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Free Agent Outlook: Stay or Go

A look at which of the Canes’ pending free agents should stay, and which should go.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils - Game Three Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

With the NHL’s offseason officially underway, the Canes’ front office is surely hard at work deciding what the future will hold for some of the club’s impending free agents. With July 1st just a couple of weeks away, there’s many decisions to be made on which players should stay, and who should go.

In this article, Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen will not be included as I’m currently working on a piece dedicated to the entirety of the team’s goaltending situation, so those two will be extensively covered in that piece. However, the rest of the club’s NHL free agents will be covered — and there’s a solid amount of them. So, who should stay, and who should go?

Restricted Free Agents

Jesse Puljujärvi

I’ll just cut right to the chase here. I was open-minded and optimistic about taking a flier on this kid — the past pedigree and the connection he had with Sebastion Aho at the 2016 World Juniors tournament made this move a worthy gamble, considering the cost. But the key word there was “past” — which is where Puljujärvi should be left.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so frustrated watching a player at the NHL level. This kid has all the tools. He’s massive, he moves well for his size, he has a good motor. But he’s totally afraid to use his size and be physical. In the Islanders series, I watched him side-step a guy that he had lined up for a check, almost as if he was scared to hurt him. The guy then walked right by him and created a scoring chance.

His hockey sense is low and I don’t think he processes the game at NHL speed. I also just don’t think he has that killer instinct that you need at this level. Watching him closely, I’m worried that he’s a finesse player trapped in a power forward’s frame, and that leaves him without a true identity. At age 25 it’s hard to imagine that changing, and therefore as an observer I’m struggling to pinpoint what exactly will make this guy successful at the NHL level.

With a $3M qualifying offer on the horizon next month, I would be utterly floored if the Canes took that risk on him. I think you can let him walk to free agency and probably bring him back at close to the league minimum if you want to continue the experiment — but why? He’s much closer to a finished product than he is to a project. He’s headed into his 10th year at the pro level, and he’s played over 350 games in the NHL.

I think you can comfortably move on from him without any hesitation. He’d fallen out of Rod’s favor and, as shown in the playoffs, even a guy who spent the entire season in the AHL like Mackenzie MacEachern and the corpses of Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan were offering you more out there. He seems like a great kid and I wish him the best, but there’s nothing for him in Raleigh.

Stay or Go: Go

Dylan Coghlan

If not for Capfriendly, I probably would have forgotten this guy was on the team this year. Thinking back to training camp and even before, I remember Coghlan having a considerable amount of hype within the fanbase, and at one point on Canes Twitter I was feeling like I was the only one who knew nothing about the player. The one thing I did know, though, is that when teams have a 24-year old right-shot defenseman with significant NHL experience on a league-minimum deal, they don’t give those guys away as “throw-ins” in a cap dump trade — unless they already know everything they need too. The Canes pretty quickly realized what Vegas had discovered — the player’s just not very good.

In total, he played in just 17 of 97 games this season and was even scratched in favour of Max Lajoie a few times. I felt a bit bad for him because he never really got a legit run of games to show what he could do, but he also never really earned that opportunity with any of his performances. Safe to say, I can’t imagine he’s thrilled with how the season went, and is likely looking for a fresh start somewhere else. Although the Canes could qualify him as a restricted free agent to retain his rights, it just makes sense for the team to allow him to become a UFA so both sides can move on.

Stay or Go: Go

Unrestricted Free Agents

Derek Stepan & Paul Stastny

I’ll lump these two in together because I’m kind of on the same page for both of them. When properly slotted, both of these guys provided adequate fourth line play. I don’t think either of them were overly impactful in their roles, but they weren’t liabilities either, so overall I think you have to be satisfied with their contributions. They also brought veteran experience and leadership to the room, which is always a positive.

However, father time never fails and I think it was pretty clear that Stepan had lost a step from where he was last season. He’s turning 33 in June and with his injury history and mileage, it’s fair to wonder what’s next for him. Stastny will be 38 later this year, and it’s fair to wonder if he plans to return for an 18th NHL season. Regardless, the Hurricanes have young options internally like Mackenzie MacEachern and prospects on the verge of making the jump like Jamieson Rees and Vasily Ponomaryov, so it leaves the veterans in a tough spot. I have a lot of respect for both of them, but I think it’s time to move on.

Stay or Go: Go

Jesper Fast

Fast was the last player I wrote about because I wanted to let the dust settle after his heroic playoff run. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t letting his magical run of form sway my decision making, and I wanted to be sure I was analyzing his entire three-year body of work with the Canes as a whole. I like this player. He’s a solid (if unspectacular) bottom-6 forward who you can rely on. You can never question the effort level and by all accounts he’s a very popular guy in the room. His consistency and reliability make this a very tough choice.

But if we’re being realistic, I think Fast is rather likely to leave. Based on the playoff performance and his overall tenure with the Canes, it would not surprise me if there was an NHL team out there who would offer him a much more lucrative offer than the Canes would in the unrestricted free agent market. A guy with his skillset will be a hot commodity in a weak FA group, and I can’t see the team willing to commit longer-term money to a soon-to-be 32-year old depth winger. Plus, with Vasily Ponomaryov and Jamieson Rees on the verge of making the NHL jump, you can potentially replace Fast’s impact with a much younger player on a much cheaper salary. Frankly, I just find it difficult to imagine both parties finding common ground on contract terms in this situation, and, as a betting man, I would probably put my money on the player heading elsewhere.

Stay or Go: Go

Shayne Gostisbehere

Gostisbehere is a player who fits very well in the Canes’ system, and brings a style that’s very suited to what the team tries to do. He’s a great puck mover, he has a wicked shot and transitions the puck nicely up the ice. If anything, I was actually a bit underwhelmed by his skating in all honesty. For a small defenseman, I didn’t expect him to generate a ton of power in his stride but where I was a bit disappointed with was his agility. He’s pretty good at avoid hits by forecheckers and getting himself out of trouble, but I expected him to be great in that area. A bit nitpicky, sure, but definitely something to consider when you’re talking about a long-term deal for a 30-year old 5-foot-10 defenseman.

It’s already been said that Ghost will test free agency, and there’s not much doubt in my mind that there’ll be another team that offers him both more years and money than the Canes would be comfortable committing. He scores a lot of goals from the blueline, he can run a powerplay very well and he can handle top-4 minutes at this moment in time. I’m not optimistic on how a potential 5+ year deal for this player will age, and while I like the player today, I don’t think I would gamble on him maintaining his current level of play into his mid-to-later 30s. Overall, his Carolina tenure was fun, and I definitely think the Canes need to find a player who can replicate his skillset, but I think they’ll turn the page here — especially with Tony DeAngelo likely coming back into the mix.

Stay or Go: Go

Calvin de Haan

After earning his spot on the roster via a PTO in training camp, De Haan suited up for 53 games with the Canes overall (none in the playoffs) with some mixed results. He had some moments where he looked like he was still a solid NHL player, but unfortunately he wore off as the season went along which is probably in part due to his extensive injury history.

At age 32, he’s not getting any younger, and while he’s a player that can offer a team some capable minutes in spurts, I don’t think he’s a guy you can rely on as a regular anymore. I suppose you could do much worse than having him around as a 7th D, but I’d imagine the Canes might look for someone a bit more reliable and rugged for that role; which will likely bring De Haan’s 2nd (and probably final) tenure in Raleigh to a close.

Stay or Go: Go

Max Pacioretty

I’m not going to say a ton about Pacioretty because obviously, we have no idea where the player stands health wise. In the 5 games he played for the team, he showed he can still offer legitimate finishing ability and get to the front of the net. The injuries put a huge question mark over his future, not only in Raleigh but in the NHL as a whole. Certainly, he’s not somebody the Canes can go into the 2023-24 season counting on, but if his medical prognosis looks good and he’s willing to sign for cheap, he’s a guy that could be a nice added boost to any team during the season, and I’m sure the Hurricanes would keep that door open.

Stay or Go: Wait and see

Jordan Staal

With Staal signing a new four-year deal the night before this article was published, I was inclined to delete what I wrote about him due to the redundancy. But. When I skimmed through the rest of the piece, I realized he was the only player that I actually gave a “Stay” conclusion. So, for that sake, I decided to include this section strictly for positivity purposes.

It’s almost incredible to think that Jordo’s 10-year contract has finally reached it’s end, but here we are. And what a run it’s been. Although a portion of the fanbase has been hard on him because of his ill-advised penalty in Game 4 of the Florida series, that play should have zero implications on his contract status, or on his legacy as a Hurricane.

On the ice, obviously Staal is well into the back-9 of his career. He’ll be 35 this year, and has played over a combined 1300 games between the regular season and playoffs. I think it’s fair to say that he’s lost a half step, and maybe even a bit more. The offence in his game is fading, and he’s at the point where limited minutes are probably beneficial. However, even today this guy is still a shutdown specialist. He proved that beyond doubt in the Devils series, where he matched up with the Jack Hughes line and totally shut them down. He still brings heaviness, he’s still a great penalty killer and face-off man, and he’s undoubtedly a leader in that locker room.

Moving forward, I still think you’re a better team with Jordan Staal in the lineup. The entire package as a whole that he brings to the group would be mission impossible to replace at this stage, but it’s not a secret that his role should be reduced. I think the ideal fit would be as the team’s 4th line center, with mostly defensive-zone starts and PK time. I’m sure Staal understands this as well, and seems like the kind of person who will do whatever’s asked of him to help the team win. It’ll be a significant pay cut from his previous $6M cap hit, but I think a 1 or 2 year deal in the 2-3M range is a great fit for both sides, and the hope is he’ll finish his career in Raleigh.

Stay or Go: Stay