Today’s Daily Cup of Joe builds on two specific items from yesterday’s random notes, so if you did not already read that, it is probably a good starting point.
That article touched on two things, but in the process identified Jake Gardiner as a key player on the blue line and Erik Haula as a key player among the forward group.
Aside from random injuries which are unpredictable, I think those two players more than any other could dictate what if anything the Hurricanes do between now and the February 24 trade deadline.
The financial situation for 2019-20
By signing Justin Williams to a league minimum $700,000 contract with $1.3 million in incentive-based bonuses the Hurricanes maximized the amount of salary cap potentially available to add another player. The $700,000 salary counts against the salary cap (so roughly $350,000 for half of a year), but the team has the option of counting the performance bonuses against the 2019-20 season or deferring them to next season. With the Hurricanes likely to have some spare salary cap next season that it cannot really use because it needs to be saved to re-sign Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton the following summer, the downside of deferring the bonus cap hit to next season would something between minimal or actually nothing. As such, though the Hurricanes do not have virtually unlimited cap space available as in years past, the team should be able to squeeze in one more player at significant cost if it chooses to. Right now, CapFriendly shows the Canes having room to add $2.7 million of salary cap today. But if the Hurricanes continue with the current roster, the team would be able to add a player with roughly a $5.2 million cap hit on February 24.
The financial situation past 2019-20
When considering the possibilities for acquisitions between now and the trade deadline, most will focus on the salary cap and financial situation specifically for the 2019-20 season. That sets the limit for what can be acquired, but I actually think the the team’s situation going forward could play a huge role too. For 2020-21, the Hurricanes are likely to have have some salary cap to spend. The combination of Patrick Marleau’s and a small chunk of Justin Faulk’s contract coming off the books will free up about $7 million of cap space. And for 2020-21, players that must be either re-signed or replaced includes only defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joel Edmundson and Haydn Fleury and forwards Erik Haula, Justin Williams, Lucas Wallmark and Warren Foegele. What is significant is that most of these players should be re-signeable or replaceable for a price not too much higher than their current contracts. Wallmark and Foegele would garner raises, but it should not eat up too much of the $7 million coming off the books. So the Canes should have some decent amount of cap room for the 2020-21 season. But significantly, after the 2020-21 season, the team will need to re-up with Andrei Svechnikov who is being paid less than $1 million now on his entry-level contract. In addition, Dougie Hamilton will need to be re-signed. Then, the following summer Martin Necas comes off of his entry-level contract.
So when you net it out, the Hurricanes likely have a decent chunk of salary cap available specifically for the 2020-21 season. But the team will likely not want to commit significant amounts of salary past the 2020-21 season because of the need to have money available for Svechnikov, Hamilton and Necas’ next deals. So instead of just shopping the typical rental market for players whose contracts expire at the end of the current season, I actually think the Hurricanes could add a player who is signed for and fills a need for the 2020-21 season too.
The team has two strong incentives to wait before making a final more or a guess theoretically more before the trade deadline. First per the math above, by virtue of being under the salary cap ceiling right now the team is accumulating additional cap space with each day that passes with the current roster. The budget for how much can be added will nearly double by February 24. Second, since the team has limited flexibility and possibly only one move to make, there is significant incentive to wait and see how the season progresses for as long as possible before using the the a final move. The risk of acting sooner rather than later is making a move say to bolster the blue line only to then have an injury or two impact the forward group or goalie position such that the team would have rather used the remaining cap space differently.
So despite writing this article in mid-January and starting up the conversation, the Hurricanes will very likely wait many more weeks before making a move. (Saying something that directly has a strange knack for triggering the reverse, so watch for that. :-))
Watch/assessment points in the coming weeks
As noted above, as long as the Hurricanes continue to track favorably, patience will likely rule the day in terms of actual trade activity, but that is not to say that the coming weeks are not critical in terms of assessing the situation.
Any significant injury would obviously change the situation instantly, but aside from that I see two slots/players as the most significant watch points.
Jake Gardiner / The #4 slot on defense
After the series of moves that saw Justin Faulk traded and Jake Gardiner nearly simultaneously added, one had to figure that management had Gardiner penciled into a top 4 slot to replace Faulk. But the early going saw Edmundson climb up into that slot and Gardiner struggle mightily trying to adjust to his new team. Per a couple short conversations that I had on Twitter on Monday, Gardiner has looked better in recent games and has slotted into that #4 spot next to Brett Pesce. That is a positive step. And I do think it is possible that Gardiner is rounding into form and will be the top 4 defenseman that he was originally envisioned to be when he was acquired. But after his start and history of struggling a bit in the playoffs, I think at a bare minimum the risk level of Gardiner being a capable top 4 defenseman escalated significantly. With the addition of Justin Williams at forward, the team is deeper there. So if Don Waddell has only one move to make yet, why wouldn’t he prioritize it to add depth and ideally a plan B for the top 4 on defense?
Working through the defensive corps, I see it like this…
Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton are the core, but the team MUST have another top 4 defenseman who is at least capable.
Joel Edmundson filled in admirably, but I think he is overslotted in that role.
Jake Gardiner has looked capable for the last 4-5 games, but he was bad more often than otherwise through 40ish games. Going all in without a fallback plan based on the five games is risky, and if the team has room to make a trade, it also seems unnecessary.
Trevor van Riemsdyk has been a solid #5 defenseman for a couple years now, and I like him in that role. He is generally steady and does not kill you, but like Edmundson, I think he would be overslotted in the top 4.
Haydn Fleury has been a #6/#7 defenseman this season and is fine in that role. We as Canes fans are spoiled by our team’s blue line depth if you think other teams have better in that slot. But I put him in the same category as Edmundson as overslotted in more than a third pairing role.
So sure there are options to fill out the top 4 with Gardiner ideally, Edmundson maybe and van Riemsdyk maybe as a bit of a doable stretch. But at the same time, I think there could be room for an upgrade or at least safety/security.
Further, if one looks forward to 2020-21, adding a top 4-capable or at least -ish defenseman who is signed through next season (but not longer could make sense). Because of the salary cap needs looming with Svechnikov, Hamilton and Necas, I suspect that the Hurricanes will be unable to retain van Riemsdyk or Edmundson simply because the team will not be willing to commit significant salary past the 2020-21. That situation could see both departing for 2-3 year deals elsewhere. If that were to occur, the Hurricanes would have Gardiner inked into the top four and only Fleury for depth. Such a situation could see the team seeking to add a #4/#5 type defenseman next summer anyway, so just maybe the team moves early to add depth for both the 2019-20 season but also the 2020-21 season.
With Pesce as half of that fourth pairing, the aim is not to try to add world beater. The goal would be to add a steady even if unspectacular #4 defenseman. Alec Martinez from the Kings, who was mentioned as possibly being available by Pierre LeBrun today, actually makes some sense in my opinion. His contract is only $4 million and he is signed through 2020-21 which works with what I said above. Especially if the Kings eat a bit of salary, he could be depth with #4 potential for both the current season but equally significantly for 2020-21. He is a right shot which maybe is not idea, but remember that Pesce looked pretty comfortable on the left side playing with Justin Faulk last season. So might the Hurricanes be able to add someone like Martinez for van Riemsdyk (who Los Angeles could flip for more futures) plus modest futures from the Canes? I think that is the type of player and deal that Waddell will at least be considering as he shops the trade market. Sami Vatanen with New Jersey is another player who could move. he would be a rental (is unrestricted free agent this summer), but is another who could possibly bolster the middle part of the Canes blue line.
Erik Haula / The combinations and depth at the center position
As noted above, Justin Williams makes the Canes 13 deep with experienced and capable forwards. Of that group, the number who can score at least at a third line pace is high. Further, with how Julien Gauthier is tearing up the AHL, there could be scoring help available if needed. Because his game has been slower to develop in terms of two-way play, I would not see Gauthier as a top 6 at this stage of his development regardless of if he could score at a high enough rate, but I think in a bit of a sheltered/careful role, he could contribute. So I think the Canes are deep enough in terms of quantity of capable forwards.
But I think the risk is more positionally at center. Per my article yesterday, for as well as Lucas Wallmark is playing right now, I do not see him as a great fit for Martin Necas and Ryan Dzingel. And follow through the chain of dominoes if a center is lost to injury, I think Jordan Martinook, who has generally been the fallback center, is more effective at wing. So with Haula’s injuries earlier in the season with the leg he injured last season, I think he is the potential risky link with the forward group. I would not look to add depth at the center position at this time, but his situation is partly why my preference is to wait until closer to the deadline to make a move. If Haula suddenly were unable to go again and there was risk that it would be long-term instead of maintenance, then suddenly adding a capable center could jump to the top of my trade priority list.
The goalie position
The goalie position has had some ups and downs of late. Despite the couple tough outings, I think James Reimer has been fine in his role as a backup. He has won more than he lost, stolen some games and generally been productive win-wise. I also like him in a Curtis McElhinney sense in that he has been around the block enough times, that I do not think he would be overwhelmed if suddenly pressed into service as a starter in the playoffs. Petr Mrazek has been up and down this season and in total probably not as good as hoped. But he rounded into form in the second half of the 2018-19 season, so I think there is decent reason to hope for the same. Throw in Alex Nedeljkovic as a potential wild card and even Anton Forsberg, and the Canes at least have depth at the position. I think the bet is in on Mrazek, and I am okay with riding the current group. The only thing that would pique my interest would be being able to swing a deal to offload Reimer and add Robin Lehner. Such a move would have two benefits. First, Lehner is one of the few goalies likely to be available who I would view as an upgrade. Second, with Nedeljkovic needing to push to the NHL level to at least get a spin next season if not sooner, such a deal clears Reimer’s contract for the 2020-21 season and significantly does it early, so the Canes do not get stuck paying Reimer’s sizable signing bonus for next year. But I would not go overboard to win a bidding war to do this deal. As such, I would not go looking to add a goalie at random.
Netting it out
I do think the Hurricanes will make a move to utilize most of the cap space available.
Assuming the Hurricanes keep winning at a decent pace, I think that the move will most likely occur closer to the trade deadline when available cap space is maximized, and Waddell and company have more information on what the greatest need is.
I do not think it is at all out of the question (might even be preferred) to add a player with term through 2020-21 (but not likely further).
Assuming no injuries at forward especially to a center, I think the priority will be adding another possible option for a top 4 on defense.
A real wild card would be parlaying Reimer and futures for a true upgrade in Lehner which also clears room for Nedeljkovic at the NHL level for 2020-21. (Lehner is a free agent this summer.)
What say you Canes fans?
1) What would be your priority in terms of position and skill set if you had only one trade to make for the Hurricanes?
2) What are your predictions for Hurricanes’ addition(s) for the 2019-20 season in terms of timing, role and if you wish specific deals or names?