Free agency opens on Friday in the NHL, and the Carolina Hurricanes are among the many teams whose plans don’t seem entirely clear.
With the options available, the Canes have some decisions to make among their forward group and in net, but the pool of players expanded on Wednesday when teams announced their decisions with regards to restricted free agents and buyouts.
There is a lot of uncertainty right now within the NHL given the flat salary cap, which in part led to a number of surprising players being let go for nothing. We’ll look at a few players who fit in that category and could be options for Don Waddell and company when the market opens.
A number of these non-tenders are pretty shocking, and Kahun’s release from the Buffalo Sabres is one of them.
Midway through his second year with the Chicago Blackhawks, following a 37-point rookie campaign, the Czech-born forwards was dealt to the Sabres and promptly scored in his debut with the team and recorded four points in six games before the season was suspended due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The 25-year-old is a highly skilled middle-six forward with a positive finishing impact in the goal-scoring department. After scoring 13 goals in a full 2018-19 season, he netted 12 goals in just 56 games in his second year in the NHL.
He has had a net neutral impact defensively in his two years, which is fine given his skill set offensively. He has the talent to be an influential offensive presence, and he has been that in his first two years in the NHL.
The key to Kahun’s game is skill and skating. For whatever reason, Buffalo is letting him head to free agency for nothing. That’ll be a blessing for one team, and if the Hurricanes are looking for another producer in the middle six, perhaps next to Vincent Trocheck on the second line, Kahun could be a pretty strong bargain.
One of the last things that the Hurricanes need is another NHL defenseman, but Koekkoek is a very interesting name that is set to hit free agency on Friday.
The 26-year-old left-shot defender is coming off of his first full season in the NHL, and it was a very good one. He tallied 10 total points in 42 regular season games before logging three points in nine playoff games, but it’s his underlying numbers that are so impressive.
He had an isolated defensive impact of -8.2% at 5-on-5, as the Hawks were excellent at limiting high-danger chances with him on the ice. To go with that, his offensive impact was hugely positive at +8.9% with him on the ice. He led his team in corsi-rate by a wide margin at 52.1%, which was 4.35% better than the club faired with him off of the ice.
This past season was a big year for a player who had trouble establishing himself as a full-time player at the top level after being a top-ten pick back in 2012. He would be a stellar pick up as a sixth or seventh defenseman, assuming another team doesn’t scoop him up with the intent of giving him the consistent minutes he is deserving of following his breakout 2019-20.
We’re onto another player who has no business being a non-tendered RFA, outside of pure salary cap reasons.
Cousins had a good showing in Montreal after spending the early stages of his career in Philadelphia and Arizona, but the Habs moved him to the Vegas Golden Knights, where he had a good finish and a decent postseason.
He isn’t a dynamic offensive producer, but he is a great two-way forward who has a great impact on both ends of the ice. Relative to league average, Cousins had a -11% isolated impact in his own end at 5-on-5 in 2019-20, which is fantastic, and while he doesn’t have a lot of finishing talent, he has consistently been a big plus in the offensive zone in terms of generating high-quality scoring chances.
This is a player that the Canes should have real interest in as a bottom-six player. The thought of him lining up next to Jordan Staal on a shutdown forward line is very attractive.
Among the group of non-tendered RFAs, Duclair might have the most upside for a team looking for a scorer.
He’s a positive goal-scoring impact when he’s on the ice, and he has the skill set of a dangerous top-six forward. He scored 23 goals this past season with the Ottawa Senators in just 66 games. If he is lining up with the right guys, he is an extremely dangerous player that can change the course of a hockey game.
Then there’s the ugly side of his game.
He is a terrible defensive player. An abysmal defensive player.
This past season, Duclair was an unmitigated disaster in the defensive zone, as is shown by his heat map (emphasis on HEAT).
Unfortunately, this is not a one-off for Duclair. While it is the worst of his career, he has routinely been a negative in the defensive zone. Even this past season on a possession-challenged Sens team, he was still a negative player in terms of corsi-share relative to how the team played when he was off of the ice.
So, with Duclair comes a lot of red flags, likely too many for the Hurricanes to want to go out and sign him. That said, he is a very good goal scorer and he will be given a shot by some team in need of production up front.
If the Canes aren’t scared off by his defense or his inconsistency, he could be a valuable addition, even if it’s based solely on what he brings in the goal-scoring category. I think it only works if the team moves a Ryan Dzingel or Nino Niederreiter, though. He’s probably an upgrade over Dzingel, especially after his rough year in 2019-20 where he struggled to fit into Carolina’s system.
I just had to do it.
The Florida Panthers did not extend a qualifying offer to Wallmark, who they acquired from the Hurricanes by way of the Vincent Trocheck on trade deadline day.
Things just didn’t work out for Wallmark in Florida, as the Panthers didn’t use him the way he was often used in Carolina and they just didn’t develop a good fit for him. That led to him being a scratch in the postseason.
We all know the deal with Wallmark, who was an excellent bottom-six center for the Hurricanes both this past season and of course the 2018-19 campaign. The emergence of Morgan Geekie certainly doesn’t help the odds for the Canes to bring him back, but if there’s any uncertainty surrounding Geekie, Wallmark would be the very obvious solution.
Is it likely? Probably not, but it would be a fun reunion between two sides who are very familiar with one another. Whoever gets this player will get an extremely valuable piece when used in the right role - as we all know.
Side note: the Panthers letting half of their return for Trocheck walk to free agency (Wallmark and Erik Haula) is quite the decision...
The lone buyout player I’ll include on this list is Wennberg, who had a dramatic fall from grace with the Columbus Blue Jackets after signing a six-year deal worth just shy of $30 million following his 59-point campaign in 2016-17.
Things simply didn’t pan out for him or the Jackets following that, though. Instead of being known for his good two-way play and impactful playmaking ability, he was known for his big contract and his inability to put the puck in the net. He scored just seven total goals across 142 regular season games in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
He had a very good showing in the postseason, but that wasn’t enough for Columbus to not buy out the rest of his deal.
He’s now 26 years old, and he profiles more as a third line option as opposed to the top-six player he once was. Again, with Staal existing, there isn’t much of a role for him as a center, but he is still a good player and could likely be had at a discounted rate. His best year, analytically, came in 2017-18 where he was excellent in both ends of the ice. He is also a consistent and effective penalty killer.
The problem with Wennberg, though, is that if the Canes want to add a player like him, I’d imagine they’d be more inclined to just bring back Wallmark.