Three years ago when Ron Francis inherited the Carolina Hurricanes general manager duties from Jim Rutherford, the team was woefully short on forward talent across the board — top level NHL players, depth at the NHL level and the prospect pool. The forward crew included Patrick Dwyer, Chris Terry, Andrej Nestrasil, Jay McClement, Jiri Tlusty, Riley Nash, Nathan Gerbe and Riley Nash. Of that group, only Riley Nash is still playing at the NHL level. Atop the team’s depth chart at forward at the time was Zach Boychuk, and there was a dearth of high-end prospects on the way to help.
From that group of depth forwards from the 2014-15 season, only Riley Nash is still playing at the NHL level.
Entering the 2015-16 season, the Carolina Hurricanes were still struggling just to fill out a top 9 with capable players and by my math were two or three players short. That version of the team also had an old school fourth line that aimed to fill a niche role with penalty kill duty, limited minutes and light scoring. And maybe most significantly, the prospect pool did not seem likely to provide much near-term help.
Restocking via the trade deadline
Since inheriting a forward group that was sub-par, Francis has been steadily at work. His first two years at the helm focused heavily on stocking the prospect pool for the future.
During the trade deadline for the 2014-15 season, Francis traded Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty and Tim Gleason for defenseman Roland McKeown and four draft picks.
During the trade deadline for the 2015-16 season, Francis traded Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles and netted forward prospects Aleksi Saarela and Valentin Zykov in addition to six draft picks.
During the trade deadline for the 2016-17 season, Francis traded Viktor Stalberg and Ron Hainsey for two more draft picks.
In the three drafts from 2015 to 2017, the Carolina Hurricanes used five more draft picks than the standard seven given to each team. The team used 15 of those draft picks to add to its forward prospect pool to go with Saarela and Zykov who were acquired via trade.
Step-wise progress with the growing group of prospects saw six Hurricanes prospects move up to the professional ranks for the 2017-18 season.
In short, the prospect pool for forwards is significantly deeper today as compared to three years ago.
Opportunistically filling out the NHL ranks
In addition to restocking the prospect pool, Francis capitalized on salary cap and other opportunities to add a handful of NHL level forwards at minimal cost in terms of trading from the stockpile of draft picks and growing prospect pool.
Summer of 2014: In his first summer as general manager, Francis focused on the long-term only adding depth forwards Jay McClement and Brad Malone. Early in the season, Francis also added Andrej Nestrasil with a waiver wire claim.
Summer of 2015: Francis added Kris Versteeg (who was later flipped) and Joakim Nordstrom more or less at no cost in taking advantage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ salary cap challenges. Francis also made a low-risk depth addition when he signed free agent Derek Ryan to a two-way contract.
Summer of 2016: Early in the offseason, Francis went back to the well in terms of capitalizing on the Blackhawks’ salary cap issues when he added Teuvo Teravainen for only second and third round draft picks and taking on Bryan Bickell and his contract to provide the cap relief that the Blackhawks needed. The summer of 2016 also saw Francis more or less start fresh with his depth forwards when he did not re-sign Brad Malone, Chris Terry, Riley Nash or Nathan Gerbe. Viktor Stalberg was added for depth, and Francis dipped into the free agent pool to add a top 9 forward for the first time when he signed veteran right wing Lee Stempniak to a two-year deal.
Summer of 2017: After trading Viktor Stalberg at the trade deadline not re-signing Jay McClement, Francis entered the offseason again needing to fill out his fourth line and more significantly seeking a scoring boost for an offense that finished the 2016-17 season 20th in terms of goal scoring. With some big names available but seemingly costly on the trade market, Francis instead chose to sign veteran Justin Williams and then add veterans Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger to build out the fourth line.
The 2017-18 season potentially as the transition year
With a growing stable of young prospects but minimal NHL or in most cases even AHL experience, Francis and Peters chose to go with a fourth line that was heavy on defense and experience but light on scoring potential. After sticking with that plan for two-thirds of the season, the team finally punted on both of the veteran checking line additions (Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger) when both were sent waived and sent to the AHL last week. I tracked through their 2017-18 season and the fourth line’s struggles in some detail last week.
One short-term impact of the Jooris and Kruger demotions has been Elias Lindholm’s at least temporary move to the center position. The domino effect is that the Hurricanes instantly became four lines deep in terms of having at least one if not two players capable of scoring 40+ points on each of four lines.
Though the transition is maybe not complete and could be dependent on the emergence of another player or two from the prospect pool, the change is a major step in the direction of what I believe is the future of the Carolina Hurricanes forward group and also the direction of most, if not all, top NHL teams going forward.
The next step
To be clear, I continue to think that the Hurricanes need to add one more higher-end offensive player to the mix. Offensive depth is critical in today’s NHL, but I view it more as table stakes to be a top team in the NHL of the near future and not a means of making up for lack of high-end scoring ability.
But while Francis figures out if there is a path to making one higher-end upgrade, the transition to being 12 deep at forward is well underway. Despite being on target, I would not consider it a done deal. The final step in this transition requires adding another player or two probably from the prospect ranks who can be sound defensively but also provide more than old school scoring potential.
The list of possibilities to add another forward or two from the prospect pool is large, but the list of sure things especially for the 2018-19 season is exactly zero. Possibly swayed by the rapid rise of players like Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Sebastian Aho, some Canes fans are of the opinion that you can use AHL play to gain 100 percent assurance of NHL-readiness. It simply does not work like that. AHL experience and mastery is a valuable step and positive indicator of NHL-readiness, but until a player steps into the NHL and gives it a go against the world’s best, one cannot say for sure if they are ready or what level they are capable of playing at. Some players just seem to rise to the occasion instantly. Others struggle and either need more time to prepare or just peak as good AHL players.
But the positive for the Hurricanes especially if one looks out two or more years is the sheer volume of possibilities. Because of the depth and variety in the team’s forward prospect pool, the team is not making a bet on a single player or two. Rather, the Hurricanes are playing the odds with a number of prospects with varying skill sets. The odds of any individual player working out are uncertain, but with many options the odds that someone works out is reasonably high.
How and when?
The question is when the last step in the transition will occur and what must happen to trigger it. I voted for adding an AHL player or two to the mix when Kruger and Jooris were put on waivers. But thus far, Peters has played the remaining NHL lineup for two games, and the team has yet to even recall a forward to fill the #13 slot. With two wins in those games and the Hurricanes in the thick of the playoff chase, Coach Bill Peters will undoubtedly stick with a very similar lineup at least until the team loses. Even after that, Peters’ seeming bias for defensive soundness over offensive prowess on the fourth line creates a bias for going with NHL experience. Only if the team begins to struggle again offensively (which is completely possible) would I expect Peters to do anything drastic in terms of inserting multiple AHL players. The team will need to add a healthy extra at some point, but especially if it keeps winning and stays healthy, the next phase of the transition may wait until the 2018-19 season.
The key will be for Peters to have the guts to give young players real NHL ice time, play them in most situations and live with a few mistakes on the path to a better lineup and deeper scoring. I think this goes slightly against Peters’ DNA as a coach whose foundation is sound play and could present a bit of a challenge working through some growing pains to eventually reach a higher level of play. While injuries or lack of scoring could force another step forward earlier, I think the project starts in earnest in training camp before the 2018-19 season.
What is the end game?
The end game is to fill all 12 forward positions with players who are capable of at least high 30s in points depending on utilization and role. Important to note is that this is NOT the same as saying it is possible to build a fourth line that has three players who actually score high 30s in points. Because of limited power play ice time and slots and the fact that the rhythm of an NHL game has stretches where three lines can be enough, the bottom line will still be limited in scoring. But there are two gains to be had. First is that a fourth line equipped with capable offensive players will score more than a pure checking line from the NHL of old. In addition, having 12 capable scorers in the lineup means that injuries to top 9 forwards have much less impact on offensive fire power, and the coach has more options to make line changes either in game or during ruts to try to jump start the scoring.
As far as specific players go, I think the goal for the Hurricanes is to become deep enough with players who are defensively competent but with offensive upside such that players like Joakim Nordstrom get pushed to the #13 slot when the team is healthy. Further, as much as I like Brock McGinn’s play this year and am open to the possibility that he forces his way into the top 9 even when the next wave of young players arrive, pushing McGinn down to the fourth line would be a sign that 12-forward depth has fully arrived.
So picture a Carolina Hurricanes forward group that adds one more higher-end scoring forward which bumps everyone down a notch. Then picture a team where Brock McGinn continues to be a going concern each and every shift in terms of intensity but still has to fight to stay in the top 9 not because he is not capable but rather because others are too. And picture a lineup such that Joakim Nordstrom logically slots at #13 as extra depth simply because younger players can nearly match what does defensively but with significantly higher offensive upside. Finally, picture a lineup where the gap in terms of talent and scoring potential between the top 9 and the fourth line is negligible such that Peters has extra options at his disposal to try to spark a scoring line either in game or during a rut. The transition requires a final step and is uncertain in terms of volume of growing pains and exact schedule, but I believe that is where the Carolina Hurricanes are headed.
My hope is to spend a few minutes handicapping the group of players most likely to compete for NHL roster spots sooner rather than later, but that will have to wait for another day and another Daily Cup of Joe article.