I promised myself that I would not fully dive into building the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes lineup until June, but Ron Francis started early by acquiring and signing Scott Darling, so I might as well start a day early too.
The starting point is figuring out what the team needs to improve over the 2016-17 campaign and push up into the playoffs.
Three long years gradually building depth
This exercise is significantly different than the past couple years. Especially before the 2014-15 season the holes were numerous, and Francis was very much in long-term rebuilding mode anyway. Francis’ mindset was mostly to be patient and restock the prospect pool (which he did) and opportunistically make a few additions. Starting at the 2014-15 season and a lineup that would need to include at least three from Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Dwyer and Andrej Nestrasil in the top 9 forwards, Francis mostly stood pat.
Looking at a similar situation before the 2015-16 season, Francis opportunistically added Kris Versteeg as short-term top 9 help on the cheap while mostly sticking to the task of rebuilding the prospect pool. But magic struck that season when after adding Noah Hanifin in the 2015 NHL draft, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce parachuted almost directly into the NHL out of college and either started in or rose into top 4 slots. At this point, the time frame of the rebuild pulled in and the potential to make the playoffs increased.
But the summer before the 2016-17 season was mostly more of the same. Francis made a nice long-term addition in the form of Teuvo Teravainen, struck gold with 2016 second-rounder Sebastian Aho and added scoring depth by signing free agent Lee Stempniak. But those moves mostly just filled holes left when Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg left at the previous trade deadline. In adding Stempniak, Teravainen and Aho to the forward mix, the team became deeper offensively and it showed with the team finishing with seven forwards with 40 or more points.
And with no significant losses to free agency, the Hurricanes will enter the off-season already a much deeper team than it was at this time in previous three summers under Ron Francis.
A different game for the summer of 2017
Because the Hurricanes are closer and have built decent depth both at the NHL level and also below in the prospect pool, the game is significantly different for Ron Francis this summer.
Francis’ first three summers as general manager mostly focused on adhering to the principle of patience and then opportunistically making a couple improvements on the cheap. The holes were plentiful enough that Francis did not need to get bogged down with adding a specific skill set or type of player. He just needed more higher-end players capable of playing in the top 9 in the NHL.
So those who have rightfully appreciated Francis’ opportunistic style might be inclined to enter the summer of 2017 with a big list of good players who could theoretically help and then look for the best deals.
But in my opinion, the Hurricanes are past that. They more specifically need a handful of more targeted players who address specific weaknesses and in the process boost the team more than chucking minor upgrades of #8 type forwards to replace #9 or #10 type forwards or just add depth.
Identifying and prioritizing needs
Entering the summer of 2017, my targeted and prioritized list of needs was as follows:
1) An upgrade at the goalie position
The Hurricanes were significantly below the league average by just about any metric imaginable (again) for the 2016-17 season. Adding a goalie capable of being at least league average and ideally even better represented the biggest upgrade possible through a single roster position.
Francis addressed this need first when he acquired the right to negotiate with pending unrestricted free agent Scott Darling for a third-round draft pick and then was able to get him signed. With this upgrade completed and only a third-round draft pick spent to do so, Francis has some dry powder in the form of draft picks that he can now use for the next priorities.
2) Adding a top 6 scoring forward capable of (IMPORTANT) driving offense not just being a complementary player
My math says that the Hurricanes are 7 deep for sure in terms of top 9 forwards (Aho, Tervainen, Staal, Lindholm, Skinner, Rask, Stempniak) with a few higher-end forward prospects capable of rising up early and a few other depth forwards who have the potential to be serviceable in a top 9 slot.
There is a case to be made for incrementally boosting the team’s scoring by improving the last 3-4 forwards. But as I wrote in a comment recently, there is a limit to boosting depth scoring. The last three forwards are always going to get less ice time than the top 3-6 forwards, and more significantly, there really are only 6 forward power play slots. (And putting forwards on the points can boost forward scoring, but it is largely at the expense of decreasing defensemen scoring at that point.) Put more simply, there is a fairly low ceiling for how much one can expect even from a good player playing in a #10-12 slot because of ice time issues.
With a limited number of roster spots and bullets to be fired by Francis adding players this summer, the second biggest bang he can get for his buck is adding a top 6 forward who is capable of 55+ points and equally importantly capable of helping boost his two line mates to higher totals too.
When I think about the Hurricanes’ forwards right now, I think of it as three sets of two. Aho/___, Staal/Lindholm and Skinner/Rask with Stempniak and Teravainen being capable top 9 forwards who would slot wherever they fit best. Certainly, the combinations will shift as the long NHL season wears on, but thinking of the lineup like that builds out three solid lines with slightly different roles and keeps the offense reasonably balanced. With an ‘offensive catalyst’ type center, I think Aho’s scoring ceiling jumps at least into the 60s potentially giving the Hurricanes three 60-point scorers (Aho, addition, Skinner) spread across two lines. Staal/Lindholm makes two-thirds of a line that can play to Staal’s strength of eating up as many of the minutes against the other teams’ best as possible. The line will score some too, but that is not the primary measure of their success. And keeping Skinner with Rask creates a second scoring line for which Peters can cherry pick favorable match ups against lesser lines and defense pairings. Unless Skinner really clicks with a newly-added player, Rask continues to be a good fit for him as a strong read/react and positional player who does not need to play with the puck on his stick to be effective like many centers prefer.
3) Adding one more defenseman
With the departure of Ron Hainsey and a small collection of remaining depth defensemen who were ‘meh’ at best in 2016-17, Francis will need to add one more proven defenseman.
What he is able to do given market circumstances for #2 is at the top of my summer watch list, but more so what Francis decides to do with #3 is also pretty high on my list.
The optimistic view has Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce anchored into the top 4 somewhere doing exactly what they did in 2016-17 maybe with just a bit more offense. The second half of the top 4 requires cherry picking only the best chunk of 20-30 games from Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin’s 2016-17 seasons and then counting on both to reproduce that for much closer to 82 games. If that does not happen, right now there is no one with NHL experience who would qualify as a reasonably probable plan B to fill out the top 4.
While it is definitely possible that Hanifin and Faulk pick up where they left off at the end of the 2016-17 season and grow from there, betting the 2017-18 season on going two for two on those bets with no other option is much more risky than most think.
There is a pretty decent list of serviceable #5-#7 type defenseman available this summer which should keep the price reasonable and the trade cost probably at nothing (can just shop free agent market) for that category of defenseman. That would probably be enough to provide depth and build out the bottom pairing with some veteran help fairly likely to play alongside rookie Haydn Fleury. But I am of the mind to spend more, even trade futures if necessary to add short-term help more in the form of a player capable of stepping into the top 4 if needed. I am all for Hanifin getting first try at the #4 slot next to Faulk and remaining there if he proves capable like he did for the tail end of the 2016-17 season. But I am not a fan of inking Hanifin into that slot with not other options and without consideration for whether it is working. The last time the Hurricanes bet a top 4 slot on a young player coming off a short end of year run looking capable was Jamie McBain heading into the 2010-11. After looking absolutely phenomenal for 14 games at the end of the 2009-10 season (no really, go look at his numbers and check some game recaps), he crashed hard in the same role to start the next season.
So personally, my ideal blue line addition has a ton of parameters. I want a proven veteran capable of stepping into the top 4 if necessary or otherwise being injury depth for that slot while providing stability, possibly with a rookie partner, for the third pairing. Ideally, this player is a left shot but is the chameleon-type who can play on his off side without a major fall off. (Note this would be necessary to slot next to Fleury on the third pairing.) Finally, with youth rising up, such a player ideally has a one-year term on his contract or two at the most.
4) Picking up a depth player or two
Depending on what is left for budget, Francis could choose to selectively and inexpensively add another depth player or two. With the departure of Ron Hainsey, the team will need one more penalty-killer on the blue line and with the departure of Jay McClement (if not re-signed) and Viktor Stalberg, the team is also down two of its forward penalty killers from before the trade deadline.
Though it is not a must, I could see Francis adding a player like Stalberg if the price and terms are right.
Balancing pinpoint focus with market realities
The hardest part in this exercise could be striking a balance between having a pinpoint focus on what the team needs to add with staying at least close to reasonable in terms of market realities. By no means am I suggesting that Francis should take the cheap way out, but there is a price where he should revert to a lesser plan B. Joe Sakic allegedly wanted a first round pick a roster defenseman and a couple more futures for Matt Duchene last winter. If that is the going rate for Duchene and any comparable true C1, then I would begrudgingly consider shopping from the next tier.
To put real names to it. I think Duchene is a legitimate C1 and a great addition. I think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a scoring center but a borderline C1/C2 who is not in the same tier as Duchene. But if salary dump necessity drops Nugent-Hopkins price to only a second-round pick and Duchene really costs Hanifin, first-round pick and another prospect, I suddenly like Nugent-Hopkins much more and become more willing to gamble with a little bit less for 2017-18 offensive fire power for the 2017-18 season.
That said, especially for the fan base, there is going to be a fine line between accepting lesser grades of the right kind of player for a role versus considering players who just are not the right type. In the depth role for $1.5 million the range of potential options increases, but regardless of how good a player is at the role, I have almost know interest in defense-first/two-way type forwards in the $3 million plus salary range. That budget needs to be invested in something as close to possible as scoring upside not another forward who is in the ‘provides modest depth scoring’ category.
What say you Hurricanes hockey fans?
Do you agree with my top three priorities (counting the goalie position) and my ranking of them?
Do you have any other needs on your list?
How much is enough for a defenseman add? Am I the only one who wants to have a plan B for the top 4?
Would you consider adding 1-2 depth players at all, or would you prefer to hold this ice time for the youth?