First, let me be clear that by no means have I written off the 2015-16 season.
But some things I have been reading recently has me thinking about the summer of 2016 and the 2016-17 season. It is no secret that the weakness in the Canadian dollar is causing some hardship for the Canadian teams and also suppressing the NHL revenue as measured in US dollars. This obviously impacts the salary cap which is based on league revenue and is expected to at least tamp down any increases next season. There is even starting to be speculation that the salary cap could stay flat or even (gasp!) decrease. Lyle Richardson at Spector’s Hockey talked about this in some detail HERE.
It is also no secret that about two-thirds of the NHL is right up against the salary cap for the 2015-16 season with minimal wiggle room. The Hurricanes benefited from this situation significantly last summer when they obtained Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom plus a modest draft pick upgrade to boot from the Chicago Blackhawks in what was basically a trade to get the Blackhawks salary to the point where they could re-sign Marcus Kruger and barely wiggle under the salary cap ceiling in time for opening day. The Blackhawks also sent Patrick Sharp to Dallas for similar reasons.
If the salary cap were to stay flat for 2016-17, it will put added pressure on a number of teams and should reduce the bidders for next summer’s crop of free agents which is a pretty decent one.
That could play perfectly into the hand of Ron Francis if he decides to make a play for 2016-17. A couple key factors could create a perfect storm for Francis this summer:
1) The young blue line which is expected to be the core of the Canes future and hopefully consistent success is progressing WAY ahead of schedule.
—Justin Faulk simply needs to put it all together at once to enter into the Norris Trophy level of NHL defensemen. His foundation was his defensive acumen. He has recently taken a huge step forward offensively. He is easily a #1 defenseman on a good night. It is just a matter of tightening up the D a bit, keeping the newfound offense and finding 82-game consistency.
—Noah Hanifin stepped straight into the NHL and is already a serviceable defenseman who is projected to grow into much more.
—Brett Pesce went almost instantly from playing college hockey to being a pretty decent top 4 in the NHL. His ceiling might be a little bit lower than a couple of his comrades, but his game is probably the most sound at this early stage of their development making him a ‘right now’ serviceable top 4 defenseman.
—Jaccob Slavin just hit another level in the past few days stepping into Justin Faulk’s slot as a top pairing defenseman just in time to see a back-to-back checking Sidney Crosby and then John Tavares. He did so with flying colors. I do not think even optimistic Canes fans understand how high his ceiling is as a big, rangy, skating defenseman who has both raw speed but equally importantly agility and athleticism.
When you consider that Ron Hainsey and James Wisniewski are already signed for 2015-16, the Canes defense is nearly set with 6 spots filled with a pretty good group that is only getting better. Whether the Canes add 1 more veteran depth player (i.e. Liles) or just leave the last spot or 2 open for even more youth, the important parts of the blue line are mostly locked in for already for 2016-17 and beyond.
2) Part of the puzzle is falling into place at forward.
The emergence of Jordan Staal’s line is absolutely huge. It takes Jordan Staal who is a good player but had struggled a bit to find his place/role since joining the Hurricanes pairs him with 2 depth forwards and creates a very good line. It is basically an elite checking line that maybe slots as a second line overall simply because it is not elite scoring-wise (subject to be reevaluated as Nestrasil and Nordstrom have been heating up of late). Past that you are trying to build a top scoring line and a good third line. I think you could make a decent case that Skinner/Rask/Lindholm or Di Giuseppe has the potential to be a solid third line with upside as those players continue to grow. That would leave 1 remaining forward plus impending free agents Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg.
3) But you can’t just build a first line from scratch…Can you?
My math at forward has the Canes pretty strong if you slot Jordan Staal’s line as a second line and Rask’s line as the third. But it hardly sounds positive to say that the Canes just need to build a first line to be good at forward. I mean, that costs $20 million that Ron Francis does not have and requires players who are just not available via trade or free agency.
…..But wait a minute…
4) The Canes could free up $20-25 million of salary this summer.
If no one is re-signed, the Canes will free up a ton of salary this summer. When you look at actual salary, not salary cap, the Canes free up $9.5 million from Eric Staal, $6.8 million from Cam Ward, $2.3 million from Kris Versteeg, $2 million from Nathan Gerbe, $2.8 million from John-Michael Liles, $1.4 million from retained contracts from Jay Harrison and Tuomo Ruutu plus a few other low-dollar players who would need to be replaced for a similar price. When you add it up, the total is about $25 million of salary coming off the books for only 5 players lost.
The Canes will need to spend some of that for escalating costs for players already under contract and also to re-sign Victor Rask and Joakim Nordstrom at higher prices. And my hunch is that Francis will cut salary a bit to better match attendance right now, but Ron Francis should still enter the summer with some dry powder that he can use to finally put his stamp on the team.
5) And if the salary cap holds flat or even better decreases, it could be a tremendous buyer’s market this summer.
Nothing could be better for the Carolina Hurricanes than for the salary cap to decrease this summer. They were not going to spend anywhere close to the limit anyway, and if it pressures other teams they will be in a much better position to both win free agents and also find an advantageous trade or 2 from teams that get desperate trying to keep key players and squeeze under the salary cap (like the Versteeg deal).
Is it possible that with so many usual bidders bound by the salary cap that Francis could shop an interesting mix of Loui Eriksson, Jiri Hudler, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, David Backes, Kris Versteeg, other free agents and whatever forwards hit the trade wire from teams trying to squeeze under the salary cap? If the salary cap decreases could Francis opportunistically assemble an entire line of pretty good veteran players for something like $10-12 million? I am not sure the idea is that far-fetched with many of the teams that usually want to spend money being unable to. The Canes maybe would not have the elite top line as some other teams, but the team would suddenly be incredibly deep at forward to go with a blue line that is pretty good and getting better every day.
Just maybe the stars are aligning for the Carolina Hurricanes to be ‘relevant’ for the 2016-17 season.