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Stay or Go: UFA Edition

The Hurricanes have a long list of pending UFAs. Which of them should be brought back?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

After a fantastic regular season for the Hurricanes that came to a disappointing end in the playoffs, there’s sure to be changes that will sweep through the Canes’ opening night group for next season. That’s the unfortunate reality of hockey as a business, and when a team is unable to meet (albeit lofty) expectations, the next steps involve making the necessary tweaks to put the team in the best position to win.

For the Canes’ brass, they now head into a summer full of uncertainty. The one certain is the team’s commitment to win — their main core is still young and under contract, and they have one of the best head coaches in the sport. Their contender status remains, and the window is still open.

What’s uncertain though is the future of the surrounding pieces on the roster. From the team’s playoff roster, they have 10 players set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Price tags & the fits moving forward are the key elements of the decisions in whether the Canes should bring back these individuals or not, or if they’d be better off spending the money elsewhere. Sadly, emotional attachment takes the backseat here.

We’ll start with the six unrestricted free agents on the NHL roster, because these players are the immediate pressing concern. Should the Hurricanes not re-sign these following individuals by July 1, they’ll be free to head out to the open market and sign wherever they please. The clock is ticking, so let’s get started.

Nino Niederreiter: For me, Niederreiter should be priority #1 for the Canes right now. He brings a consistent hard-nosed, grinding style that the winger group would severely lack without him. He’s got the size, tenacity and scoring touch that you covet. The lone reservation I have with the player is that he’ll turn 30 in September, so you have to wonder how many more years you reasonably expect him to be effective with his style of play. I would confidently say 3 or 4, but anything beyond that is wishful. The $5.25M AAV he’s making now is mostly on par for his offensive output, so if the team can get him on a 3-5 year deal in the $5M range, I’d think it should be a no-brainer for both sides.

Stay or Go: Stay

Vincent Trocheck: Trocheck has been a good soldier for the Canes since his arrival from the Panthers in 2020, but it feels like this is where his chapter ends. The eight-year contract extension for Jesperi Kotkaniemi felt like the writing on the wall. The reality is, Trocheck is a 5-foot-10 centerman who plays bigger than that, and has some injury history. At age 29, I can’t see the Canes committing 6-8 year term here, all things considered. For Troch, this summer will probably be his last opportunity to cash-in, and he’s set to be one of the top centers on the FA market. Pun intended, my guess is he heads for greener pastures.

Stay or Go: Go

Ian Cole: I was initially a big fan of the Cole addition, as I felt his experience and physical, stay-at-home style would really benefit the group. And while he provided that in spurts, it was far too inconsistent. My lasting impression of his tenure was his lack of discipline, and his burning desire to take bad-timed, ill-advised penalties. He also just…didn’t play very physically in the playoffs. I don’t know. For me, he was generally kind of underwhelming, and I think the Canes would be better off spending his $2.9M cap hit elsewhere.

Stay or Go: Go

Max Domi: In Domi’s case, it only took me about 20 games to come to a conclusion on the player. I tweeted the following about him during Game 6 against Boston:

Well, we know what version of him we got in that Game 7 vs Boston. Sadly, we got the invisible version for the vast majority of Rangers series — as his contributions were absent for most of it. Virtually zero impact, and he’ll likely be remembered as a one-game wonder. It’s a shame, because he can be really effective when he’s engaged. He’s an annoyance, energetic and a great passer, but just totally unreliable. I suppose you could do worse than bring him back on a cheap one-year deal to play in the bottom-six and see if another year in the system helps him, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Stay or Go: Go

Brendan Smith: Smith played his role effectively and offered basically exactly what was expected of him, nothing more and nothing less. He brought some needed physicality at times, and has the heart of a warrior out there. But based entirely on the on-ice performance, I can’t make much of a case to re-sign him. He’s slow, his hockey skill is limited and the Canes have younger options like Jalen Chatfield, Joey Keane and Jesper Sellgren that should get the chance to take his minutes.

Stay or Go: Go

Derek Stepan: Stepan is a really weird case because based on how he played throughout the year, re-signing him on a similar one-year deal should be a no-brainer. But despite his success, he inexplicably spent quite a lot of time as a healthy scratch, so I’m not sure how big his appetite would be to return. Honestly, I think he could find a consistent bottom-six role elsewhere — his veteran presence and versatility make him a strong candidate to help teams regardless of where they’re at in terms of development. I would unquestionably want him to stay, but I believe he’d be better off going elsewhere and could be a valued contributor to any group.

Stay or Go: Go, for his own sake.


Andrew Poturalski: Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Hurricanes in 2016, Poturalski returned to the organization last summer and made his mark. He scored an astonishing 101 points for Chicago, leading the entire AHL in the process. Sadly, ripping up the AHL has only translated into 4 NHL games over his career, and it’s hard to envision him breaking through in Raleigh at age 28. That said, a bottom-end team like Arizona would be wise to give him an extended look and see what he can do with real NHL minutes. He has talent and deserves a chance, but I don’t think there’s a future for him here.

Stay or Go: Go

Stefan Noesen: Noesen had an unbelievable year in Chicago, scoring 48 goals in 70 games and putting up 85 points. Fortunately, the Canes were rather healthy for a majority of the season, so Noesen played just 2 games in the NHL. As a former Senator, he’s a guy I’ve liked a lot over the years and plays a style that’s suitable for an NHL fourth line. With 207 NHL games under his belt and coming off a phenomenal season at age 29, my guess is he’ll look for a route back into the NHL this offseason. He’d be great depth, but guess is that his clearest path to the NHL won’t be in Carolina, so I’ll assume he takes a stab at free agency.

Stay or Go: Go

Josh Leivo: A veteran of 214 NHL games, Leivo is in a similar boat to Noesen. He had a good year in the AHL and is also 29, so he’ll likely look for a way back in the NHL. If he can’t find that opportunity, it makes sense to bring him back as an AHL leader and depth option. But for his sake, I hope he gets a shot elsewhere.

Stay or Go: Go

Spencer Smallman: A 2015 fifth-round pick, Smallman has become a veteran in the Canes organization. He’s spent the last four years split between the AHL and ECHL level. This season in Chicago, he set AHL career highs in games played (67), goals (10), assists (17) and points (27). It was a breakout year of sorts for the player, who’s dealt with a lot of injuries and unfortunate luck. I don’t think he’ll ever be an NHL regular, but he’s good depth, a nice piece to have in the AHL and is a long-time member of the organization. If he wants to return, my guess is that he will.

Stay or Go: Stay

CJ Smith: Smith is a really good AHL player at age 27. He scored 24 goals and 58 points in 60 games for Chicago, and even got into a single game with the Hurricanes. While I don’t think he’s much more than a talented AHL guy, there’s value in bringing him back. He’s experienced, he’s a key player for Chicago and he has 15 NHL games under his belt. On a two-way deal, you can do much worse. I would strongly consider bringing him back.

Stay or Go: Stay

Sam Miletic: Down in Chicago, Miletic had 14 points in 45 games in a bottom-six role before a shoulder injury that required surgery ended his season. He’s 25, an AHL depth player and now he’s got question marks surrounding his health. I could potentially see him returning to the Wolves on an AHL deal for next year, but there’s no reason for the Canes to sign him to another two-way deal.

Stay or Go: Wolves decision

Alex Lyon: Lyon had a good season for Chicago and he did a great job for the Hurricanes in his two starts with the team. But with Pyotr Kochetkov in the mix now and Eetu Mäkinemi returning healthy next year, you don’t want a guy like Lyon taking valuable ice time away from those kids. Jack LaFontaine could still be around as well. With all the bodies expected to be competing, I think it’s likely that Lyon will be allowed to head elsewhere for next year.

Stay or Go: Go

That’s all for the UFAs - understandably, there’s a lot of tough decisions to be made for the Canes here over the next month. You might be thinking to yourself, “but what about the RFAs?”. Don’t worry, I’m working on a separate article profiling them (there’s quite a lot) and that’ll be out next week. As always, thanks for reading and let’s discuss in the comments.