While the additions that the Carolina Hurricanes have made to their blue line and goalie tandem have attracted most of the attention so far this offseason, they have made a pair of additions to their forward group to help bolster the depth that losing players like Brock McGinn, Warren Foegele, and Morgan Geekie, among others, has created.
Today, we’re breaking down the free agency signings of Derek Stepan and Josh Leivo, a pair of bottom-six players who have gone on wildly different career paths but have both landed on the 2021-22 Hurricanes roster.
From 2010 to 2018, very few players in the NHL were as consistently productive as Stepan, who broke into the league and established himself as a high-quality top-six center with a perennial contender in the New York Rangers.
After a 21-goal, 45-point rookie season, Stepan produced at a 50-point full-season pace for seven straight seasons, earning a six-year, $6.5 million AAV deal in 2015 in the process.
He was traded to the Arizona Coyotes two seasons into that deal, had his final 50-point season in 2017-18, ended up in Ottawa in 2021, and has seen his numbers and usage decline ahead of his first trip to the UFA market.
Stepan, 31, has played 11 seasons in the NHL, and while he isn’t the player he was in the 2010s, there is still a good deal of value that he can bring to a team and a locker room. In this case, that locker room is in PNC Arena.
“I’m really looking forward to a new chapter in my life and honestly a role that I think I can be really good in down in Raleigh for the Hurricanes,” Stepan said last Thursday. “I think you look down the middle of the ice, and they’ve got three really strong centermen. I think it’s one of those things where I’m going to probably pop in on that fourth spot and try to help out on some faceoffs on the right side so that Vinny Trocheck doesn’t have to take a thousand of them every single night. Help defend and really bring a balance to a lineup that I think is already super strong, and bring some experience, bring some new hunger and new energy to a group, because the last two years of my career have been weird, and I’m in a certain spot and I’m ready to go earn my stripes. What a perfect team to do it with, a team that’s already pretty strong in their lineup.”
All of that sounds good, and he has a track record that backs up his intentions heading into 2021.
Even past his highly productive prime, Stepan has consistently been a positive contributor at both ends of the ice at 5-on-5. In 2021, his playing time was limited due to a shoulder injury, but when he played, he played well. He had just six points in 20 games, but he shot an uncharacteristically and unsustainably low 2.3%, and his on-ice shooting percentage was a career-low 7%.
He won’t be playing with highly-skilled finishers in a fourth-line role, but his shooting percentage will go up, and that will also aid his on-ice shooting percentage.
He is still a capable passer, and his steady defense should be a great fit on the fourth line. Like he said on Thursday, having another right-handed faceoff-taker also holds some value.
Having Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal and Stepan manning the middle of the ice should inspire a lot of confidence in the depth of Carolina’s forward group. Geekie appeared to be the front-runner for that fourth-line job heading into the offseason, but at one year and $1.35 million, the Canes did a tidy bit of business here to fill that hole.
Stepan sounds like he is accepting of this role and ready to embark on the back half of his playing career as an important depth piece on contending teams. If there are injuries down the middle, he’s probably capable of playing up into the middle six for a limited run.
Like many of Carolina’s moves this offseason, the Stepan signing checks the “veteran” box. They’re going all-in on that being something that helps them get over the hump. We’ll see if they are right in their decision-making, but Stepan is a quality depth addition.
Perhaps joining Stepan on the fourth line is Leivo, who doesn’t have the long-term accolades that Stepan has but does have a lot of what you’re looking for in a bottom-six forward.
After getting his foot in the door with the Maple Leafs, he got his first extended opportunity in the NHL in Vancouver and took advantage of it. He was solid across 85 games with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and tallying 37 total points before signing for one year in Calgary last season.
He had a lesser role with the Flames, but his performance remained steady.
Leivo is a big body at 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, but he isn’t a physical player in the way of throwing hits. His game revolves around positioning, hockey sense, and making quality reads all over the ice. As a result, he does have a knack for getting into scoring areas and taking advantage of those opportunities to put the puck in the net. That should play well in a bottom-six role.
Those strengths have also translated to some power-play success in recent seasons. He could be an option on the second unit if he comes in and meshes well with the team’s system.
While he doesn’t have the penalty-killing experience that Brock McGinn has, he should be able to help replace a lot of what McGinn brought at 5-on-5. He doesn’t do it the same way that McGinn does, but he gets the job done regardless. The Hurricanes have been able to turn some forwards into strong penalty killers, though, so maybe he will end up seeing some time there as well.
The additions of Stepan and Leivo aren’t significant needle movers, but they do fill holes that were created by other transactions. For the roles that they will be playing, it’s hard to imagine the Canes getting better quality for the money that they spent. A one-year, $2.1 million commitment for those two guys is a solid value.