Welcome to the offseason, and welcome to the trade rumor mill. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but, with their season finished, rumors are already swirling about the Hurricanes trading one of their glut of talented NHL defensemen for a needed top-six forward.
The big name in the rumor mill, according to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, is Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine. Now, there’s no two ways about it: Laine is an elite goal scorer. Since coming into the league as a rookie in 2016-17, Laine has scored at least 30 goals per 82 games over four seasons. Since his draft year, he’s tied for seventh in the NHL with 138 goals in 305 games.
Laine can put the puck in the net. The cost would be steep, however. LeBrun reports that Winnipeg is looking to add a second-line center and top-four defensemen, perhaps as a package deal in return for Laine. He speculated it might take the Canes offering a package of Vincent Trocheck and Brett Pesce in exchange for Laine.
We’ll get into this more in a minute, but that’s … a lot to give up for a winger. Laine will also be due a big new contract in the 2021 offseason.
Is he worth it? Is this a feasible move for the Hurricanes to make? Honestly, no. Let’s dive into the reasons why.
A big return
Pesce seems to always be the player mentioned as possibly on the move when the Hurricanes hunt for a top-six forward. There’s a reason for that. He’s one of the best shutdown blueliners in the NHL, and one capable of jumping into the play and contributing offensively.
In 61 games before his injury last year, Pesce was playing 21:53 per game, with four goals, 18 points and a +7. Pesce also played 3:15 shorthanded on a penalty kill that finished fourth in the NHL.
Pesce is also on a steal of a contract, with his $4.025 cap hit set to run through 2023-24. All of these are things that make Pesce an attractive trade chip. They’re also reasons why he hasn’t been traded, and why, as LeBrun stated, the Canes don’t want to do so.
Now, given the Canes’ depth on the blue line with Brady Skjei added, it’s workable without Pesce. Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton remain as your top pairing. Skjei is capable of sliding over to the right side on the second pairing. Haydn Fleury proved during the Boston series he’s ready for a bigger role, and in theory a second pairing of Fleury on the left and Skjei on the right could work. That leaves Jake Gardiner to anchor a third pairing.
So what I’m saying is trading Pesce for the right top-six forward doesn’t leave the D corps high and dry, and I’m not necessarily opposed to it. Is Laine that guy? Probably not, but we’ll get to that.
Where it goes totally off the rails is when you include Trocheck in that deal. Trading away a top-six forward when you’re one top-six forward short seems counterproductive.
The Canes had been searching for a No. 2 center for years, and may have finally found one in Trocheck. That’s yet to be determined, with the 27-year-old pivot putting up modest numbers so far in Carolina. However, he showed flashes of his high-end ability in the postseason, and is two years removed from a 31-goal, 75-point season. If he can recapture any of that form, he significantly upgrades the Hurricanes down the middle.
I don’t know what the Hurricanes have down the middle if they keep Trocheck. I do know what they’ll have if they deal him, barring the extremely unlikely event they can add another top-six center: Either a known commodity that doesn’t work or a big question mark.
Jordan Staal is still an extremely valuable player for the Hurricanes. He wins big draws, kills penalties and shuts down the opposition’s top players. But at this point in his career, he doesn’t bring nearly enough offense for a top-six role. We’ve been there, done that and I don’t think anyone wants to go back to Staal as the No. 2 center.
That leaves Martin Necas. Rod Brind’Amour is on record as saying the Hurricanes want to see him in the middle, but in year two? Doubtful. Playing center is an entirely different beast, with so much more to learn in terms of defensive play and taking faceoffs. Sebastian Aho did not transition to playing center full time until he was in his third season.
Coming off a good rookie season, Necas could probably use another year playing the wing in Brind’Amour’s system. Forcing Necas to play in the middle and it not working out right away risks damaging his confidence and stunting his development.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the Hurricanes already parted ways with a strong middle-six center in Lucas Wallmark to acquire Trocheck, so dealing Trocheck for a winger would further weaken the team’s center depth. You’re looking at multiple centers out with none coming back in.
With Trocheck, a quartet down the middle of Aho-Trocheck-Staal-Morgan Geekie has the potential to be one of the Canes’ best center groups in years. Without him, you’re looking at either Aho-Necas-Staal-Geekie or Aho-Staal-Geekie-?. No thanks.
Trading away Trocheck for a player like Laine is opening one hole to fill another, and the hole the Canes would be opening down the middle is more significant than the one they currently have on the wing.
Another issue the Hurricanes would face sooner than later is that Laine’s two-year, $6.75 million contract is set to expire after the 2020-21 season, and he’ll undoubtedly be looking for a big raise. If the Canes pay the trade price it would take to acquire Laine, they’d have to extend him … in the same offseason that Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov will need new deals.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the salary cap ceiling will almost certainly remain flat at $81.5 million for the 2021 offseason. A reasonable comparable contract for Laine seems to be the six-year, $9.25 million contract signed by Mikko Rantanen. Let’s say Laine costs you $9. You’re likely not signing Svechnikov for less than $7 million and Hamilton will probably cost $8-9. Svechnikov will obviously be a top priority, and, if Pesce is gone, then parting ways with Hamilton isn’t really an option.
Going into the 2021 offseason, if you subtract Pesce and Trocheck’s deals, plus add about $4 million for Haydn Fleury and Warren Foegele, the Hurricanes have about $54 million in cap space. Tack on $24-25 million total for Hamilton, Svechnikov and Laine, and you’re left with $29-30 million to sign five or six forwards, two or three defensemen… and two goalies.
Is that doable? With the Hurricanes’ prospect pool, and the possibility of players like Ryan Suzuki and Dominik Bokk being ready to contribute on entry-level deals, maybe. But it’s a stretch, and you’d be looking at a very top-heavy roster.
So, not only would Laine cost the Hurricanes a lot in terms of player capital, but they’d also have to pay a pretty penny to keep him around.
But, as a top-flight goal scorer, is he worth it?
A one-dimensional player
As I said earlier, Laine can score goals. He’s averaging 37 goals per 82 games since his draft year. And he’s undoubtedly a weapon on the man advantage, something the Hurricanes could use, with his 52 power-play goals in that span ranking third in the league. He’s 15th with 86 even-strength goals in that span.
So Laine scores goals, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. Here’s the thing, though: That’s about it.
In every season except for last, Laine has scored significantly more goals than he’s had assists. That’s not necessarily an issue for a player who’s job it is to put the puck in the net, but I’d be leery of paying a player with that kind of splits that kind of money.
What’s a significantly bigger issue is that Laine ranks tied for 90th in the league in points per 60 since his draft year at 1.94. Again, not what you want from a bank-breaking forward.
And we all know Rod Brind’Amour expects his players to contribute at both ends of the ice. Being one dimensional won’t cut it. The Hurricanes once had a one-dimensional, goal-scoring forward. His name was Jeff Skinner, and he was also very good at putting the puck in the net (the Buffalo Sabres are currently paying him $9 million for that service). Over his eight seasons with the Hurricanes, Skinner ranked 20th in the NHL with 204 goals.
When he was traded prior to the 2018-19 season, the thought was that the Hurricanes weren’t going to meet his upcoming contract demands (and that was certainly a large part of it).
But Brind’Amour’s comments on the trade at the team’s 2018 media day seemed to imply there was more to it than that.
"you've got to do the things we're asking you to do, otherwise you're not safe. So it was the right move. I think the guys understand you've got to come ready to play and do what we're asking. Otherwise you're not a Hurricane. We can't have you."— Andrew Schnittker (@aschnitt53) September 4, 2018
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Skinner’s defensive deficiencies were probably at least part of Brind’Amour’s answer there.
Here’s what Skinner did defensively in Buffalo this past season:
Not great, right?
Well…. Here’s Laine:
In a word, yikes. There is more red on that thing than you’d see at a Taylor Swift concert. Laine is an absolute train wreck defensively, and, in order for him to play for Brind’Amour, that side of his game would probably need a makeover so big that ABC would think twice about it.
There’s no doubt adding another true top-six winger to the fold could take the Hurricanes to another level in 2020-21. And there’s also no doubt the Hurricanes won’t get such a player for peanuts. It may well take Brett Pesce.
But Laine isn’t the guy. He isn’t worth it. Paying a premium in trade assets before then having to pay a similar premium on a new contract for a one-dimensional, extremely defensively deficient goal scorer does not seem like a winning formula.
The Hurricanes should be on the hunt for another top-six forward, but Patrik Laine should not be on their list.