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Carolina Hurricanes Free Agency Preview Part Two: Meet the Candidates

The Hurricanes have holes to fill for the 2019-20 roster. For part two of our free-agency preview, we’ll take a look at the candidates to fill those holes, both for promotions from Charlotte and this year’s UFA pool.

Jamie Kellner

With the 2018-19 NHL season ending tonight, it’s time to look at filling the Carolina Hurricanes’ needs for the 2019-20 opening night roster. Yesterday, in part one of this series, we detailed the holes the Canes will be looking to fill after they make their likely signings and re-signings among their own restricted and unrestricted free agents.

Carolina has some specific needs to fill up front in the form of a second-line center, top-nine winger and depth forward, along with another goalie. The team does not need to add a defenseman.

Let’s take a look at some candidates to fill each hole, from both this year’s pool of NHL UFAs and internal promotions from the Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers.

Second line center- As I stated yesterday, if the team can at least add a 2A/2B type center (with Jordan Staal being the other half of that), a center group of Sebastian Aho, another top-six player, Staal and Lucas Wallmark would be formidable. Here’s some candidates to fill a top-six pivot spot with Carolina next season.

Kevin Hayes- Standing at 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds, Hayes would give the Canes some added size down the middle, along with boosted offensive production and a net-front presence on the team’s much-maligned power play.

Hayes was one of the top trade deadline targets this season, and was shipped to the Winnipeg Jets from New York. He put up a career-high 55 points this season to go with 19 goals (his career high there was 25 last season).

The Philadelphia Flyers currently own the rights to Hayes after acquiring them from Winnipeg, but that doesn’t mean he’ll sign there. Hayes would have plenty of suitors on the open market, but Don Waddell and friends should definitely have him on the want list if he gets there.

Matt Duchene- The big fish at this year’s trade deadline who landed with the Columbus Blue Jackets is also arguably the prize of the free agent class. Duchene is a top playmaking pivot, albeit one who has bounced around the past couple years, from Colorado to Ottawa to Columbus.

It’s unclear if Duchene will re-sign with Columbus, but it’s unlikely a top center won’t at least test the market. Duchene is coming off a career-high 31 goals and career-high-tying 70 points. He’ll be highly sought after, and be able to demand plenty of money and term, but if the Hurricanes want to go for a big splash coming off this season’s playoff run, Duchene would be an ideal fit.

Martin Necas- One of the best fits, and perhaps the most likely, for filling the top-six center role is Carolina promoting its top prospect. Necas actually played seven games for the Hurricanes last season, putting up a goal and an assist before being sent to Charlotte.

He had a stellar year for the Checkers in his first season as a professional, with 16 goals and 52 points in 64 games. He followed that up with a standout playoff run in route to the Calder Cup title, with five goals and 13 points in 18 games. The Canes’ 2017 first rounder appears to be more than ready for the NHL, and should be able to slide in as a 2A/2B pivot, with Staal taking on the more difficult defensive matchups.

The Canes have (wisely) taken a slower approach with Necas, but it’s time to see what he can do on the big club. The likely promotion of the Czech center means that, while it’s possible the Canes make a play for someone like Hayes or Duchene, it’s more likely any adds come in other areas.

Top-nine winger- With Don Waddell telling Chip Alexander of the News and Observer that he hasn’t spoken to Micheal Ferland or his agent, it’s almost a foregone conclusion the physical winger won’t be back. That’s a sensible decision after Ferland’s injury-plagued second half, but it does mean the Canes need another top-nine scoring winger, preferably one with a bit of a physical side to his game.

Jordan Eberle- Eberle is coming off a down year with the Islanders with just 19 goals and 37 points, but has proven himself a capable scorer over the years, and would fit nicely next to Nino Niederreiter and, possibly, Martin Necas on the Canes’ second line.

Gustav Nyquist- Nyquist may be a bit of a stretch here, as, coming off a year that saw him post a career-high 60 points, he might be a little pricey. He was a good fit in San Jose after coming over from Detroit at the trade deadline, and has been a fairly consistent 20-goal scorer over his career.

If the Canes opt to promote Necas instead of signing a pricey center, Nyquist could be an option for making a splash.

Wayne Simmonds- Simmonds is an unlikely target, as offering a power forward on the wrong side of 30 whose point and goal totals have declined in each of the past three seasons could be dangerous. If the team can ink him to a reasonable, short-term deal, however; Simmonds could be a fit for replacing Ferland’s secondary scoring and physical play. He could also help the power play, as that’s an area where he’s excelled during his career.

Aleksi Saarela- If the Canes want to make another promotion from the Checkers, Saarela would be a strong option. Charlotte’s second leading scorer during the regular season put up 30 goals and 54 points in 69 games, an increase from his strong season the year before. He added seven goals and 15 points in 17 games during a stellar playoff run.

The prospect acquired in the Eric Staal trade is one of the top forwards in Carolina’s system, and it could be time to give him a look with the big club.

Morgan Geekie- Geekie played center for the Checkers, but could move to the wing if he jumps to the NHL. He had a strong first pro season, with 19 goals and 46 points in 73 games. Geekie was stellar for the Checkers during their playoff run, with eight goals and 18 points in 19 games.

Given that Geekie only has one pro season under his belt, the Canes may opt to give him more seasoning in Charlotte, but a strong training camp could see him in the mix for a roster spot.

Backup/2B Goalie- This need is assuming the Canes don’t bring back Curtis McEhlhinney. Waddell has stated multiple times he wants to bring back both McElhinney and Petr Mrazek, but that could be easier said than done. If the team only brings back Mrazek, it’ll need another goalie to go with him, preferably one capable of filling a platoon role again if necessary.

Cam Talbot- Given Talbot’s performances the past two seasons with Philadelphia and Edmonton the past two year, he’s not an ideal target, and it would be better to bring back McElhinney.

However, if the Canes can’t reach a deal with Mac, giving Talbot a cheap, one-year, “prove-it” deal could be an option. He put up strong numbers his first two seasons in Edmonton, and giving a goalie a one-year deal after a failed stint in Philadelphia has worked for the team before.

Alex Nedeljkovic- If the Canes don’t bring back both Mrazek and McElhinney, there aren’t great options on the free agent market. Paying top dollar for Sergei Bobrvosky doesn’t make sense. Robin Lehner will also probably be too expensive. Semyon Varlamov was mediocre this season, and has a checkered past.

If the team needs a new goalie in its platoon, the best option is its best goalie prospect. Nedeljkovic, a second rounder in 2014, has had plenty of seasoning at the lower levels, and seems to be ready for a shot at the NHL level.

He posted a 2.26 goals-against average and .916 save percentage for Charlotte in the regular season, and 2.34 and .916 in the playoffs. He also made one appearance for the Canes, a win against Vancouver.

If McElhinney doesn’t suit up for Carolina next season, a tandem of Mrazek and Ned seems to be the best option.

Depth forward- Ideally, this would be Greg McKegg, as he had a strong regular season and playoff run as the team’s fourth-line center. However, if he wants a regular role playing center, McKegg may move on. If he does, the team needs another option for a 13th forward. As I said yesterday, this would ideally be a veteran as opposed to a young forward that would be better served playing every night in Charlotte.

A player such as Kenny Agostino, Tom Kuhnackl or Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare would make a good fit here.