Hurricanes’ general manager Ron Francis enters the summer of 2017 in the best situation he has seen since he assumed the role in the spring of 2014. He has caught some good breaks with players including Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Sebastian Aho emerging ahead of schedule and assuming top half of the roster roles. Francis has also benefited from the expiration of time with unwieldy contracts for Eric Staal and Cam Ward coming off the books. And Francis also deserves some credit for steadfastly sticking to his original plan of building a deeper system that could eventually be the foundation of a regular playoff participant.
But now three years deep into his rebuild following five years of missed playoffs before that, I think it is officially ‘go’ time. A team cannot rebuild for forever and better but still not good enough 2015-16 and 2016-17 suggest that the team is finally close and needs the final boost top push up into the playoffs. Francis hinted that he would push more aggressively for the playoffs for the upcoming season in his post-season interviews and then followed it up fairly quickly by trading for and then signing Scott Darling to address what I ranked as the team’s top off-season priority.
From the starting point of adding Darling, Francis should have some ammunition in the form of salary budget, extra draft picks and a deeper prospect pool that could contribute to a ‘win now’ type of trade. And the expansion draft adds a significant extra shopping option to add players during the off-season.
But Francis also faces challenges. This is not like the past couple seasons where any decent roster player could be considered an upgrade for a team light on NHL level talent. Instead, Francis will be trying to fill a couple fairly specific needs in the top half of the lineup. The kind of player he needs is not generally available for some modest collection of mid-tier futures of mid-round draft picks.
That situation contributes heavily to what I think will be Ron Francis’ toughest decisions this summer:
1a) Is Francis willing to part with a young roster defenseman to add a top 6 forward capable of boosting scoring?
Same as last summer, the Hurricanes offense could really benefit from adding a true C1 or at least C2 who leans scoring and can be a catalyst not just another contributor. My version of the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes lineup builds around three sets of two forwards — Staal/Lindholm as a top defensive line that can also contribute offensively, Skinner/Rask as one line capable of carrying the team for stretches and Aho/____ as a second scoring threat to balance the offense. The key is ____. Regardless of whether you parse the lines like I do or differently, the job description for the forward to be added is not simply that of a serviceable top 9 depth scoring type forward.
Obtaining such a player is going to cost one of three things. Either some magic exploiting a salary cap, expansion draft or shortsighted GM situation that sees Francis grab a bargain, a king’s ransom of prospects and picks for a team looking to rebuild or maybe most likely the willingness to part with a good young roster player in return.
I voted ‘no’ on including Justin Faulk in a trade for a top 6 forward last summer and again before the trade deadline. I also have not been of the mind to peddle Noah Hanifin and his high-ceiling future. But at the same time, I get the need to add a top-tier forward and that once the hope of a desperate GM miracle fades, it could be expensive.
My 2 cents
–I would rather overpay with futures than current roster players if that is possible but acknowledge that it might not be an option.
–My ranking in order defensemen I would not want to trade currently goes Slavin, Pesce, Faulk and Hanifin with a fairly big gap between Pesce and Faulk. With Slavin and Pesce play as top pairing defensemen in 2016-17 and considering they are set to earn a tiny salary in 2017-18 and likely a reasonable salary in their second contracts after that, I just think the combination of their level of play and discounted cost too good to part with. Though I am on record as not liking Faulk’s 2016-17 season in total (gave him a B- in total and lower than that for the defensive part of his 2016-17 report card), his scoring upside is rare, and he has proven that he could at one point play at a top 4 level. That leaves Hanifin. By no means do I want to trade him. By no means have I given up on his upside. But in terms of lesser evils, I would rather trade potential than proven.
–Even with that said, I would not be willing to chuck Hanifin into just any deal that has a top 6 forward coming back. I want proven and elite if Hanifin is going the other way. The player who jumps out to me is Nathan MacKinnon. He is the forward equivalent of what we hope Hanifin will become. MacKinnon is an elite player who is good enough that Hanifin could fulfill his potential and the deal could still be a good one for the Hurricanes. But I figure there are maybe 3-4 deals that I would consider pulling Hanifin into.
–It is obviously not wise to discount the future, but looking specifically at the start of the 2017-18 season, Hanifin would easily garner the highest return relative to his expected role right now as an only somewhat proven #4 defenseman.
1b) What price range does he shop in and how much will he pay for a top half of the roster forward?
Related 1a, the single biggest remaining move (first was the goalie addition) that Francis will make this season is who he adds to bolster the top half of the forward ranks and the team’s scoring. The list of players allegedly available is a good one. But the alleged price to acquire some of these players might prove to be ludicrous. Joe Sakic allegedly wanted all of a top 4 defenseman, a first-round draft pick and an additional prospect or piece for Matt Duchene in February. Matt Duchene is a great hockey player and fits what the Canes need, but that price is ludicrous.
The difficult decision for Ron Francis is going to be sorting through a bunch of high-priced forward options and figuring out which is worth the cost both in terms of salary but more importantly in terms of trade cost and also which he might be able to negotiate better than list price terms for.
If sorting and negotiating fails to yield a player from the top of the list, the challenge then becomes figuring out how far down the ordered list he can go and still get a true difference-maker versus settling for top 9 depth that is not enough better than just plugging in youth.
My 2 cents
–I am not of the mind that Francis must buy from the top handful of options if the prices are just ludicrous. For me, there is a point where value must be considered.
–That said, adding another depth type forward who is really like a #8 or #9 and not truly capable of being a driver and difference-maker on a top scoring line might not be enough of an upgrade to significantly boost the offense.
–If Francis has any more trade magic left in his bag for this summer, here is where I would spend it.
1c) What is reasonable to expect from Noah Hanifin for the 2017-18 season?
The key words here are “count on.” I intentionally did not say “hope for.” If Francis counts on Hanifin to be a reasonably steady and capable top 4 defenseman (which he was for the last 25 games last season), he needs to add only a fairly inexpensive #5/#6 depth defenseman of which there are many options and the price is modest. If instead, Francis hopes Hanifin seizes the #4 defense slot but is not willing to count on it, his task of finding a player capable of stepping into the top 4 is much more challenging. The availability decreases significantly, and the price increases too.
My 2 cents
–I am already on record on this one in a few places. I like the potential of Noah Hanifin to seize and keep a top 4 slot. And it should be his to win.
–But especially with Justin Faulk coming off a sub-par 2016-17 season defensively in my opinion, I would not bet the 2017-18 season on Hanifin being a top 4 certainty after about 25 games in that role at the end of the season. If I was Ron Francis, I would be looking to make my one blue line addition a player who could potentially step into the top 4 if needed. Even if Hanfin makes a permanent rise to the top 4, the player still would not be wasted possibly mentoring Haydn Fleury in the bottom pairing and being capable of stepping up in the event of an injury.
A side note
Interesting is that we could get a veiled clue as to where Francis is with regard to his blue line in the first round of maneuvering around the expansion draft. If Francis decides that he wants to add more than a serviceable #5/#6 defenseman for depth, the best time to do that will be just before the expansion draft. In this time window, a few teams could be sellers simply because they have a #4 defenseman that they are unable to protect importantly also at a time when many teams that ultimately want to add a #4 or higher defenseman cannot do so yet because they too would be unable to protect the addition in the expansion draft.
So while it is far from a certainty, I think it is possible that Francis adds a defenseman in the days leading up to the expansion draft. If he does, that move could signal either that Francis is considering trading one of his other defensemen or that he wants to add some insurance in terms of building out his top 4. If Francis does not add a defenseman as part of the expansion draft maneuvering it would suggest (though definitely not assure with finality) that Francis is ready to go with the defense he has not use any of the current players to add a forward.
2) What will Francis do with his three-headed goalie situation before the start of the season?
With the addition of Scott Darling with Cam Ward and Eddie Lack Both still under contract for the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes currently have three goalies which is of course one too many for an NHL roster. While there is a possibility that the expansion draft will naturally resolve this problem, that seems unlikely to me. There are too many other better goalie options available.
Instead, I think the resolution of the goalie situation will push back onto Francis’ desk after the conclusion of the expansion draft. I would expect Francis to then explore trade options, but if plan B is a buyout of Eddie Lack as I expect, Francis will need to make up his mind before the June 30 deadline.
The comments on a couple of recent articles have suggested the possibility of keeping Eddie Lack (and Cam Ward) and sending Lack to Charlotte to provide depth from below. When you net it out, the out of pocket cost would be $1 million (Hurricanes can either pay Lack $3 million for 2017-18 if the team keeps him or can pay him $2 million total spread over two years if it buys him out.)
My 2 cents
–On a team that needs help elsewhere and is working within a less than salary cap budget, I would exhaust all other possibilities first but would ultimately buy out Eddie Lack’s contract if no other way to move him materializes.
3) How many forward slots should he leave for the youth?
If Francis adds a top-tier forward as hoped, my count is eight proven top 9 forwards on the roster plus a slew of young forwards with varying levels of NHL experience. Francis must decide where the right balance is between leaving lineup slots for young players to win versus adding another proven depth player or two.
In 2016-17, Sebastian Aho showed what is sometimes possible even for rookies to argue the case for youth. At the other end of the spectrum, Viktor Stalberg and his impact made a strong case for the potential impact of quality depth players on fairly inexpensive contracts.
The challenge could be building out the penalty kill unit. During the best days of the team’s penalty kill in 2016-17, Viktor Stalberg and Jay McClement were regulars. More scoring from the fourth line would be helpful, but having a penalty killer or two there would also be helpful. And scoring only helps if the increase is more than the additional goals allowed.
My 2 cents
–I would consider adding one more depth forward if Francis can get a premium type player who is capable of killing penalties. I would actually be thrilled to have Viktor Stalberg back, but there should also be a few other options.
–But past that, I would rather leave a couple slots on the fourth line to be won by young players who might bring a bit more offensively without being a defensive liability.
What say you Canes fans?
How will shopping for an impact forward ultimately end? Will it take an NHL roster defenseman to get one good enough? Would you even do that? Who do you maybe like from a second tier who could be good enough and less expensive?
Which of these do you see as Francis’ most difficult decisions, and how do you think he resolves them?
Would you consider adding a veteran depth forward or two, or is time to leverage the young, skilled depth that the team is accumulating?