Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes an early look at building the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes.
To be clear this is not commentary on the likelihood of the 2019-20 season resuming. It is just an interesting topic for discussion in my opinion.
Before the world changed, estimates were that the NHL salary cap would increase significantly by $4 to $7 million. Increasingly, a flat salary cap seems more likely with most, if not all, of 18 percent of the regular season lost and likely the playoffs to be abbreviated if they occur at all.
As noted in my Daily Cup of Joe yesterday that looked at impacts from the suspended 2019-20 season, the Hurricanes are actually positioned well for this and could actually benefit from it. The Hurricanes will net some salary cap relief from clearing Patrick Marleau’s salary and the small portion of Justin Faulk’s that was retained. Those two contracts clear almost $7 million without the need to replace a player. And the vast majority of the team’s top players are already under contract. From the current roster, the Canes have only Warren Foegele to re-sign and Justin Williams to re-sign or replace. On defense, the Hurricanes already have five defensemen under contract for the 2020-21 season with the need to re-sign Haydn Fleury who is a restricted free agent. Only Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk are unrestricted free agents.
When one nets it out, the Hurricanes will not need much of the $7 million freed up to maintain the status quo. Most of it should be available to either add players outright or make upgrades.
On the blue line, the Hurricanes have five players under contract — Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, Jake Gardiner and Brady Skjei. In addition, Haydn Fleury is a restricted free agent who might garner a modest increase over his entry-level contract but will not break the bank. That makes for a full boat of six defensemen. In addition, Jake Bean will no longer be waiver-exempt. As such, he seems almost certain to remain at the NHL level. The only alternative would be to trade him to avoid losing him for nothing on waivers. That math seems to set to see unrestricted free agents Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk depart via free agency and also trade deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen.. I was on record even before Brady Skjei was acquired as thinking that both Edmundson and van Riemsdyk would likely leave not so much because the Hurricanes would not want them but rather because both players seem likely to get a better long-term contract for a higher slot on a team with less blue line depth.
The one wild card could be a trade that clears another slot. In my book, Slavin and Pesce are core and as close to untouchable as a player can be. Hamilton is interesting in that he is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2020-21 season, so in theory if the team does not think it can re-sign him, plan B could be try to collect maximum trade value. Skjei just arrived and at a high price costing a first-round draft pick and figures to stay. Fleury is good #4/#5 dept for a low cost at least until the Seattle expansion draft. That leaves Gardiner who has played better of late but in total had a tough first year in a Canes uniform. I would expect Don Waddell to shop Gardiner during the off-season, but given that any deal would probably be selling low, I think it is likely that the team rolls forward with Gardiner.
At a basic level, the Canes are very deep in terms of players with at least the potential to play in the top 4. All six of the returning players at least have the potential to fit the bill. But I think my assessment of the group likely differs from the team’s. For me, even the good version of Gardiner can be ‘iffy’ defensively in the top 4. And with a young forward group that can have its own issues, I am not sure that is a great match for the solid that the team needs on defense. The same is true for Skjei who quickly passes the quick eye test a big body with great mobility. But like Gardiner, he can be sub-par defensively. That leaves Fleury how has taken a step forward of late and seems to be on the brink of bigger things. The formula for success requires keeping the big three healthy and having one of the other three work out.
In net, the Hurricanes have both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer under contract for the 2020-21 season. Though it is possible that the team goes with that duo, Alex Nedeljkovic’s situation complicates things. Nedeljkovic is signed to a one-way deal for the 2020-21 season, but more significantly, he would need to clear waivers to play at the AHL level. So like Bean, I think he is almost certain to stick at the NHL level versus possibly being lost for nothing on waivers.
It is difficult to say if Nedeljkovic’s short audition boosted the team’s confidence in going with him as a backup for 2020-21. He showed flashes of being good enough but also had some issues that could be interpreted to mean that he is not ready/capable of being a regular at the NHL level.
My best guess is that the Hurricanes try to unload James Reimer, take the risk with Nedeljkovic and add a number three goalie on a two-way contract to provide ready depth on call at the AHL level.
Only two forwards are up for new contracts. Warren Foegele is a restricted free agent who will certainly be re-signed and should require only a modest pay increase. Justin Williams is again a free agent. Could a return that saw him playing well, possibly no chance to chase the Cup again and a longer off-season see Williams ready to re-up from the start? Who knows for sure, but he is the only NHL regular who will either need to be re-signed or replaced.
That said, I think the forward position could be where the Hurricanes spend extra budget. After trading two centers in Lucas Wallmark and Erik Haula and receiving only one in return in Vincent Trocheck, the Hurricanes could look to add another center. Morgan Geekie’s lights out audition will also have him in consideration.
Just like defense, forward could be a position where Don Waddell explores trades. Ryan Dzingel has not worked out particularly well in his first year in a Canes uniform, but his modest $3.375 million contract with minimal risk for one-year term could make him marketable to a team looking to add offense at wing. In addition, I have to imagine that Waddell would be willing to move the $5.25 million due for two more years for Nino Niederreiter who is another wing who has had trouble putting the puck in the net in 2019-20. But even if Waddell is unable to trade out of an underperforming wing contract, the budget is still there for an impact addition. Ideal might be to add a player with wing/center flexibility that leaves room for Morgan Geekie at center but also offers a plan B and depth in that regard.
My wild guess for turnover
Likely departures: I think the team lets Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk leave for bigger deals elsewhere. I think James Reimer is traded to clear room for Alex Nedeljkovic. I think there is a good chance that Ryan Dzingel is traded because he would be easier to move than Nino Niederreiter. Unless Waddell can broker a trade to get reasonable value for Jake Gardiner, Sami Vatanen also departs as a free agent maybe without even playing a game for the Hurricanes.
Possible additions: If the team does trade Reimer, I would expect the addition of a fringe NHL/AHL goalie to back fill Nedeljkovic’s slot and be a #3 in the organization in case Nedeljkovic does not work out. I think the team is likely to deploy what it has for salary cap to add a medium to higher-end forward who ideally could slot at center wing.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on committing to Alex Nedeljkovic as the backup in net and parting ways with James Reimer to do so?
2) On defense, do you think there is a chance that the team re-signs one of the three unrestricted free agents (Edmundson, van Riemsdyk, Vatanen)? Do you think Waddell will try to find a trade for Gardiner? If so, do you think it is possible?
3) What do you see for ideal and maybe more importantly realistic departures and additions at forward in building the 2020-21 roster?