the holes that need to be plugged before the puck drops for the 2018-19 season:
Second-line center- If you want to look at this as 2A/2B with Jordan Staal, that’s fine, but the Canes need more firepower/playmaking down the middle, to help at both even strength and on the team’s much-maligned power play. Adding another center behind Aho would have a domino effect. It would push Staal and his two-way, power game down to the third spot and Wallmark, who performed very well both in the third spot during the playoffs and even in the second with Staal injured, to the fourth.
A center group of Aho, another top-six caliber player, Staal and Wallmark is one to be feared.
2B/Backup Goalie- Mrazek definitely earned the right to be a full-time starter with his play this season, but the team also ran the platoon option very effectively during the regular season, and may opt to do so again. With Mrazek’s track record still somewhat limited, the Canes would be better served to add a high-upside netminder here as opposed to a pure backup.
Top-nine winger- If the Canes do bring in or promote another top-six center, than the top nine locks include Aho (if re-signed), Williams (if re-signed), new center, Staal, Teravianen, Niederreiter, Foegele and Svechnikov. Jordan Martinook has certainly proved capable of joining that group, but if Carolina adds another forward to replace Ferland, it could roll out a fourth line of McGinn, Wallmark and Martinook, giving the team incredible depth.
Depth forward- This is largely dependent on McKegg. If he’s willing to fill this role, the Canes should keep him. If not, then the team needs a 13th forward who can sub in when Rod Brind’Amour wants a different look or in case of injuries. This would ideally be a veteran, not a player from Charlotte who’s better-served playing every night.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at who might fill these holes, with candidates both from this year’s unrestricted free agent pool and promotions from Charlotte.