Yesterday, I wrote about the challenge of building a good NHL team for significantly less than the salary cap and the tools at Ron Francis’ disposal to do so. The general gist is that it takes some combination of good players on entry-level contracts, a few bargains from strategically locking playing players up for a discount before they peak and a couple bargain free agent signings to build a good team for significantly less than the $73 million salary cap ceiling.
It is REALLY expensive to add top half of the roster players on the open market or via trade
The biggest challenge is filling holes in the top half of the roster from outside of the organization. In my assessment, the Carolina Hurricanes entered the offseason needing to build a 1st-ish scoring line to balance Jordan Staal’s elite checking line and ideally need to upgrade in net. With much of the summer now played out, a decent measure at the cost of the goalie situation could be Toronto trading a second and a third round pick for Frederik Andersen and then needing to shell out $5 million for 5 years to get him under contract. In terms of adding a player or 2 to help build out a new scoring line, Taylor Hall who was probably the best available option via trade would likely have cost Justin Faulk. The free agent market yielded a bunch of deals for somewhat older players for 5-6 years in the neighborhood of $6 million per year.
Shorter version: It costs a fortune in salary or trade assets (and sometimes both) to fill even a couple holes at the top of the roster.
The cost to upgrade from 45 points per player across a line to 60 is immense
A quick look at the scoring leaders from 2015-16 shows just how hard it is to build a true first line as people picture it that can put up 200 points across the 3 players. A small number of elite outliers make it seem like it is still possible to build a line with 60+ players, but in 2015-16, a grand total of 44 players scored 60 or more points. That averages out to 1.5 per team not enough for even all of the playoff teams to build a line stocked with this caliber of scorer. That is why even 50+ point players garner huge salaries on the open market and why it is so hard for the Hurricanes to just fill this hole in the lineup.
So trying to upgrade a pretty good 2-way line of mid-40s point players with a new line of players who can each put up 60+ points is near impossible. Even if a GM had the budget and could pick the players he wanted from free agency (which is obviously not possible because of all of the other bidders), it would cost about $20 million to do so. For that $20 million, the team would upgrade by roughly 45 points per player to 60 points per player.
For a team on an internal budget that is a real hard way to add scoring to a lineup that needs it.
The ultimate path to a line of 60-point players is hoping that young players continue to develop and that a set of them finds chemistry to help boost them to an elite level.
Shorter version: A short-term open market fix for building a scoring line just is not financially feasible and probably is impossible anyway.
There has to be a better way
In this new NHL where it is unnecessary to carry an enforcer or 2 for safety, the makeup of the fourth line is changing but only gradually. There are still teams that stock the fourth line primarily with bruisers, antagonists and other old school skill sets but limited scoring ability. But with Detroit, who interestingly has not missed the playoffs since the 1980s leading the way, teams are gradually beginning to stock the fourth line with a higher caliber of hockey player.
The fourth line is still going to be a team’s lowest set of 3 forwards. Because of that, it will not get the ice time of the higher lines and the players will see minimal if any power play time. That is not a recipe for seeing 40-50 point scorers. But if you look at a team like the 2015-16 Hurricanes, the combination of Jay McClement, Chris Terry, Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone and Brock McGinn who played a total of 270 games largely in fourth line roles, collected only 39 points. If you count them as 3 players sharing time, the average is 13 points each across 3 roster slots comprising the fourth line.
While the price tag to upgrade a second or third line from 45 points per player to 60-65 points per player could be $20 million, with enough depth, how much would it cost to upgrade a fourth line from 13-15 points to more like 30 per player?
Again, limited ice time and lack of power play minutes make it challenging with but a mix of good young players ready to learn in a lesser role in the NHL and an occasional bargain from the free agent pool in August when the game of musical chairs is ending it seems possible.
What are the challenges to doing this?
I think the challenges to doing this are twofold. First and foremost, this plan requires keeping a pretty clean roster in terms of having very few contract commitments to players who must be buries on a limited use fourth line. Last season, the Hurricanes had a collection of players in Chris Terry, Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone and Jay McClement who all turned out to be scoring-limited despite the fact that there were once higher hopes for them, most notably Nathan Gerbe and Chris Terry. If you fast forward to the current 2016-17 roster, the situation has improved but is still challenging. The team has 1 more season committed to the limited role of Jay McClement and to as part of a bigger deal also took on a reclamation project in Bryan Bickell. At least 1 if not both of McClement and Bickell figure to be in the lineup. Viktor Stalberg who figures to figure in the fourth line combination is a bit more like what is needed. He posted 22 points in a limited role last season and has put up bigger points per game totals in previous years suggesting that high-20s is within the realm of possibilities.
Second, filling a lineup with 4 lines with at least 30ish-point scoring capability on the fourth line requires a very deep pool of NHL-ready players. Having a capable roster of even 12-13 for the pre-training camp depth chart is hard enough. Having 2-3 more NHL-ready players with offensive capabilities at the AHL level to back fill when inevitably injuries occur makes it even harder.
When can the Hurricanes execute on such a plan?
Due to commitments to Jay McClement and Bryan Bickell for 2016-17 and also a lack of young depth at the forward position, such an approach is really not feasible for the 2016-17 season at least in its pure form. Looking forward to 2017-18 and beyond, I actually think exactly this approach is hinted at by Francis’ recent drafting strategy. Francis has accumulated and used extra draft picks which in itself is just normal for a team in the process of rebuilding from the starting point of a weak prospect pool that Francis inherited 2 years ago.
But what is more telling is how Francis is using these draft picks. Most noticeable at the top of the headlines is how many top picks Francis has used on defensemen. But when you work through the middle and lower selections in recent drafts and also think about what we saw at prospect camp a few weeks ago a noticeable trend jumps out. The Hurricanes drafts have been heavy on stockpiling forwards in the middle rounds. More telling is the team’s aversion to taking hit or miss skill players with high upsides but also high bust potential. Instead, in the middle and late rounds, Francis and his team have nearly unanimously selected forwards with a decent combination of size and skating ability. While many of these players may not offer the upside of skill player flyers available in these rounds, size and the ability to skate are great starting point for building a much greater stable of at least capable NHL players who can match the NHL pace, not be a defensive liability and attack and score some with skating and crashing the net.
Still probably a couple years away from realizing the vision
The expiration of the contracts of Jay McClement, Bryan Bickell and to a lesser degree Viktor Stalberg will open up more slots to insert scoring-capable players into the bottom part of the lineup. The challenge for 2017-18 will still be having enough players ready to step into these roles with the volume of players we saw at prospect camp still mostly a couple years away from being NHL-ready. It is possible that Francis uses the open slots to shop the free agent bargains next summer to expedite things, but the steady supply of players to execute this plan from within the system is on its way.